Lament as Mission in the Suburbs

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. – Karl Marx

Does mission count in the suburbs?

I was at a church conference, listening to an impassioned young pastor talk about the work he does in inner city high schools in his neighborhood:

“Everyone should be getting in on this. It’s the greatest need in our city. Young men without fathers need attentive, compassionate, strong men to pour into their lives and mentor them.”

I listened to him with a mixture of admiration and annoyance. I admired how he’d discerned local mission in his neighborhood and galvanized his community to action. Men putting their lives on the line for young men stirred my heart and excited my mind.

But I was also annoyed (and feeling more than a bit guilty about being annoyed). What if my neighborhood doesn’t have the same problems as your inner city neighborhood. Does mission in the suburbs count, too?

The best place to live?

The city where I am living and planting a church (Fishers, Indiana) was recently named the BEST place to live (in all of America!) by Money Magazine, (based on factors that a magazine named MONEY would based it on: healthy economy, affordable homes, and a “high quality of life.”).

This is a very different environment from inner city realities described by the young pastor above. So what does mission look like in the affluent suburbs? Should we drive 30 minutes to mentor high school teens in a more impoverished area? What does mission look like here in the suburbs?

The hidden pain of the suburbs

My friend and co-pastor Ben says that mission in the suburbs is more difficult to discern because the needs we see most quickly are those that contrast with the American Dream (poverty, homelessness, crime, etc).

But the American Dream isn’t the same thing as the Kingdom of God. The needs in the suburbs are just as pressing, but it takes some discernment to see them because they’re hidden under the veneer of the apparent fulfillment of the American Dream.

Our church has been inhabiting and praying for our suburban city for three years now. And we’ve noticed a glaring issue largely left untouched and ignored by the affluent, active culture of our city:

There seems to be a deep well of unprocessed sadness, unfinished grief, sorrow, and relational pain that people carry with them on a day to day basis. One recent study suggests that loneliness is rampant, and it’s just as dangerous to our health as obesity.

And unlike poverty, homelessness, and hunger, most people who are chronically sad don’t know it. They can’t identify what’s actually haunting them.

Affluence and activity numb us

Part of the reason we don’t know we’re sad is that the affluence and relentless activity of the suburbs insulate us from having to feel our pain. We’ve generally got enough money and power to find a way to numb the pain if we ever start feeling it:

  • Lonely? Watch another Netflix show, refresh your Facebook pic of your family to see how many likes you’ve received, kill off that box of cookies.
  • Ugly? Get free botox from your neighbor, start a gym membership and lose that weight, buy more expensive (and flattering) clothing.
  • Hurting from a relationship? Eat, drink and be merry; change churches; just begin to ignore that awkward relationship.
  • Insignificant at work? Find your significance in your kids performance, or your meticulously cared for lawn, or your car.
  • Stressed out and unable to cope? Pop open another bottle of wine, plan a guys weekend, play another round of golf, download another mobile phone game.

Church doesn’t help (most of the time)

And our suburban churches aren’t helping.

Worship services are often called “celebrations.” Preachers regularly tell people that the answer to their unhappiness is to “Just praise God!” Our liturgies are full of thanksgiving, praise, and exhortation, but often bereft of lament, mourning, and weeping. Our Christian radio stations are full of “positive and encouraging” programming, implying that to be a Christian is to be happy, positive, smiling, and put together.

If Karl Marx thought the religion of his day was the “opium of the people,” there’s a case to be made that the kind of Pop Christianity described above is the opium of the American suburbs.

Drop the kids off at childcare, get emotionally moved by awesome music, listen to an inspirational message about God that tells you to try harder and do more and God is good all the time and all the time God is good… and come back next week for your next spiritual hit.

But none of this frenetic spiritual activity really heals us, it just keeps us sedated and unaware of our immense sadness and pain. Church just becomes another activity to distract me from my pain. God becomes a pill I pop to numb the pain.

Reckoning with reality

Instead of this kind of happy clappy faith, the suburbs desperately need a faithful Christian witness of how to lament pain and evil in our world.

One of our foundational assumptions about life (because we see Jesus make this assumption over and over in his dealings with people) is that God is so real he most fully meets us where we really are.

We need a reckoning with reality, a dealing with “what is,” a rhythm that makes way for healing, and a robust community with which to journey.

We need the emotional safety to name what’s actually going on, a pruning of distractions to become aware of how we are really doing, language to describe “I think that feeling of loneliness and anxiety is really just sadness that I haven’t dealt with yet.”

Learning a liturgy of lament

Mission in the suburbs can begin with learning to lament. And thankfully, even though most of us aren’t practiced in it, the Bible is filled with lament, especially Psalms. Lots of Psalms are mainly lament!

Our church gatherings must make room for lament, because this is the only thing that can heal our sadness.

We can start with sadness for our own life tragedies: relational ruin, personal trauma, individual sin. And we can enter into solidarity with the suffering of the world as well: victims of natural disasters, systemic oppression, the principalities and powers of racial and economic injustice, broken families, physical and emotional abuse.

Healing and restoration happen when we move beyond merely “standing up for” or “speaking out against” things. Underneath speaking and standing we find the aching need to suffer in solidarity with actual people in their actual pain.

Growing robust church communities

Loneliness and isolation are the privilege of affluence. In the suburbs we live in large castles of independent self-sufficiency, closing ourselves off to connection and dependence on others.

Much of our pain in the suburbs is due to past and present relationships that are not healthy. If relationships have caused us pain, it will be relationships that play a role in our healing.

Our discipleship must be built on creating relationships of emotional and spiritual safety. At a minimum, this means cultivating a culture where:

  • Shame is dethroned through regular confession and proclamation of good news,
  • The worst thing about me can be brought into light in community because the grace and truth of Jesus Christ is trusted and celebrated,
  • People can share pain without others dismissing, denying, ghosting, fixing, or gaslighting,
  • We learn how to be present to others pain: suffering solidarity with each other,
  • Hope and healing are held together with despair and pain.

This isn’t easy, of course. Most people have to pay professionals $125 an hour to receive this kind of relationship and care.

And of course professional counseling is important and good and necessary. It’s just sad that it’s often the only place people experience this kind of care. What if we can create a fabric of community that is able to bear more and more suffering as we learn to name our own in community?

In the suburbs, creating spaces where it’s safe for people to learn to lament is mission, because it addresses one of the hidden ways the kingdom of God needs to come in the suburbs.

What are you seeing and learning?

We’d love to hear what you’re seeing and learning in this regard.

  • Do you see this need for lament in the suburbs?
  • Are you seeing examples of church communities doing this?
  • What questions does this provoke for you?

Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Chris Goers on October 2, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Thanks Matt! Great observations and calls for action.
    -Do I see this need for lament in the suburbs? Absolutely. People are used to the right schools for their kids, the right jobs, and the right sports teams. Every part of people’s lives is planned out and scheduled. Any events that threaten that plan (injuries, job change, family crises) cause major stress. We can be the voice that pain is real, God is still on His throne, we can walk through life together. Active and aware Christians give people a safe place to lament without the veneer of perfection.
    -Am I seeing examples of church communities doing this? Not really. At their worst, I see church communities participating in the conspiracy of “I’m fine.” At their best, I see churches encouraging small groups to “be real” and “be honest” without equipping leaders to do that themselves. (Gravity Leadership gives that equipping)
    -What questions does this provoke? Can the Church be patient in building relationships with people far from God? Can the Church see it’s own need to properly Lament? Can the Church work with active and aware Christians who are called to these people?
    My wife, Jennifer, and I are tackling one area of lamentation. We are beginning to work with individuals and couples who are looking for help in the area of pornography addiction. This addiction, at its roots, is a symptom of the inability to properly lament life’s vicissitudes, the ups and downs, changes and circumstances of life. Pornography is an escape mechanism used to avoid the pain of life. We are teaching people how to walk out of that addiction, using lamentation as Matt describes it, and into a deeper relationship with God.
    We pray that the church, the living incarnation of Christ on earth, can live into this call.

  2. Werner on October 2, 2017 at 10:20 am

    Great post Matt.I don,t see church communities doing this but definitely individuals that have a gift of compassion in them.When I’ve finished the reading of this post,immediately I was thinking of a few people and my wife,that have received a gift of compassion in this regard.Sometimes they just listen to people and sometimes they know to speak the right words,guided by the Spirit.Everybody can make a contribution,but be sure of the gifts that you have received.

  3. Matt Tebbe on October 2, 2017 at 10:36 am

    That’s wonderful, Werner. I know there are many compassionate people (like your wife) who do this kind of suffering in solidarity intuitively and naturally. Oh for churches to make space for corporate expressions of grief! Blessings to you, brother.

  4. Matt Tebbe on October 2, 2017 at 10:39 am

    “Pornography is an escape mechanism used to avoid the pain of life” YES!
    Oh Chris – how much addiction would be healed if we had a spirituality robust enough to face our life with Christ, process and finish the pain and hurt we find there, and learn to increasingly live in hope and love right there? Bless you and your ministry with Jennifer.

  5. Chris Goers on October 2, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    I believe part of the growth in this area will be a merging or understanding of vocabulary. Mature, 12 Step discipleship recognizes the problem is not whatever drug the addict is using, (e.g., Porn, Alcohol, Food, Games, etc..) but the pain/feelings/defects underneath. Jennifer and I are merging Discipleship language with the traditional 12 Steps at Let the conversation continue and include lamentation, awareness, acceptance and action!

  6. Aaron on October 5, 2017 at 7:21 am

    I really appreciate this post. Have you read the book, “The Lonely American?” It isn’t necessarily a Christian book, but speaks to some of these very things you mention.

    I would also add that you have identified a problem. The next step is figuring out the solution. I think lamenting as you described it is good, but the issue is that it’s still just once a week. Churches currently toss around the buzz word “community” like they understand it. From my 15 years of steadfast loyalty to my church, I have been a part of many small groups, and many of them are poorly led because there are leaders that aren’t equipped to help usher people into this lament you mention. They are uncomfortable with their own stories, yet are expected to lead people with “bigger” stories, or people who are relationally awkward, or people who have been cheated on by their spouse, or people who are single and are made to feel that they are deficient in the church community.

    Your post is thought-provoking and right on! I’d like to hear your thoughts on how to build those communities of depth, authenticity, and intimacy. I don’t think that can happen during a church service of 100-500 people. It will just become another emotional “high.”

  7. Lisa on October 17, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Have you read No More faking Fine by Esther Fleece?
    I appreciated reading your post. I found it to be spot on!

  8. Ben Sternke on October 17, 2017 at 10:05 am

    I haven’t read that book, but I like the sound of it! Getting beyond masks, platitudes, and generalities is really important to us. Glad you found the post helpful!

  9. Benjamin on December 15, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    Very good article. I’ve tried to create a practice of praying the Psalms in our community groups for just this purpose. I think a true community is one that enters into both celebration and lamentation with one another (Rom. 12:15). You can see it here:

  10. Ben Sternke on December 15, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks Benjamin!

  11. Jason on February 9, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    So good. Hit me square. Thank you.

  12. Ben Sternke on February 9, 2018 at 5:13 pm

    Glad to hear it, Jason!

  13. Dave Chiolero on May 9, 2018 at 1:47 pm

    Do you see this need for lament in the suburbs?
    I agree that it’s harder to see the ‘hurting’ people in affluent neighborhoods. I think it’s harder to connect with them as well because they don’t have an obvious need for me to meet. Homeless people need food, a jacket, fresh pair of socks. I can connect with them by meeting a felt need. How do I make a cold call with my neighbor? What’s my point of entry?
    Connection through relationship is the key as i see it. If I don’t have a relational connection with the people around me, how will I be aware when they’re hurting. Of course this is the same answer for the obviously ‘hurting’ homeless person. Just because it’s easy to see they’re homeless doesn’t mean I know what’s going on in the inside. Not until I invest some time sitting with them, talking, mostly listening.

  14. Matt Tebbe on May 9, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    Dave! Great to hear from you. 🙂

    Yes, I agree that it’s harder to connect with people in suburbs because their need isn’t ‘out in the open’ like poverty or illness in other social spaces. And yes, relationship is the context in which we can trust and be trusted with things like grief, sadness, etc.

    All that I’d add is: I’ve found doorways opening for me as I share my sadness and grief with my neighbors in the suburbs. I trust my needs *to them* and it creates a space of mutuality and openness that didn’t exist before.

  15. Dave Chiolero on May 15, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    That’s a great point. It reminds me of a quote i heard years ago, “You lead people through your strengths, but you connect with them through your weakness.”

  16. Mike Fretz on May 22, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    You may not see it as much in Fishers, but I have been seeing in the last few years that many of the problems in the Fort Wayne area that have traditionally been primarily inner-city problems are moving to the suburbs and rural areas. As more and more of our inner-city areas are becoming gentrified and the middle class and upper class folks are moving back into those areas, it is displacing those who had lived in the inner city areas more and more. Those folks are gradually moving more to the suburbs and rural areas, and so their problems are moving with them. So I think that as this process continues, we are going to more and more see the location of the problems shift without the problems having been addressed. They may not seem on the surface to be as bad because they will not be as concentrated. Suburban and rural neighborhoods aren’t as dense, so things will be more spread out. But the problems will still be there, just in different locations than they were in the past

  17. Ben Sternke on May 22, 2018 at 4:04 pm

    Yes we don’t have much of that (yet?) in Fishers, but I know what you’re talking about. Multiple layers to the situation, for sure!

  18. Dave on September 1, 2018 at 9:49 pm

    I have concerns for those on meth.
    Some of the things they have done or experienced need to be talked about. Many I have met grew up in church.

  19. Kate Hanson on April 1, 2019 at 8:53 am

    Great article! One place I have seen a platform for people to “lament” and express and process their pain is in our church’s middle and high school ministries. I am a small group leader in the middle school ministry, and we are able to get so much more real and honest with the teenagers than in the larger adult church services that I actually prefer the youth service. Watching the youth be able to bond and lift each other up through sharing their struggles and grief and laying it down at God’s feet (rather than smiling and pretending its not there) is inspiring for us adults “leaders!”

  20. Gary V Carter on April 1, 2019 at 9:01 am

    Spot on and insightfully expressed!

  21. Alli Coffey on April 1, 2019 at 9:37 am

    What should we do when we lean into being this kind of community but there are not enough people who (1) actually believe in the grace and truth of Jesus (2) have the maturity to hold space for others’ and one’s own lament ….I feel this is a desperate need in my community, but as I hold space for it i notice I am just a drop in the bucket – not a culture-changer. And people’s responses range from transformation to dabbling to polite distance to slander.

    This mission is so important – and exactly how God has led me personally – but my community (and our whole society) seems largely in cahoots with one another to help each other check completely out of reality (where God is and meets us) …perhaps this is not so different as in the 1st Century where the few changed the many through life in Christ…. but this article seems to depict a vision of a healthy community that holds space for one another maturely AND collectively. How do we get there?

  22. Matt Tebbe on April 1, 2019 at 10:19 am

    WOW, Kate that is so encouraging.

    Why do you think it’s easier for your youth to do this in their gathering times than it is for adults? What are you noticing about that?

  23. Matt Tebbe on April 1, 2019 at 10:20 am

    Thanks, Gary!

  24. Matt Tebbe on April 1, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Alli –

    I’m so with you. We stink at this stuff. Even those of us who are convicted we need to live into this aren’t great at it. I’m still learning so much about holding open space for communities like this.

    Your struggle is largely why I started (with Ben Sternke) – we knew we couldn’t live and lead without a community like the one you’re describing.

    I’ve been in places where I’m not a culture changer and here’s what I learned:
    1. Look for people who have a desire and vision for the community you’re talking about. Be explicit with them about developing that community.
    2. Have some way of training or developing a common language and rhythms. We use Gravity Leadership Academy stuff.
    3. Pray like Jesus is alive and cares more about this than you do. He is and he does. 🙂 Be ready for him to move and shift you as you align with his will in this.

    I am praying for you this morn, Alli. If you want to chat further feel free to email me. God bless you, sister.

  25. Louis Daniels, Jr. on April 1, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    I am reading this and this appears to be God aligning something in my life. I have been going through therapy for my own personal issues lately (at 125 an hour, no less, hahaha). I’ve been wondering about how the Gospel is too be preached in a place where there is no glaringly apparent problem or need (obviously, there is always a need, but as many people have echoed, some needs are more readily seen than others). I have been struggling with how to share my story and I have a spiritual brother who seems to be be ready to share his. But, I don’t seem to have that community in which to do it. I have seen articles hear and there about lamentation, but never really understood the importance until now. I get the sense that God either wants me to do something, or is preparing me for something. But, I do see the need for this sort of thing: a place where we can share our hurts. Even this past day, I was meditating on James 5:16 (about confession our sins to one another) and this article makes me think of Galatians 6:12 (where we are called to bear one another’s burdens). Just a number of things seem to be making me aware of this need to address the hurts of God’s people.

    I thank God for people who are willing to step out and be this way – being an open book to be able to comfort those who need to be comforted the way God has comforted them. I pray that God opens my eyes to whatever opportunity lies before me to be of service to others in this way. Thank you, Gravity Leadership, for such a timely, well-needed article.

  26. Emily Blaylock on April 1, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    So good!!

  27. Kate Hanson on April 1, 2019 at 11:24 pm

    Good question… As I am thinking about this I am wondering if working with teenagers is similar to working with a ministry located in the inner city: we leaders are more likely to look for and almost expect some sort of struggle going on for them (who didn’t have a rough time as a teenager no matter where they are from!). We also have a great youth pastor who is not afraid to bring up the hard stuff in large group, and we immediately continue the hard conversations in our small group. The adult service is more like a performance, and people attend the main service as consumers. The adults don’t immediately have the chance to process and apply what they are hearing unless they happen to have a conversation in the lobby on the way out. This whole article and thread is really thought provoking – thank you so much!!!

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