Will the hyper-privatized configuration of the exurb have any effect on Christian ministry and sense of mission? Will exurban church location make any difference? Consider Saddleback Community Church, as represented in a study by geographer Justin Wilford in his book, Sacred Subdivisions. Saddleback Church is located in southern California’s exurban region of Orange County. One might think that in this widely dispersed area the church campus, at least, functions as the centre of worship and congregational life. But it doesn’t. The church and its Sunday worship services count rather as the front door of the believing community. This is where the crowd shows up. Once committed to membership and Christian discipleship, the members of the congregation are referred to weekly small-group meetings in more than 3,800 private homes. Small-group meetings, as it turns out, are at the core of the ministry. That is to say, there are many centres to the church and they are all private. The ministry’s structure mirrors the structure of the built environment. “The home for Saddleback churchgoers,” writes Wilford, “is the affective center around which all other religiously significant activity turns” (Wilford, 163). Religious practice is “centered on domesticity, close interpersonal relationships, and individual improvement” (Wilford, 116). So much for the public good.
Saddleback not only reflects the spatial configuration of exurban life, but a good deal of its culture as well. Given the absence of a public realm where people identify themselves as citizens in the shared pursuit of the common good, the exurban setting encourages people to think of themselves as consumers whose main concern is the private satisfaction of individual desires. Saddleback markets itself accordingly. In the midst of many preference subcultures, Saddleback will offer many worship styles, times, and venues. In his “Mapping the Future! 2004 State of the Church Message,” given at Saddleback Church, senior pastor Rick Warren offers worship options tailored to tastes: “Then you can say, ‘Today I think I’d like to go to the polka worship.’ Or, ‘I feel like heavy metal today. What mood are you in for?’ It’ll be like going over to Edwards 21 Theaters, ‘Now showing at 9:00, 9:15, 9:30, 9:45, 10:00.’ You can choose the time, the style and even the size of the service you’d like to be involved in” (as quoted in Wilford, 80). The comparison of the church to an entertainment venue might make some uneasy, and with good reason. There is a danger in the market approach to selling church. Instead of conducting a common worship and liturgy developed within the Christian tradition to transform individual desires and preferences according to the spiritual priorities of the Kingdom of God, it may conform worship and liturgy to the desires and preferences of unreconstructed individuals. Conformed to the world rather than transformed by the gospel—a worry already expressed by St. Paul in the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans.
The reference to Saddleback gets us to the era and culture of the 1990s, the heyday of exurban development, and the rise of the mega-church. Since then, there have been signs of the Christian church’s rediscovery of locality and the common good. Consider the New Parish movement coming out of Seattle. It had its origins in questioning the mega-church model as an outsized affinity group located on the edge of town. There, write Paul Sparks and the authors of The New Parish, “churches drew people out of the diversity of their own neighborhood contexts; . . . in a homogenous gathering, they would ‘consume’ a worship event crafted with excellence appealing to a specific audience” (Sparks et al., 44). Instead, New Parish churches focus on establishing a “faithful presence” in existing neighbourhoods— primarily urban ones—with their diverse demographics and cultural mix, (Sparks et al., 46) where the primary mission is devoted to the work of the “commons”—to what we share with others in the areas of education, civic life, economic activity, and the natural environment (Sparks et al., 95–96).
The faithful presence of a church, then, means to seek a flourishing life for all within a given place (Sparks et al., 47). Its civic role is more a matter of inhabiting a place than issue advocacy, which runs the risk of reducing the church to another special interest group in the politics of the culture wars (Sparks et al., 111). The emphasis is on self-giving service, not political dominance. “A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly,” writes James Davison Hunter in To Change the World (Hunter, 253). “Faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us—the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs. It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of the people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, coworkers, and community—where we find our authenticity as a body and as believers” (Ibid.). Urban neighbourhoods—mixed use and mixed income, with their walkable streets, their squares and commons, their rich public realm—both support and elicit this shift in the focus of Christian ministry and mission.
We can see a similar movement in the case of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in New York City, whose senior pastor was, until recently, Timothy Keller. By its numbers, Redeemer could be considered a mega-church. It draws over 5,000 attendees to its services each week. But the spirit is different than the exurban phenomenon we considered above. In his book Center Church, Keller writes, “Christians should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to build great churches, but to use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city. We refer to this as a ‘city growth’ model of ministry rather than a strictly ‘church growth’ model” (Keller, 172). On this model, churches are “looking for ways to strengthen the health of their neighborhoods, making them safer and more humane places to live. This is a way to seek the welfare of the city, in the spirit of Jeremiah 29” (Keller, 175). Members of churches “work for the peace, security, justice, and prosperity of their neighbors, loving them in word and deed, whether or not they believe the same things we believe in” (Keller, 171). Here the common good comes back into focus.
To better serve its parishioners’ neighbourhoods, and to avoid undue focus on a singular pastor, Redeemer has decided to get smaller rather than bigger. It subdivided itself into three locations in Manhattan—the West Side, the East Side, and downtown. The Urban Village Church in Chicago follows a similar approach when it comes to church growth. Rather than aspiring to become a large church in one location and expecting its members to leave their neighbourhoods and travel miles by car to attend its services, it stays small, local, close, and embedded. It grows by replicating itself, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. With signal emphases on hospitality, justice, inclusion, service, and discipleship, it has established a vital presence in four Chicago neighbourhoods—Hyde Park, South Loop, Wicker Park, and Andersonville—with the intent of growing by starting an additional local faith community in the Windy City every one to two years. Like Redeemer Presbyterian, it intends to grow by replication rather than expansion.
Clearly, the ministry of the Word is central to Redeemer’s work. It is theologically conservative and its members can find pastoral support for their personal struggles. But its sense of mission is defined by the urban context in which the church is situated. And if the church, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it in his essay “The Role of the Parish in Society” is to function as the “first fruit, sign, and instrument of God’s new creation,” as a pilot plant for redemption, the urban context is in many ways ideal. The city, Keller notes, is “humanity intensified—a magnifying glass that brings out the very best and the very worst of human nature” (Keller, 135). The city is the site of diversity, contrast, and contest—racial, ethnic, social, economic, cultural, and intellectual (Keller, 171). It is, in addition, a centre of cultural production—whether local, regional, national, or global. What better place for the community of faith to model, as best it can, the grace, hope, and reconciling power of the gospel? The city occupies a specific patch of ground where people unlike each other have to live together. What better crucible for the church to both learn from and contribute to the common good of the human community? “The question,” writes Newbigin, “that has to be asked about the church and about every congregation is not: How big is it? How fast is it growing? How rich is it? It is: What difference is it making to that bit of the world in which it has been placed?” The city is an excellent bit of the world for the Christian church to make a demonstrable difference.