When I announced my engagement a few years ago, one friend wrote to say he was happy for me but wondered if I might be squandering my talents on a small neighborhood church, and said a suburban megachurch seemed like the congregation I should be influencing as a pastor’s wife. Matt has received similar questions from people asking why someone with two master’s degrees would serve a community where many people stopped their education after high school.
As a movement we’re excited about churches in the suburbs and churches in thriving cities and even churches in the inner city, but we have very little interest in the hundreds (thousands?) of blue-collar, declining neighborhoods around them. I’m a big fan of having churches anywhere, but it’s curious that we have largely ignored a major socioeconomic sector of the American people. Is the church allowed to have the equivalent of flyover country?
We may pretend these mission fields don’t exist because it takes a long time to see even modest results. This is in stark contrast to the upwardly-mobile Whole Foods communities whose rooftops are counted when some church planting groups decide where to launch next. I can’t blame them; there’s certainly lots to celebrate about a big start, these organizations can raise more money when their launches bring in the numbers, and educated suburbanites need Jesus. But so do the people in places like Levittown, and just because we don’t have a formula for it doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
Again, I understand the desire for Bible-Belt crowds. It’s tempting to want a bigger church on a faster track not only because it validates one’s own talents (most people assume if you lead a small church it’s because you can’t do any better), but because it seems like a better leverage of life. Sometimes I have to remind myself of the occasional moments of insight and life change we witness among our people, the baptisms, the friendships. I think of St. Augustine who served a little area in modern-day Algeria and still managed to influence the world for centuries.
My first week in Levittown the librarian processing my application for a new card smiled and shrugged her shoulders when I mentioned I’d just moved to the area.
“Don’t judge Pennsylvania by this city,” she said. “This is a hard place.”
It’s kind of true. But that means our best leaders should be here, and thriving suburban churches should be where young guys go to cut their teeth before moving on to more-perseverance-needed mission fields.
We also need to remember these are mission fields; the locals may speak English, but each place has unique cultural and social norms. Many folks avoid these areas because they don’t understand them. To prepare to serve a country as diverse as ours, wouldn’t some Bible college or seminary specialization be helpful? A few classes about spiritual and socioeconomic differences around the country would prepare graduates to serve in places other than 750-member Indiana churches.
Finally, let’s encourage our single pastors to consider these fields. Sometimes we avoid living in and ministering to these areas because we don’t want to raise our families in them. Even if a town is safe, as Levittown largely is, the schools may be middling (as Levittown’s largely are). Guys and gals who aren’t worried about resale values and college admission have more flexibility in living options and locations.
Ministry in a blue-collar town is not for everyone. Neither is ministry to a multicultural urban church, the residents of an inner-city, or the generations who gather in rural churches. But if we’re serious about reaching the whole world for Jesus, some of us must give our lives to the small churches, the less significant areas, the slowly-but-slowly growth.
Conventional wisdom says if you’re successful, you’re not here. When will we learn that success has more than one definition, and sometimes it includes struggle?
About the Writer
Jennifer Johnson serves as Chief Communications Officer at Johnson University. She and her husband Matt live in Levittown, Pennsylvania.