The November/December issue of YouthWorker Journal has an interview with me and another author about "Seeking God in the Suburbs," with implications for doing youth ministry in suburbia. Here are excerpts from my material:
YWJ: What motivated both of you to explore this topic?
Al: I’m a lifelong suburbanite. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, not far from the country’s first indoor shopping mall, and I now live in the Chicago suburbs. Some years ago, when interacting with friends from rural and urban contexts, I began to see the different ways that suburbia had shaped me, for good and for bad - ways that I didn’t even notice because it was so much the air I breathed. I was grateful for the opportunities of suburbia but was chagrined about the sense of privilege and entitlement I often found in myself. So I wanted to understand suburbia on its own terms. The better we understand how suburbia affects us, the better we’ll be able to affect suburbia for God’s kingdom purposes.
YWJ: How did your approaches differ? Or maybe better: What do each of you like or disagree about concerning the other author's book?
Al: Dave and I both say that Christians shouldn’t flee the suburbs, that we can find authentic Christian spiritual life here. We both emphasize the fact that Christians should live intentionally and Christianly in suburbia. Suburbia needs Christians, and I’m encouraged that there are more of us addressing the topic these days.
This is an oversimplification, but Dave has focused on the psychology of suburbia, while I’m particularly interested in the history, geography and sociology of suburbia. He’s done a lot of thinking about how suburban people get caught up in issues of status and comparison and the like. A lot of my research has been about the structural and socio-cultural forces, like physical land-use patterns or consumer branding, and their practical implications for our community and church life.
YWJ: Do you feel that suburbia holds more benefits for the spiritual lives of today's Christians, or more dangers?
Al: I’d say that suburbia is both a threat and an opportunity for the spiritual lives of suburban Christians. The fact that suburbia is a land of abundance cuts both ways. Suburban Christians have more access to material and spiritual resources, but we've become numbed to physical and spiritual needs both at home and around the world. There’s so much potential for suburban Christians to do remarkable, countercultural things with our affluence and influence, but there’s also the spiritual danger that we’ll just turn inward and build our own empires rather than seek the welfare of others.
The challenge we face is how to wield our resources strategically to advance Christian mission, champion the poor and the marginalized and advocate for justice and peace.
YWJ: How do the cultural values of suburbia impact youth ministry?
Al: First, suburbia tends to be a commuter culture. So suburban youth groups can easily have teens from eighteen different high schools, meaning that no one local high school has a critical mass of youth group members. And many youth workers are frazzled, commuting between a dozen schools to keep up with their students’ activities. This might be beyond the youth worker’s control, but churches could recover a local parish mindset and aim to have members concentrate as much as possible in immediate local neighborhoods and schools.
Second, suburbia tends to be a busy culture. Some youth groups feed the frenzy by constantly scheduling more and more events for their teens. But many teens are so overscheduled that the last thing they need is more activities. So I applaud the contemplative youth ministry movement and folks like Mark Yaconelli and Mike King’s Presence-Centered Youth Ministry, where youth group is a quiet space for solitude and silence.
Third, suburbia tends to be a consumer culture – suburbia is almost always a place of consumption rather than that of production. So a Christian alternative would be for youth workers to find ways to cultivate spiritual disciplines of creativity, simplicity and generosity. One Christian high school of 575 teens chose to give up Starbucks coffee, pizzas and prom dresses in order to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. Over the course of a couple of years, they gave several hundred thousand dollars of their own money to build a medical clinic and provide medicine and health care materials to a village. They had caught the vision of giving up some of their consumer nonessentials on behalf of others who were in far more desperate need.
YWJ: What are the main differences between those kids who grow up in suburbia and attend suburban youth programs and those kids who don't?
Al: Maybe the safest thing to say is that suburbia can amplify and intensify some aspects found in American society at large – if America tends to be individualistic, suburbia can be all the more individualistic. All of American culture is materialistic and consumeristic, and that’s hyper-accelerated in suburbia.
YWJ: What can you say about how suburban kids define the good life?
Al: To oversimplify things, suburbia tends to be a material world. So suburbanites tend to define the good life in material terms, with all the requisite brand-name markers of clothing, possessions, technology and the like. Or we define the good life as the achieving life, or the popular life, or the busy life.
Youthworkers can challenge these suburban visions first by simply naming them and exposing them for what they are. And then they can hold up, live out and embody Christian alternatives: for example, the truly good life is a generous life that gives away rather than acquires for one’s self. The truly good life is a contemplative life that is reflective and not just active or busy, or a life of service that is focused on ministry to others.