By Alex Lozada
Not everyone in our family wanted to move. My wife, Heather, and I plus our three elementary-school-aged daughters had lived 10 years on suburban Long Island, about 25 miles east of New York City, and now we were moving to suburban Harford County, about 15 miles northeast of Baltimore. We would not miss Long Island’s highway traffic or high prices, but we very much missed the friends we left behind.
In some ways, the two communities had plenty in common with each other and with other suburbs around the U.S. In both places our neighbors cared deeply about good schools, complained about the changes and traffic that came with new construction, and chatted about local sports teams and nationally popular TV shows.
Heather made friends with a mom in our townhouse development whose oldest daughter was in the same grade as ours, and they often walked the kids back and forth to the nearby elementary school. As their friendship grew, Heather naturally invited Jen to come to our church. Fast forwarding through multiple kitchen conversations, a backyard baptism, small groups, and more, the Holy Spirit worked through our family and our church to write a new chapter in this neighboring family’s life.
The Changing Suburban Landscape
The suburban landscape is changing, and I’m not referring to the stereotypical well-maintained lawns and driveways. Many of our neighbors do not regularly attend a worship service. They recognize the tune to “Amazing Grace” only because they heard it as background music to something on video. The Bible quotes they know come from what they read in Facebook posts.
This environment has some similar challenges to those Paul encountered among the Greeks in Acts 17:18-28. They misunderstood Paul’s teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, so he restarted his dialogue with them by connecting at a more basic level, including referring to their own cultural touchstones. Phrases and concepts familiar to us sound like foreign language babble to people far from God. Before we can even begin talking with them about timeless Bible truths, we need to spend time nurturing our relationships.
A Different Look
If today’s suburbs are like Paul among the Greeks, previous decades might have been more similar to the environment of Jesus among the Jews and Samaritans. They were raised on the laws of Moses and the songs of David, even if the different sects disagreed on significant doctrines. In the past, many American suburbanites were middle-class, married-with-children Caucasians who attended one of the several nearby Protestant or Catholic congregations.
Though there are still plenty of households that fit this description, our current neighbors come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, fewer are in traditional marriages, and many are disenchanted with what they read and hear about institutional churches. Some of my wife’s recent phone conversations include an unmarried expectant mom needing emergency housing and a young woman severely disconnected from her family whose faith background is far removed from Christianity.
Everyday People in Their Neighborhoods
Think of your subdivision as a mission field, and bring the same prayer and effort as an overseas missionary does. One useful mission tool is the person of peace, found in Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10:5, 6. Based on this Scripture, focus on someone who isn’t a Christian and with whom you connect well, instead of trying to invest in people with whom you are not connected. Discerning the person of peace in your existing activities could be more fruitful than trying to start a new outreach program for an entire neighborhood.
Ask yourself, “What are situations in which I have connections with people who aren’t already Christians?” The answers may include public schools, sports recreation leagues, neighborhood associations, and especially workplaces. In one of those settings, is there someone with whom you already have a positive relationship in whom you could invest? As your friendship grows, the Spirit will open an opportunity to invite that person on a next step in their journey.
At Mountain Christian Church where I now serve, our challenge to share the good news combines Jesus’ commands to “go and be” in Matthew 28:19, 20 and John 15:8, and the Samaritan woman’s invitation “come and see” in John 4:29. We “go and be” as we nurture our friendships with people far from God, yet near to us in our neighborhoods and workplaces. Our focus is not on how smartly we speak but instead on how patiently we listen and how humbly we help. The needs in middle- and upper-class communities might not be as glaringly obvious as the inner city, but Mountain folks are “going and being” in after-school programs, Blessings in a Backpack meals for needy children, and dozens of other ways.
People at Mountain continue to find that when they are being a blessing to their neighbors, “come and see” becomes a natural invitation. For some, the first “come and see” is to a small group. During a recent church-wide alignment that combined weekend messages with small group sessions, more than half of the participants in one of the groups were people unconnected with Mountain or any other church, but they were personally invited friends of the group leaders. For many the “come and see” invitation is to weekend service, especially those around Christmas and Easter.
Encouragement in the Struggle
I struggle with reaching out to people because I’m a hearing impaired introvert, and relationships take time and energy. I need to remind myself, “What excites me about my life with Jesus?” The answer to that question could be what the Spirit uses to connect me with my neighbors. I’m enthusiastic about using technology to communicate the good news and about church history. This admittedly odd mix of very new and very old is helping me to begin building some relational bridges.
If music energizes you, maybe you can invite your person of peace to a concert. If a particular cross-cultural mission stirs you, discerningly weave stories about it into your conversations. Keep asking yourself, “Who is God bringing into my life?” and keep praying, “Spirit, open my eyes.”
Moving from one suburb to another 11 years ago wasn’t easy. We did make new friends, some of whom became part of our faith family. Though some parts of our lives changed, like local food favorites, some parts remained similar. From our first winter in Maryland to our most recent, shoveling snow remains a seasonal backache, just like on Long Island. Last winter, our neighbor a few doors down started to hurriedly dig out the parking space in front of his townhouse. Heather and I were already outside shoveling, so we took a break from our own chore to help him. We found out that Brandon’s visiting nephew had a medical emergency, an ambulance was on the way, and he needed to clear space for the EMTs. Thankfully, the little boy was eventually fine. Since then, I’ve had a few casual conversations with Brandon, and someone else from Mountain in our townhouse section invited him and his family to one of Mountain’s “come and see” special events. He and his family enjoyed themselves at that late summer fireworks tailgate, and now it’s on to the next chapter in the story the Spirit is writing.
Alex Lozada and his wife, Heather, live in Abingdon, Maryland, where he serves as Data Pastor at Mountain Christian Church.