Novelist Alexander McCall Smith is onto something when it comes to the suburbs. With tongue firmly thrust into cheek, he writes: 'Do you realise that people die of boredom in the London suburbs? It's the biggest cause of death amongst the English in general.'
Well, I'm not sure that the suburbs are that bad, but they can sometimes be a bit quiet, shall we say. I grew up in a suburb – Northolt, at the far west of London. Looking back, the abiding memory is of always thinking that the interesting stuff was happening elsewhere.
I am now a minister not far from where I grew up and I've changed my mind about suburbs and their potential. Where I used to think them anodyne, I now see them as highly fruitful places to do Christian ministry.
My booklet Leading a Suburban Church published by Grove books paints the full picture. But the subtitle of the book gives the gist – Good News from the Edge of Things. The more I spoke to people involved in suburban ministry the more I saw a pattern of thought.
Suburbs may look colourless, but their very vanilla quality is an opportunity to add colour and create flexible, inventive and fresh ministries. Indeed, the task of livening up suburbs is happening everywhere we look – local entrepreneurs, businesses, interest groups, artists and the like are already doing their best to create new things that help people to tackle the sense of isolation that can be part of the suburban stamp.
What we found at our church was a major opportunity to both create a new sense of community and to put our churches at the heart of what's happening. We have major advantages. We often have the only 'public' building around. We can throw open our doors to local groups and residents – and perhaps we can even let our hall out without charging much to get things started. We can put on events and have fun. We can start our own social gospel offerings – like a memory café.
As we start this adventure we begin to see our local community realising that we are here and coming into our church. This kind of flexibility may not always be there for other churches that have specific roles expected of them – town-centre churches, churches in a particular tradition.
The vast majority of churches in the UK are in the suburbs – even if they don't see themselves as suburban church. My working definition of a suburban church is as much psychological as geographical. A suburban church is in a place that feels on the edge of things. But feeling on the edge may just be the great advantage that we have.
Justin Currie from Scottish rockers Del Amitri lamented of the suburban experience 'nothing happens at all'. In this he might just be wrong.
Click here to order' Leading a Suburban Church'.
Rev Steve Morris is the parish priest of St Cuthbert's North Wembley. Before being a priest he was a writer and ran a brand agency. In the 1980s he tried to become a pop star. Follow him on Twitter @SteveMorris214