I thought this blog would be a good place to work through my own thinking and share some of what I'm learning as I prepare each week for Sunday's message. I've titled the series on the first 10 chapters of Acts 'The Spirit in the Suburbs' because I wanted to keep both themes in front of us the entire time.
You can find quite a few books on ministering in the cities that have been written over the past two decades ... but there are fewer resources that approach the suburbs in depth. So, I've decided to do some basic historical-sociological homework alongside the exegetical work.
My early goals are to understand the values and status symbols of the South Hills (and suburbs in general).
I proposed to our church that two important values of suburbanites are safety and sameness.
Often people move or stay in the suburbs because they feel (and statistics probably back this up) that they and/or their children are physically safer in the suburbs. However, this desire for greater safety (and it's obvious that all people want safety) has some pitfalls built into it, such as:
The Spirit of God challenges us to find in God our fortress and strength, and to believe in the presence of the Spirit of Jesus, no matter where we live. Yet, too often, God is a distant thought; our real plan for safety is the home we buy, the street we buy it on, and the school district we buy it in.
The Spirit of God, as seen in Acts, however, routinely leads men and women into difficult and at times, dangerous situations, before leading them out.
It is hard to follow the Spirit in the suburbs, because I want safety but the Spirit wants God to be glorified in my faithful reliance upon Him.
This value of safety intersects in some really ugly ways with the value of sameness, especially when it comes to welcoming (or more typically, shunning or excluding) people of lower net worth or a different race or a different culture. History is full of examples where one group fears another, simply because they look different.
The Spirit of God must transform our minds and reactions away from this response so that we don't see in people different from ourselves the potential for danger, but the potential for love. The Spirit of God does not measure a person by their net worth or culture, language or race, but measures each one as a person made in God's image, bearing God's likeness.
Acts makes clear, time and time again, that God calls according to His will, and everyone God calls comes to salvation. However, He sends according to His command. And his command is that we go to (not away from) people of every language, race, tribe, class and culture.
I believe us suburbanites like things mostly the same. We like some variety, but not too much. We like the uniformity of homes and yards and similar-but-different models and colors and roof lines. We often dress similarly, find well-run chains comfortable places to shop, and find it natural to criticize individual acts of self-expression (either because they may seem like desperate acts of attention, or they may threaten our property value should they appear in someone's yard).
Most of us have a pretty low threshold for how much difference from the norm we think is good. In fact, this is not simply an aesthetic appreciation, but is presented as a moral one. Someone's flair for expression is condemned as self-seeking or implicitly judgmental, not merely an "odd' choice. We often think: our house is the "right size," but your new, much bigger house is an obvious sign of your "selfishness."
It seems to me that the Spirit of God delights in train-wrecking this value.
First of all, the Spirit of God is a person of the Godhead. And whereas our degrees of sameness (often trying to keep up or get slightly ahead, without appearing too indulgent) are meant to impress each other - they mean literally nothing to the Spirit of God. So, yes, it is possible ... more than that - highly likely ... that almost everything you think is impressive means nothing to the Spirit of God.
God truly does not care about your new car, your updated garage, your nice clothing, your child's test scores or ability to make open-field tackles. God's priorities are laid out very clearly in the Bible: Love God with all of your heart and soul and strength by embracing his Son, and love your neighbors (and enemies).
So our desire for sameness can threaten our life in the Spirit in at least two ways:
We are afraid to be different. Unfortunately, we can't be Christ-followers and still be the same as everyone else. The way of Jesus is too radical, because it insists on living a life that glorifies God, not ourselves.
We waste our time and resources, and become more envious, trying to keep up and impress each other, rather than asking the Lord - what is your will for me today?
Lastly, I also don't want to leave the impression that I'm better than this - or you. Everything I write describes me, too, warts and all. I value safety and sameness, too. It is hard for me to resist these things.
So I'm praying for my own growth and maturing in the Spirit, as well as everyone who joins us at Redemption Hill Church or worships elsewhere and wants to follow the Spirit of God in the suburbs.