Shifting from rural to suburban church


As I look at my office window at Liberty Barn Church, there’s a cemetery that dates back to the church’s founding in 1810. Several Civil War veterans are buried there on the banks of the Olentangy River. There are times when I look out my office window and the distance between 1810 and 2024 seems pretty small.

But times have changed. Just beyond our cemetery, where an open field used to inspire imagination, now sit nearly a hundred nine-figure homes. And just beyond that now sits the third-largest home in Delaware County …if you can even call it a home. And what used to be a 10-second walk from the cemetery to the river has now been replaced with a state route where hundreds of semi-trucks each day rattle the graves of those from simpler times.

The church I serve has famously held outdoor worship services each summer for decades along that same stretch of state Route 315, only now having to reconsider if the burgeoning traffic is now turning our worshipful space into a commercial cacophony. Even the Amazon trucks find their way into our live-streams on Sundays as blue-shirted delivery workers walk past hundreds of worshippers to drop off whatever lightbulbs we ordered last week. Have things gone too far?

In the transition from a rural to a suburban church, the changes are deeper than just traffic and housing. Tastes and expectations change, too. While Folgers coffee might have been good enough before, in today’s culture the beans need to be purchased from a mission partner in Central America and roasted yourself to satisfy the demands of those accustomed to Starbucks Pike Place. In a rural church, a gravel parking lot seems modern technology. In a suburban church, the parking lot better be paved so as not to scuff designer shoes on the walk from Tesla to pew.

So how does a church (or a society for that matter) shift from rural to suburban in a way where the benefits are maximized and the negative effects are mitigated?

First, embrace the new people who come. Here’s a true confession: all pastors love population density. A church is merely the collection of people with a common commitment to follow Jesus … and the more people the better! Rather than lamenting houses replacing an open field, a new field has opened across the street, viz., people who God wants us to love. If demographics are destiny, then it’s better to flow with the river than fight against it.

Second, the switch from rural to suburban forces a church to name and claim its core identity. As things shift and change — and trust me things will — a healthy church must wrestle with determining what may change, what should change, and what must not change. Unhealthy communities either lump too many things in the “must not” category and brim with resentment and hate, or they uncritically place too many things in the “may change” category and risk losing their identity all together. This is the hard work of discernment that all churches must do.

Here at Liberty, farmers may no longer use our “grange” hall that was built nearly two centuries ago, but it is still serving its purpose by holding Bible studies, community leader meetings, Financial Peace classes, etc. The core identity was never farming … it was gathering to share life and grow together. Our identity is deeper than circumstance and our purpose timeless, so we adapt to changing times without losing who we are.

Third, and most importantly, as we transition from a rural to suburban church we recognize that the church throughout history has never been static … but it persists nonetheless. This is counterintuitive: one would think that there were would be ideal conditions under which the Gospel would flourish and that once those “conditions” are discovered they would be replicated indefinitely. Instead, one can find flourishing churches in urban Seoul, Korea, rural Kenya, and even suburban Ohio.

God is the God of all times, all places, and all types of communities. God was with Paul in metropolis of ancient Athens, and with John the Baptist in the deserted desert. As we transition from rural to suburban, we are expecting God to be more at work than ever in shaping the lives of those who call this place home.

Rev. Dr. Chris Atwood is the senior pastor at Liberty Barn Church in Delaware.

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