Understanding Your Context: The Truth About The Urban, Suburban, & Rural Poor

I’m a part of a church who has a heart for the poor. We also have a heart for our city. From the beginning, our strategy has been to connect the dots between social action and Gospel, knowing that somehow, together we become good news, as we seek to walk in the ways of Jesus.

While many church plants “target” a specific demographic for their outreach, we started with less of a target, and more of an affinity; to serve the poor. What we found is that this concern stretches beyond socio-economic, racial, political, and even faith boundaries. Thus, we’ve served shoulder to shoulder with non-christians, skeptics, athiests, and believers alike.

Because of this, and because of the location of our gathering, ANC has become a church of THREE distinct demographics (give or take): 1/3 urban. 1/3 suburban. And 1/3 semi-rural. Each committed to gospel community. Each committed to serving the least. And each deeply committed to worship and Word. At our gatherings you’ll see Tom’s shoes, cowboy boots, and flipflops. We’ve got tattoo’s and skinny jeans mixed with polo shirts and khaki shorts. We’ve got shaved heads, gray heads, and feaux-hawks. Honestly, it’s been pretty cool.

Since we’re a missional church, we’ve always had the heart to empower and release our people for ministry in their context. We hope that as missionaries to our culture, that we equip people to serve where they live. As a Christian leader, this has opened my eyes to a number of things. One of which is our perceptions… or better yet, assumptions… about the poor, who they are, and where they live.

I’ve always thought the poor were mostly inner city. That’s where we started serving, mostly because it’s where the homeless community tend to populate. But, I’ve seen the high-rise condo’s being built in downtown Austin over the last 10 years, the one’s I could never afford to live in. And I’ve wondered how anyone who owned a house downtown could resist a multi-million dollar offer to level their lot. The truth is, most don’t. And the poor are moving out. They are literally being pushed to the fringes.

The more we serve, the more we learn to SEE need, the more intuitively we see it in our own context. We’ve noticed a growing trend at ANC, people wanting to serve and engaging need wherever they live. We have structured to encourage this. Because of this, we’re learning a lot. We’ve learned that the rural poor have always been there, that the suburban poor are growing, and that we’ve still got a lot to learn.

Although I’m aware of the common observable cultural shifts, I’ve remained pretty oblivious as to the depth of demographic impact by the gentrification of city-centers, and it’s impending influential waves. What I forgot to consider was the where, why, and how it impacts BEYOND the city-centers themselves.

Linda Bergquist, a New Church Starting Strategist in San Francisco and co-author of Church Turned Inside Out, wrote a recent post on the LifeWay Research Blog about the suburbanization of poverty. Here’s just a taste:

“The stereotypical suburban community is becoming extinct in the United States. Today, a million and a half more poor people live in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas than in the center cities. It would be easy to blame the change on the recession, or to ignore the facts by proclaiming that the recession will soon be over, but that would be negligent. By 2005, when the economy was prospering, there were already more poor people living in suburbs than in U.S. cities. In 1970, only 20.5% of America’s poor were suburbanites, and by 2000, the number increased to 35.9%. Between 2000 and 2008, the poor population in the suburbs of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas grew by 25%, almost five times faster than in the cities they surround. At the same time, the suburbs are also becoming much more ethnically diverse.

Why the change? Here are a few theories:

a. Employment decentralization. Major employers in every sector have moved their bases of operation to the suburbs. Population sprawl followed job sprawl.

b. Immigration. Some new immigrants now select suburbs as their primary points of entry into the country because the jobs for which they are most qualified exist in suburbs rather than in city centers.

c. Gentrification. The status of status is changing, and the upper middle class is choosing high-rise city living over suburbia. There is a values shift from ownership (automobiles, large homes) to accessibility (public transportation, proximity to work, arts). As cities become more attractive to them, housing costs rise, thrusting the poor down into the streets and out into the suburbs.

d. Perceived cost of living. Sometimes poor people move to suburbs because it seems more affordable. However, while housing costs are less, there are hidden expenses, such as car ownership and less access to human services.

e. High unemployment rates. Certainly the recession economy is a factor. It has not brought the poor to the suburbs, but it is the reason why many middle class people are suddenly poor and in need of assistance.

The most challenging aspect of poverty’s suburbanization is that it has caught social sectors by surprise. Governments, nonprofits, schools, healthcare systems and churches lack the infrastructures to help the way they do in the cities. Funding agencies are prepared to help the “urban poor” but have no mental category for the suburban poor. Money and volunteers flow inward to the city cores. Many nonprofits have lost the grants they need to provide wages for employees, yet have long lists of newly poor who need their services. Suburban schools are also unprepared for new kinds of students who enter the system from non-English speaking or reading impoverished backgrounds. Health care providers are serving new constituencies that lack insurance. Likewise, some suburban churches are facing membership declines and their congregations can no longer help fund programs. They seek causes, but are often unaware of shifts in their communities.

In the face of radical change, it would be humanly understandable for suburban Christians to assume a defensive posture. However, for such a time as this, the church is being called to a proactively biblical, missional and ethical response. To begin with, most Christians are aware of God’s commands to care for the poor (e.g. Proverbs 17:5, 21:13, 28: 27; Ezekiel 16:49; Mt 19:21, 25: 31ff), but in the suburbs poverty is less dense and therefore less visible. God not only demands giving to hoards of visible poor, but to any one with need “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother…therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land (Deuteronomy 15:7, 11).”

As we discuss poverty, I can’t help but recall the teachings of Mother Teresa and her belief that there are three types of poverty in every community; spiritual, emotional, and physical.

Thinking this way will help us connect the dots between engaging need and Gospel. But it also exposes another part of this discussion.

My friend Vernon Berger, founder of His Voice Global, wrote a blog after watching a re-run of “The Wonder Years”. I thought it interestingly insightful. It reminds us that while physical poverty is increasing, there’s always been need in the suburbs. Here’s a quote from the close of the episode where Winnie just found out her brother died in Vietnam…

“When some “Blow Hard” talks about the anonymity of the suburbs, the mindlessness of the “T.V. generation,” we knew that inside each one of those identical boxes with its Dodge parked out front, and its white bread on the table, and its glowing TV…there were people with stories. There were people bound together in the pain and struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter. There were moments of sorrow and wonder.”

Here are some takeaways Vernon offers from the quote:

1. There are real hurts in the urban, suburban, and rural. None of them is “more strategic”.

2. If you live in the suburbs and minister in the suburbs, be encouraged, but don’t be lulled to sleep.

3. If you live in a rural context, yet think it’s some type of “second class” deal compared to the ‘burbs or an urban context, please stop that also. The rural context has just as much pain as the other two. Let’s not fool ourselves. Also, the rural has just as much victory!

Pain is everywhere. Victory is a foregone conclusion for those who are in Christ. Therefore, let’s just be people who want to faithfully see the Gospel of The Kingdom proclaimed everywhere no matter what the cost.