Just returned from preaching at Christchurch Ewell and talking to my friends on the church leadership team about their hopes and aspirations for the next period in their church life. On the way home Ros and I chatted about the challenges of suburbia and particularly about whether some of the missional communities models being tried elsewhere work in an outer London suburban environment.
Clearly there are lots of unique challenges of suburbia that are not seen anywhere else. Fast pace of life, affluence, long commutes, little sense of community to name just four. But the one Ros raised was to what extent the suburban environment is intrinsically middle-class. After all it is full of people who work in the city but are wealthy enough to live out of the inner city. Many who move here do so for aspirational reasons, thinking it provides a nice family environment, good schooling, all the benefits of the city with none of the social challenges of more deprived areas. it would be interesting to read some social geography analysis on the class make-up of suburbia. My guess is that Ros is right - it is overwhelmingly middle-class.
What, then, are some of the challenges for building a sense of mission-focused church among the middle classes. They value tolerance and therefore may baulk at telling people that they need to turn to Christ. They value material security and so may react against the call of God to sacrifice or lay down their lives. They are bright and aspirational and so may find the idea of God calling the shots in our lives an offence to human autonomy. They are individualistic and therefore may find the idea of community or opening up our homes a challenge. They value leisure and may be tempted to consider their involvement with a church as merely one leisure activity among many. They are often consumers and may find the idea of participating in church to give of themselves rather than to receive is difficult. They have fast, packed, satisfactory lives with little time to develop discipleship-oriented rhythms for life. When I say "they" of course I actually mean "we". Middle-classness is a place I inhabit too.
All of which mitigate against the development of a strong sense of community life, interdependence, sharing our lives and homes with Christians and non-Christians. Note, I am not suggesting this is out of deliberate selfishness, but rather a consequence of invisible cultural and class expectations. Environmental factors are at work to create a mindset and worldview that is very hard to see out of, let alone break out of. I suspect it is easier to create communities where these factors are less to the fore. But in affluent suburbia some hard thinking needs to be done to help people (including me) embrace a view of themselves, their church, their life and their gospel purpose that is defined more by the good news of Jesus than it is by the class expectations of their surrounding culture.
This is not to denigrate middle-classness. It is just to say that it must not be the defining characteristic of Christian discipleship for those who exist within it.