I’ve spent the last 24 years serving a church in San Jacinto, California’s big, bad, beautiful city. Our church is nestled between the twin cities of Riverside and Palm Springs, resting at the base of Mount San Jacinto, which houses the City of Idyllwild, CA, at 5300 feet. But that doesn’t sound exciting or missionally hip, and it doesn’t fit the mold of urban church planting we’ve all been espousing for the last decade or so.
The suburbs are a bit embarrassing and challenging, it seems, yet statistically, most of us live and minister in a suburban context. More than 53 percent of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs, and it is the fastest-growing population migration in the West. I know many people are moving back into the city with their ironic mustaches, beards, and alarmingly high-end sneakers, but re-inhabiting urban spaces is a complex and costly exercise that doesn’t appeal to people just trying to get to the suburbs for peace and quiet.
We have a biblical justification for that desire in 1 Thessalonians 4:11: “Make it your ambition to live a quiet life, minding your own business, and scooping up after your dog” (e.g., that last bit has been loosely translated). But while we have a verse that seems to justify suburban retreat, suburban living can feel structurally anti-gospel. Here’s how Jared Wilson strikingly puts it:
I think the spirit at work in the suburbs tends to smother the Christian spirit. The message of the suburbs, in a nutshell, is self-empowerment. Self-enhancement. Self-fulfillment. Self is at the center, and all things serve the self. The primary values of suburbia are convenience, abundance, and comfort. In suburbia, you can have it all—and you can get it made to order in a super-sized cup with an insulated sleeve (i.e., The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together).
For a long time, I quietly resented ministering in a suburban context. I longed for something more missionally credible, a little more “street” and dangerous. I weighed the option of serving on the international field. I wanted to risk my life for the gospel rather than waste it on serving the habitually comfortable.
But God opened my eyes 6 years ago. Behind the barriers of immaculate lawns and gated communities—or in our context, lots of “Ol’ Glory” waving proudly on flag poles and landscaped sidewalks on the tract home’s outward perimeter —hide real missional people. People full of faith, hope, charity, vision, sacrifice, and almost endless potential for gospel advance if we would engage them well with the biblical mandate of church planting.
Here are (5) five essential ways I’ve learned we can make a difference in church planting tomorrow. No, I’m not exaggerating! Your schedule tomorrow can include these five starting steps.
7:03 a.m. – Answer one simple but profound question: “If SBC churches don’t plant, who will?” This one question kept me up many nights.
7:47 a.m. – Book a current church planter in your area for a Sunday morning: Yes, dear pastor, give up your pulpit for one (1) Sunday morning to a church planter. If it tanks your church, well…you and I already know it was only a matter of time.
9:32 a.m. – Recruit 10 – 12 of the best volunteers in your church and schedule them to participate in a new church plant community outreach event. Send your influencers to this outreach event, not simply your over-zealous, dedicated ministry volunteers. Trust me, there is a difference between the two. You need your influential volunteers to attend this outreach event for a new church plant. Their assessment or “testimony” will go a long way in your suburban church.
12:46 p.m. – Select just one book on Church Planting published since 2020 and read it. If you don’t know of one, contact me, and I will buy one just for you.
4:12 p.m. – Download one of the myriads of AI Apps and present the same question posed in this brief article. You will be blown away by the suggestions and ideas you find through this resource. Select one or two of the generated suggestions and purpose in your heart to implement them in the next three or four months.
All of this has led me to a simple and serious conviction: every suburban church— regardless of size or development stage—should be involved in church planting in some way. It would be naïve (and perhaps foolish) to say that every church must plant another church; there are simply too many variables for that to be mandated. But every church should be connected to the work of gospel multiplication through church planting.
Whether it’s joining a church-planting network, starting a residency, partnering with an existing church plant, or simply committing to pray for church planters in your context or around the world, existing churches would benefit from involvement in church planting for one (1) enormous, gigantic reason:
In the New Testament, the Great Commission is fulfilled as churches are planted. The church in Antioch caught this vision in Acts 13. Thus they set apart Paul and Barnabas and commissioned them to plant churches, which had a far-reaching effect on both the church and the world. We see this pattern repeated throughout Paul’s epistles; he continually reminded churches of other works around the ancient world, highlighting needs and opportunities for partnership.
Want your church to be more like the early church? Get involved in church planting.
So, come on, suburban church. Find a way to get involved. What feels like a distraction from “your” mission might actually help you sharpen it. What feels like a sacrificial cost might actually bring about tremendous generosity. What feels like a further burden for your people may actually be the very thing that lifts their heads and bends their knees.