The longstanding pattern of suburban churches assisting innercity ministries is starting to reverse.

"Historically, folks have driven into the inner city and done volunteer work, but now the poor are increasingly coming their direction," said Bob Lupton, president of Atlanta-based FCS Urban Ministries. "Suburban churches are looking to those with experience in urban ministry to help them develop appropriate responses."

Gentrification is pushing more and more of America's poor from inner cities to the suburbs. Last year the number of poor in major-metro suburbs increased by 53 percent, but only by 23 percent in major-metro cities, according to the 2010 census. Suburbs now house one-third of the nation's poor.

"It's changing the landscape of those suburban communities," said Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). "Their neighborhoods are now becoming impacted by poverty in a way that they never were before."

One challenge is suburbs often lack the social services that facilitate low-income life in cities, said Wayne Gordon, lead pastor of Lawndale Community Church, whose neighborhood was once ranked the nation's 15th poorest. "We've got mass transportation," he said. "[But] if you don't have a car and you live in Ford Heights [a poor suburb], you are really going to struggle."

Another challenge is not repeating the same mistakes urban ministries have learned to avoid. "Unfortunately, many suburban churches who become engaged with the needy are creating one-way charity programs that produce dependency," said Lupton. "Programs that experienced urban ministries have abandoned as more hurtful than helpful."

Increasingly, suburban ministries are joining city-focused organizations such as the CCDA for help. One example is Mosaic, a Chicago church network whose suburban DuPage County experienced a 149 percent increase in its poor population from 1990 to 2008.

One of Mosaic's biggest challenges is changing local church perceptions of poverty. Despite the influx of poor, the county is still one of Illinois's most affluent.

"No longer do you actually have to go into the city to do missions, or even overseas, but right here locally within your own backyard," said Jonathan Kindberg, Mosaic's network facilitator. "[Churches] still operate under the mindset that it's a wealthy area, and so there's not really much need to work with the poor because there aren't any poor."

"What we were doing in Lawndale 35 years ago, we need people to do today [in the suburbs]," said Gordon. "It's going to be even harder because you don't have some of the same systems in place that we have in a big city."

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier this year, Christianity Today looked at ministry to the  rural poor.

Previous Christianity Today articles on urban and suburban ministries include:

Urban Urgency | Missionaries follow migration to city centers. (August 16, 2010)
Black Flight | African American churches leave the inner city for the suburbs. (December 30, 2008)
Grandpa John | A new generation of urban activists is shaped by John Perkins. (March 9, 2007)
Inner City Renaissance: Helping the Poor Help Themselves | As economic development initiatives sweep the country, some evangelical churches are showing the way. (February 3, 1997)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.