One thing that surprised me about the DITB Project was the average age of the team. Most of the team members were over 50. I must confess that I was initially disappointed and discouraged by this, but was ultimately humbled. The disappointment and discouragement stemmed from my initial expectation that I would focus in this project on the stereotypical suburban family that has children in late elementary or secondary school and spends exorbitant amounts of time taxiing children to various extra curricular activities. I was interested to know how an engagement in spiritual and theological conversation might impact their spiritual formation. I reached out to many families within this demographic and was repeatedly and politely denied. “We’d love to participate. Thank you for asking. But, we’re just (you guessed it) too busy.”
Calvary Lutheran Church was once the flagship congregation for this particular region of the metropolitan era. It was established in the county seat in the early 1900s as the first Lutheran church in the area. This was significant because the majority of European settlers in this area were Scandinavian and Lutheran. Calvary comes from a Norwegian Lutheran tradition and provided all the religious services that the first settlers expected in that small town, county seat context.
The city of which Calvary is a part has experienced the most dramatic changes of all three cities involved in the DITB project. The town sits at the conjunction of two major rivers. This conjunction has served significant purposes for various civilizations over the centuries. It was the spot at which two warring native nations found peace. The tribes used the rivers to mark their territories and ceased their fighting. Later, it served as a logical site for trading between French trappers and the native people. Once the Europeans began to settle in the area, the confluence of rivers made it a logical spot to construct a logging and mill industry. The logs were floated from two regions up state and brought together and milled in this town. People settled in this town and constructed brick buildings along a main street in the late 1800s. The main street was surrounded by a grid-system of streets and avenues full of turn-of-the-century homes. This town, built around a centralized grid system, is similar to the plan found in both the inner city of most urban centers and in small towns in the rural context. The town, and Calvary Lutheran within it, maintained an autonomous, centralized, thriving socio-economic eco-system until the late 1950s.
I have taken the time to frame the specific location of each congregation because, the particularity of this team is important for the knowledge we constructed as a result of our shared research. Now, however, it may serve us well to take the specific locations of these three congregations and bring them into conversation with some meta-theory regarding the suburban ELCA context.
We must, at this point, restate an important reality regarding the suburban context. There is no such thing as The Suburbs. The brief description of these three suburbs should be ample evidence to note their unique qualities. However, there are some unifying factors that are characteristic of these three suburbs that resonate with the literature regarding suburban studies.
The RT was a unique combination of stories that gathered in a particular frame of time and constructed a particular set of knowledge. However, the two dominant stories that brought this team together were those of the B/D suburb and the ELCA congregation existing within it. The generalized description of congregations similar to those of RT may read as follows:
The suburban ELCA congregation consists of older, ethnically oriented (Scandinavian) members mixed with younger, transient, middle-class families who have a vague cultural memory of religious commodities such as Sunday School and confirmation. It is connected to a hierarchical power structure of which it is the lowest of three rungs. It is situated in a brick-and-mortar building that was first established to house the religious commodities needed for the Lutheran constituents within the sprawling suburban region. The members travel a number of miles, past other, closer church buildings, from multiple residential communities to gather in the building for liturgical practices that are in keeping with the traditional Lutheran patterns of the proper administration of Word and Sacrament. In the suburban culture of increasing dislocation, the commodification of self, consumerism, and the hectic lifestyle of auto-mobility, social-networking, and self-indulgent consumer based entertainment, the local congregation is just one small commodity on a vast smorgasbord of viable options for the American consumer of religious goods and/or recreational, self-gratifying activities. The leader who seeks to structure missional spaces in ELCA suburban congregations must be aware of these dynamics and seek ways to fully embrace the paradoxical nature of Lutheran theology and help the ELCA creatively adapt to the ever-changing suburban environment.