by Abby Johnson
From Part of the Suburbs to Serving the Suburbs I live in a large city, but the church I serve cannot be classified as urban. It is on the edge of the city, far from its urban center and into the affluent suburbs. I came from an affluent suburban neighborhood myself, and on the surface, I identify with the population. But transitioning from growing up in the population to serving the population was (and still is at times) not easy.
Upper middle-class suburbia offers its own set of unique challenges, and it cannot be denied that privilege plays a role in those challenges. In my context and in my experience, I see a certain level of comfort that comes with affluence. And comfort often brings apathy. People are just going through the motions. We see people float in and out, checking “church” off their required to-do list, and then hurrying to their standing lunch reservation at the country club. They have strong opinions of how worship should look, and are vocal about their preferences. Sometimes they even threaten to withhold their giving when their preferred worship style is creatively changed, even for just one week. Not only do we see worship becoming more about them than honoring and glorifying God, we also see a total lack of engagement in the true life of the church. My affluent friends at times forget that Worship should not stand alone. There’s more to this life with Christ. Often, in times of financial comfort, the spiritual disciplines we should be attending to fall away.
Reminding Successful People That They Need Jesus Too My church is also full of Type A personalities. These are the people at the top of the chain in their business fields (or headed there). They are used to calling the shots and they know how to get what they want. In that same vein, they are not derailed by life’s bumps in the road. If they have car trouble, their dealership gives them a loaner…no questions asked. A kidney stone won’t break the bank–they can swing bills (and have great insurance) for a costly medical emergency. If their child is sick, they have access to a nanny and the freedom to work from home. When a new baby is born, they hire a night nurse and a personal chef–they don’t need a meal train. How do you minister to families that seem as if they have it all? The families that, from a financial standpoint, don’t NEED help from their community of faith.
What I’ve found in the suburbs is that it’s harder to get people to dive deeper into their relationship with Jesus. At times you want to offer Jesus, digging deep into the scripture, and instead you have to offer holi powder with a side of Jesus to build momentum and excitement. For example, we do major/fun events, like our back-to-school celebration, with nothing more than a “welcome to our church” message and a prayer. Whereas we average around 50 students on regular programming days, at these events (such color games with holi powder), the numbers almost double. This may feel like compromising values, but you have to remember that you can’t offer them Christ when they aren’t in the room. Gather contact information and make intentional invitations to guests. We usually see at least half of the guests come back at some point during the year after these larger, fun events. These kids have cars (or parents willing to drop everything and drive them where they want to go) and think they have better places to be. Find your energy moments to get people in the room. Have a plan to provide those deeper, dig into the Word, programming moments as well. Remember, you don’t have to do it all, all the time.
Navigating Social Media The suburban church in which I serve is filled with people that have a wide spectrum of beliefs–both religious and political. We can’t please everyone, but we can work hard to make church accessible to all people. In the world of social and digital media, we are more connected than ever…for better or for worse. Be careful in choosing what you personally put out to the public digitally. Every middle-aged person at our church is now on Facebook and will likely expect to be your friend. It’s important to know your audience. We can and should constantly challenge our students to speak up about the things they are passionate about. We also need to teach young people how to listen to each other, and it’s important to model that digitally. A large part of knowing your context is listening – listen for the true/real needs (not perceived needs), challenges, and unique gifts of your students and families as revealed through social media.
Always consider how you can do your best equip our students to go out into the community and share their stories of how Christ has impacted their lives. On the practical side, don’t shy away from ministry media accounts. Go to where the students are and find ways to appropriately invite and engage them. Our Student Ministry currently uses Instagram Stories very effectively. The students help build content (with approval) specifically for invitation and telling others how Christ makes an impact in their daily lives.
Parent Partnerships I’ve found parent partnerships are an incredible tool in effective ministry and if you put the time in to learn the culture of your parents and the needs of parents in your community, you’ll be that much more equipped to minister to your families. In the suburbs, it’s the parents who are physically getting the kids to the church. Their calendars are complicated. They are balancing school work and tutoring, select sports, sibling activities, concerts, and more. If they are unaware of what’s going on in your ministry, they don’t get the kids there. I suggest communicating Communicate all major events at least six months ahead, and my personal preference is to put out a major calendar of events at the beginning of each “semester” (which I consider fall, spring, and summer), looking as far out as possible. Be sure all of the available dates, costs, and basic details are pushed out through at least three or four different mediums: postcard for the fridge, social media, website, weekly emails, etc. In weekly emails, you want to provide details and focus on more immediate events. You can easily link an event webpage for the details of events that are further out in the future. Be very mindful of consistency and follow through in planning–changing plans and last minute cancellations can and will cause parents to pause before committing their students to programming in the future.
Parents also provide valuable insight into the community and their families. The more you know people, the more you can differentiate and meet individual needs. My first title was Director of Ministries to Families with Youth. Even though it’s a mouthful, it helped me understand that student ministry doesn’t stand on its own in our setting. A holistic approach for the family helped me build long term relationships and allowed me access into the lives of the families I was working to serve.
Unseen Needs I have been part of many discussions of frustrated youth workers who serve an affluent population. Their needs here are often unseen but they are still there. Taking a survey of your community needs, challenges, and strengths will help uncover the unseen needs that saturate affluent community. Even though they seem to have it all, emptiness is present. They seek belonging. They are hurting. And they need Jesus, whether they know it or not. While financial stress may not be as present in this ministry context, life can be far from perfect. We’ve had students die by suicide, overdose, go into treatment for eating disorders, have major addiction issues…and the list can go on.
Here’s what I know, and what we all should remember: No matter the socio-economic status, demographics, area of town, etc. people need Jesus. Each and every one of us. And being called into ministry means we, no matter our privileges or prejudices, are to show our students that they belong and that they are worthy of the love and light of Jesus Christ…in whatever context or mission field we are called to serve.
Use this week’s download to investigate your church’s culture and the community you serve. The assessment has questions that will guide in this process no matter where you live and serve and no matter how long you’ve been there. Use it with your student ministry team or if you are new to your church do it on your own. The guide is especially helpful to churches who have lost connection with the community around the church. It can also be helpful to churches who think their community makeup is one thing but the needs of their people are actually different. Let us know what you learn! Download Here.
Abby Johnson currently serves in Discipleship at Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, TX. She’s in her 17th year at Arborlawn, most of which was served in Student Ministries. She grew up in Grapevine, TX and attended TCU where she dreamed of making her mark on the world as a Juvenile Social Worker. Through volunteering at a Children’s Home and working at a Summer Camp in college, she ended up with a life-course correction and where God intended all along – local church ministry. Abby is married with one (and done) kiddo, she loves to read, and, every now and then she picks up a needle and thread for a little soul therapy.
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The Center for Youth Ministry Training joins the millions of people around the country and the world crying out for justice. We are praying for the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, for all impacted by racial injustice, and for all who are experiencing anger, fear, sorrow, and pain from these horrific incidents. We are concerned about how these killings and the deep divisions of our country are impacting all young people.