Tag Archives: suburbia

The Suburban Frame | A Summary

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.[1] 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.


[1] The ELCA claims that it is not a top-down bureaucracy, but is, rather, an interdependent partnership of three expressions of the church—the churchwide organization, the synod, and the local congregation. The reality is that, in the American culture which is dominated by neo-Weberian bureaucratic structures, it is difficult to function in any way other than a top-down command and control system.


The three congregations represented in the RT are unique, but they are also similar in that they are members of the ELCA. Let us now turn our attention to the ELCA and explore how the ELCA context both contributes to and hinders the communicative space created in the DITB project and projected for the future of the missional church. One of the greatest dangers that the church faces in the twenty-first century is the increasing polarization between various factions along various ideological lines and the violence that often accompanies the disagreements between them. I have already noted, in the previous section, that the pedagogical shift toward communicative action is necessary for a missional imagination for spiritual formation in the local congregation that will find a third way between these dichotomies. I will further argue in the next section that the move toward a postfoundational theology will help the church hold the tension between these extremes and find a third way that leads to the peace of God in the world. Here, I will argue that the ELCA is well positioned to embrace the paradoxical tension held in the communicative space between polar extremes.

The ELCA is well situated to handle these paradoxical tensions because the ELCA is a paradox that dwells in paradox. It is, on the one hand, ideally situated to offer a holding space for the type of communicative, missional imagination that I am arguing in this paper. It is also, on the other hand, significantly hindered in its ability to be that holding space. Let us explore the two sides of this paradox.

On the one hand, the ELCA is well suited to hold paradoxical tensions and communicative space for the missional church. This is true in three ways. First, the ELCA is a political paradox. It is a merger of formerly disparate Lutheran traditions, thus its DNA holds these differences in living tension. The ELCA was officially formed in 1988 by the merger of three Lutheran churches: LCA, ALC, and AELC. Each of those churches was the result of similar mergers in the 1960s. Calvary and Bethlehem experienced both waves of merger, and carry within their DNA the various pre-merger identities. Ascension was born from the LCA and experienced the merger of the ELCA and carries within it those various pre-merger and pre-church plant identities.

Second, Lutheran theology is essentially paradoxical, in that part of its DNA is to hold theological dichotomies in tension; e.g. sinner and saint; the God who is hidden and revealed; the Kingdom on the right and the Kingdom on the left; to name just a few. Lutheran theology does not try to prove a definitive “right” answer that disproves the “wrong” answer. Rather, it acknowledges the mystery of the Triune God and seeks to hold these alleged dichotomies in living tension. That is one of the main reasons why I have been drawn to this tribe and why I have framed the DITB research project in the ELCA context. This is also why I will draw heavily from Keifert and Simpson when I discuss the theological frames in the next chapter, since they, as Lutheran theologians, seek to navigate these tensions. Lutheran theology, I believe, is wonderfully situated to be a holding space for people to encounter the Triune God in communicative action in the context of the local congregation.

Third, the ELCA is well situated to hold the communicative space for the missional church because it has a stated vision to be missional. I make this claim based upon the language of the ELCA constitution. Article 4.01 states, “The Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.”  Article 4.02 states that to “participate in God’s mission, the church shall…carry out Christ’s Great Commission by reaching out to all people to bring them to faith in Christ and by doing all ministry with a global awareness consistent with the understanding of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all…working for peace and reconciliation among the nations, and standing with the poor and powerless and committing itself to their needs…to see daily life as the primary setting for the exercise of their Christian calling, and to use the gifts of the Spirit for their life together and for their calling in the world.”[1]

However, the ELCA, on the other side, has some inherent elements of its DNA that can sometimes inhibit the freedom needed to structure communicative spaces. Three theological issues challenge the ELCA congregation and hinder its ability to move more fully into the missional imagination. They are: ecclesial identity, the sacraments, and polity.

The first theological challenge is that of ecclesial identity. Lutheranism was born under Christendom in Europe. The church was the center of society in that world. Everyone born within the political realm, of which the local church was the center, was considered Christian and a member of the parish. The ecclesial identity of the parish church is what immigrated to the United States. This worked in the first and second generations of immigrants since they tended to live near each other and established the church in the center of their dwellings. The parish mentality dominated the United States during one hundred fifty years of its existence, thus creating a churched culture. If people wanted to commune with God, they went to church. The trajectory of this identity is still very evident in the suburban context of the RT. There is a great deal of pressure put on parents by the grandparents to get their children baptized and confirmed. This traditionalism is incongruent with the increasing pluralism of the suburbs and creates great tension among the generations.

The second theological issue is that of the sacrament. Lutheran sacramental theology lays a strong emphasis on the belief that the real presence of the risen Christ is in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine.  It also closely associates the presence of the Holy Spirit with the Word as it is proclaimed and with the water of baptism. This theology is beautiful and can have some important missional implications. However, it also raises two notable hazards. First, there is a tendency, for the Lutheran, to have a God-in-the-box theology. God is contained within the sacraments and the liturgy. If a human wishes to commune with God she must enter the church and participate in the liturgical structures in order to do so. The RT faced this issue as it explored the role of the Holy Spirit in the social Trinity as it stood in relation to the traditional Lutheran theology. The second hazard has to do with the administration of Word and Sacrament and leads into the third issue.

The third theological issue is that of polity. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession defines the church as “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”[2] It goes on in Articles XIV and XV to speak of good order regarding ecclesiastical usages and restricts the administration of the sacraments to those who have been called by the church. The ambiguity of the term good order, combined with the historical tradition of hierarchical power structures within certain episcopal-structured branches of the Lutheran tradition, has created a bureaucratic power structure within the national-synodical structure of the ELCA. The RT experienced this tension as it asked the questions of power and authority in the local congregation.


[1] ELCA, “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,”  (2011).

[2] Philip Melancthon, The Augsburg Confession, ed. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), .pdf. (accessed November 3, 2011). (italics mine)

The Suburbs

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.

All three suburbs fall predominantly within the bedroom-developing (B/D) classification. The typical B/D suburbanite (again, if that is fair to say) is a member of a middle-class family where both parents (many of whom are divorced and now living in two-house, shared family scenarios) work and the children are involved in multiple school and civic activities. They strive to gain a sense of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and the bourgeois ideal.[1] They spend a great deal of time driving between work, school, and social activities.[2] They have access to cable television and streaming Internet. Most members of the household have a personal digital device of some sort and often resort to texting as the preferred mode of communication.[3]

The dominant vision of the B/D suburb is: ownership of a detached single-family house; automobile ownership; low-rise workplaces; small communities with strong local governments; environment free from signs of poverty.[4] The modern dogma of fact/value, public/private dichotomy is the dominant vision. The local church is, if thought of at all, one component of the fragmented private world. Living a good life and keeping the family safe is the highest priority. The sociological factors that drive the B/D vision are radical individualism, self-sufficiency, autonomy, personal liberty and freedom, consumerism, and the commodification of goods, services, and people.[5] The research will reveal how the research team members: (a) recognized these factors within themselves, and (b) allowed the social Trinity to invite them into a new imagination.


[1] Fishman argues that the country estate in near proximity to the city has been a symbol of status  that was once only available to the nobility. The rising bourgeois class aspired to acquire such garden spots just outside the city since the late middle ages. Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987).

[2] This is a significant result of the automobile and zoning issues. Families live so far away from school, places of worship, and entertainment, that it is unrealistic for children to walk to most places. This forces the children to either rely on an adult to drive them to every place they need to go, or sit at home and seek self-entertainment. The fact that children travel great distances from many directions to attend school and/or church diminishes the likelihood that school and/or church friends will live within walking distance. These physical limitations have fostered the radical individualism and isolation experienced by many suburban youth.

[3] The ubiquitous nature of digital technology will become a matter of discussion for the RT. One of the pertinent issues is whether digital technology helps to bridge the isolation gap or enhance the sense of disconnection among suburbanites.

[4] Allan D. Wallis, “Filling the Governance Gap,” National Civic Review 87, no. 1 (1998): 103.

[5] The suburban lifestyle is a picture of the buffered self that Taylor describes. The drive for radical individual freedom and space is what drives most suburban communities. Garreau discusses how these values have formed Edge Cities that have redefined the meaning of community based upon these individualistic and utilitarian values. Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

The Story of Three Congregations

Calvary Lutheran Church

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.

The large urban center, thirty miles to the southeast, expanded during the 1940s and 50s, and the expansion engulfed the county seat, and Calvary Lutheran, by the mid 1960s. Large housing developments sprung up around the downtown area and the population increased exponentially each year. Two significant things happened to Calvary Lutheran during the late 1960s. First, it became part of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), thus setting it on a trajectory to become part of the ELCA in the 1980s. Second, the bishop asked the church to plant a new church in the next township to the north. That congregation was Ascension Lutheran, the third congregation involved in the RT.

Calvary Lutheran, and its host town, have experienced great cultural shifts over the past forty years. The urban sprawl brought prosperity to the town in the 1970s and 1980s, but the sprawl continued to expand in the 1990s and the race for larger lots and larger homes moved the upwardly-mobile population further away from the town and the church. This most recent outward expansion brought a significant demographic shift to the population. The city has both aged and become more ethnically diverse in the last fifteen years. The high school is now populated mostly by students from the next suburb over that has younger families, larger homes, and more money. Currently, the town is finding a resurgence in its vitality by capitalizing on its historic downtown and small town nostalgia.

Calvary has also experienced a recent history of dysfunction and scandal within its leadership. This has created uneasiness among its congregation and a decline in attendance among the younger families. Even with the decline, it is a large congregation with thousands of members and very traditional worship services.

I connected with Calvary through the associate pastor who was leading adult spiritual formation. She allowed me to visit various adult forums in order to present the research project. Many people seemed interested, but only four women committed to the project. Each of these women were long-time members of Calvary and had experienced the dramatic cultural shifts in the congregation and the town that I have described.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Bethlehem Lutheran Church was established by the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in the township directly east of Calvary Lutheran in the 1940s. The original township formed around the construction of a dam that was contracted by the federal government in the late 1800s. A small, temporary village was constructed to house the construction workers. A clay brick factory was also established on this location at the same time. Neither industry was large enough to establish a permanent downtown like the county seat, yet enough people remained in the area following the completion of the dam to establish a township. There is also a lake in this town that became a popular cabin community to which the central city dwellers would travel during the 1940s and 1950s. The post-World War II urban sprawl engulfed this township in the early 1960s and continued to expand in various waves up through the 1990s.

This city provides an interesting historical timeline of architecture that runs south to north. The southern neighborhoods contain homes built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and would now be considered high-density, at-risk neighborhoods.[1] At the northern end of the city the neighborhoods were built during the housing boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s and are considered middle-class, bedroom-developing neighborhoods. The neighborhoods between these extremes span the decades and the socio-economic strata between them. There is also a strip of large homes and the upper middle-class and wealthy population along the river that runs along the city’s western border. This city also exemplifies the decentralized urban sprawl in which the zoning laws have separated housing, shopping, education, and industry into disparate areas, thus requiring automobile transportation for its citizens to utilize these services.[2]

Bethlehem Lutheran is situated one-quarter mile from the city high school and middle school and directly across the street from the dominant Roman Catholic Church in the area. During the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, a majority of people in this city identified with either Bethlehem Lutheran or the Catholic Church as their place of worship. These churches provided the religious services and were the center of the religious institution for thousands of families in this town. Many families in this city migrated to the emerging suburb directly north of Bethlehem, but maintained their membership and participation at Bethlehem. While the host city has experienced a significant demographic shift over the past fifteen years, the Bethlehem congregation has not.

I connected with Bethlehem through the associate pastor that led the Children, Youth, and Family ministry, as well as the pastoral care ministries. He advertised the DITB project in various church communications, allowed me to make a presentation to a men’s group, and personally invited specific people to join the RT. Four men joined the team from Bethlehem. Each of them were over the age of 50, had children and/or grandchildren, and had been long-time members of Bethlehem. They had seen much change in the area and in the congregation.

Ascension Lutheran Church

Ascension Lutheran Church has an interesting location and relationship to its host city, the other congregations, and the DITB project. I mentioned earlier that Calvary Lutheran planted Ascension in the late 1960s. The town in which it was planted had, at that time, a different name, a population of eight hundred people, and consisted mostly of farms, sandpits, and trash dumps. The city has since changed its name and has vastly expanded in the last twenty years. Its growth has spread north and east of Ascension’s location. The city is now comprised of mostly single-family residences and has a population of over 40,000 predominantly white, middle to upper-middle class people. Unlike Calvary and Bethlehem Lutheran, Ascension is not located in the center of its host city’s political and social activity. Instead, Ascension sits on the extreme southwestern corner of its host city at a major intersection on the corner of four cities. The intersection has a traffic flow of 40,000 cars per day. This location allows the congregation to be accessible to a population that needs its food pantry services, day care, and the various civic groups that use its physical space. However, the congregation also owns land closer to the heart of the city and has wrestled over whether it should relocate to this land, plant a new multi-site location there, or stay where it is. Ascension continually asks how it can be truly missional in its space when the relatively short physical distance of the new location would be a quantum leap in social location. Is the congregation called to minister to the homogenous population of the host city, or is it called to stay on the more diverse crossroads?

Ascension is not only uniquely related to the host city and the other congregations, it also has a unique relationship to the DITB research project. It is the congregation in which I serve as pastor of spiritual formation. Therefore, it makes sense that ten members of the RT are from Ascension. These members had a history with me as a pastor and teacher for the four years preceding the research project. My journey from the conservative evangelical world, through the emerging church movement, and into the ELCA is one that has colored my teaching at Ascension. The RT members have journeyed with me as I transitioned into the ELCA. We have been asking the missional questions as a congregation for a while. Much of the conversation in the research project is a continuation of our shared journey. This familiarity created both awkwardness and a unique opportunity for the RT to welcome the stranger as we connected with the four members from Calvary and the four members from Bethlehem.

All of these stories—both those of the individual team members and of the three congregations—came together to form the Deep in the Burbs Research Team. Our combined stories and the interactions between team members constructed a new framework in which each team member was able to address the research question from a new perspective. This experience of our shared stories has changed each of us and, thus will change the DNA of Calvary, Bethlehem, and Ascension Lutheran.


[1] Myron Orfield identifies six distinct types of suburban communities: at-risk segregated, at-risk older, at-risk low density, bedroom-developing, affluent job centers, and very affluent job centers.  These six types represent one of the greatest challenges of suburbia: the socio-economic stratification of the suburban population. Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Cambridge, MA: Brookings Institution Press; Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1997), 31-48.

[2] See Craig Van Gelder, “Effects of Auto-Mobility on Church Life and Culture,” Word & World 28, no. 3 (2008).