A long, long time ago, I moved to Burbania with my wife and (back then) two children. I had--with the exception of a 9 month internship in Grosse Pointe, Michigan--never lived in the 'burbs. I am a country boy and have inhabited a number of small towns in Maine both growing up and as an adult. When I wasn't part of the rural landscape (like parts of college and grad school), I lived in cities (Montreal, Chicago). I was, therefore, a bit unprepared for the basic social dynamics that come with settling in to this kind of place.
You see, our arrival had clearly created something of a ripple in the social fabric. I don't think this has anything existentially to do with us. I believe every new arrival in these parts creates ripples. Everyone, it seemed, was trying to figure out what to do with us both as individuals and as small, tightly knit social groups.
Things sorted themselves out, of course, but there was this confusing phase. We would be invited to an event at one person's house...and then not invited to another event at another house that had the same people attending. Our kids would get to go to certain childrens' birthday parties...but not others. Book Clubs were like that, too. Really, anything one might describe as a "club" was. Sports teams--ostensibly randomly assigned--would end up with all my sons' friends on the same one...and my son on another. I spent hours on the sidelines essentially by myself, or talking to another person who was essentially by him/herself. They, too, were usually new to town.
Like I said, things worked out, rather painlessly. Both my wife and I have jobs. Some of my closest colleagues and their families live in the area. The fact is, we have a broad range of affiliations and friendships. We also have each other, which is the very best thing. Also, I now know to bring a book to youth sporting events. My kids, too, have found places for themselves and seem to be fine. That said, in the midst of all the confusion around "finding a place", I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, this is just like middle school". Knowing this is good. After all, anyone who has actually been to real middle school should have low expectations for the adult version.
In the very small towns you hang out with whomever there is to hang out with. There aren't enough people to be picky. In the city there is so much to do, why would you want to limit yourself to one group? Middle and high school (and college for some) seemed to me to be where you get to worry about who is "in" and "out". That is when you gossip and have comically serious conversations about who to exclude (or include). That is where the social standing of your friends (and spouse) still matters. Then we grow up and move on...right?
Turns out, in Burbania there is still a strong streak of tribalism and "clubiness" that I don't understand. I am including a link below to an article from Boston Magazine that examines one--rather extreme--slice of the suburban social scene. I think it is a worthwhile read for everyone. The reason that it rises to the level of brief blog post, however, is that if you read the article looking for "institutions of exclusion" (my term) that help to define these small social groups, one of the ones you will find is the church. It is a heartbreaking story, actually.
The fact is, the church must work hard to keep itself off this list. It is easy for a congregation to end up becoming--or appearing to become--an exclusive social club. This is a bad thing.
Sure! People are allowed to hang out with who they want. However, a church, regardless of its size or theology, is there to serve the broader community. It must be open to as many people as possible. The liberal church--at least in theory--throws its doors and arms wide open to create a diverse and loving community. It should not be reduced to being defined as "the place where those people go" unless those people are then defined as "open, welcoming, spiritual, accepting, and loving".
Anyway, here is the article. If it appears to be about folks aspiring to be rich socialites, that's because it is. It isn't really my experience and it may not be yours. However, in the socially stratified world we Burbanians get to move in, many of the same principles still hold. People shouldn't be reduced to burying their noses in a book and hoping no one notices how alone they look. Pastors and other church leaders need to remind themselves of this. Every. Single. Day.