Friday, May 25, 2007

Book discussion chapter 4: Consumer culture vs. Christian creativity

I'm about to leave for a week, but before I go, let me note that L.L. Barkat and Charity Singleton have blogged about chapter 4 of The Suburban Christian, on how suburban consumer culture works and what we Christians can do as alternatives. My main thesis here is that suburbia tends to be a commercial culture, that we are consumers, not producers. L.L. comments:
When this is our approach to life, we are engaged in "financial transactions rather than exchanges of mutual relationships." (p.77) Hsu discusses the consequent adverse effects, including a system which can more easily abuse workers across the globe. But it struck me that we also suffer in this setup.

We suffer a loss of connection, to people and the meaning of work. We suffer with a diminished sense of our own purpose. (Thus being highly attracted to books that offer a purpose-driven life.) We suffer from lack of volition and creativity.
Good thoughts, L.L. I suspect that all of us have a stronger sense of vocation, calling and purpose when we are engaged in the work of making culture rather than consuming culture, as Andy Crouch might put it. I think one of the ways that we can counter consumerism is by practicing the discipline of creativity. The opposite of consumption is production. L.L. says that it's the difference between going to a movie and making one's own. She models this by posting a great little pictorial slide show that her kids made. And here are Charity's reflections:
I remember my growing up places as being centers of production, allowing for both creativity and creation. We always had a large garden, and even when I was very young, my parents set aside a small space for me to grow some vegetables. (It wasn't until later in life that I appreciated the work involved with gardening, however!) The food we couldn't eat during the growing season was canned or frozen for winter, and must of the things we ate every day were prepared from their most basic ingredients. But more than that, most of my clothing was homemade; even some of our furniture was built by my dad or handed down from previous relatives who had constructed things with care. And I was given great latitude to create from paper and wood and string all the wonderful things children are wont to make.

This kind of lifestyle was one suggestion that Al shared in The Suburban Christian for countering the cultural influence of consumerism. Rather than being chiefly identified as consumers, we should try to become creators or producers in as many ways as we can. This not only takes us out of the consumer cycle, which always has a newer or better product for us to buy. It also helps us bear God's image to each other and the culture at large.

Of course we aren't all going to be able to raise chickens or spin wool, but we can exercise our creativity by creating and building things, even things we need. I have a small garden which will provide for some of my own food over the summer; I also try to make my own bread when possible. My mom makes all of her own greeting cards (like Al's wife, as he mentions in the book). And my dad has made several pieces of furniture for his own home and mine. I have friends who knit and crochet, making practical items for themselves and others. Another friend made all the window coverings in her home.

As Al says, "All of us have different ways that we express our creativity; all of us can be makers of one thing or another" (TSC, pg. 88).
Thanks again, Charity and L.L., for engaging with these ideas. In many ways, consumption is unavoidable for many of us suburban Christians, and we need to find ways of consuming more Christianly as well as ways of countering consumerism with creativity, simplicity and generosity. And as I've blogged previously, there is hope for us shifting from a consumer culture to a producer culture. What other kinds of creative, creational alternatives to consumption do you practice?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book review: Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

It seems like every year there's a particular book from the fields of social science, business or cultural analysis with a big concept that captures my imagination and makes me rethink things. A few years ago it was The Tipping Point; last year it was The Long Tail. I think this year it might be Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. If your work involves communicating ideas and hoping they stick, whether as an author or teacher or pastor or marketer or advertiser or parent or blogger, you need to read this book.

The basic concept is that certain ideas have a stickiness that stays with people, while others don't. Urban legends, like waking up in a bathtub full of ice and missing a kidney, or razor blades in Halloween candy, are sticky. Some commonly held sticky myths are that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from space (I believed this) or that you only use 10 percent of your brain. Other false sticky ideas that persist are the notions that the Chinese character for "crisis" also means "opportunity," or that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, as Nathan Bierma has debunked.

More important, non-sticky ideas can be made sticky. Here's an example. A typical bag of movie popcorn used to have 37 grams of saturated fat. A true fact, but rather abstract. Nobody knows what that means. So in 1992 a scientist called a press conference declaring that a medium bag of popcorn has more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries at lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings - combined! With all the visuals in front of the cameras, this press conference presented a sticky idea that made sense and changed the movie popcorn industry.

Another example: It's one thing to say that among business employees, only one in five are enthusiastic about their team's goals and that only 37 percent know their organization's goals. It's another thing to say, as Stephen Covey does, that if this were a soccer team, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they're supposed to play. That kind of concrete analogy makes the truth of the idea far more sticky.

The Heaths show and tell that to be sticky, ideas need to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and use stories. We see this in movie pitches: Speed is "Die Hard on a bus." 13 Going on 30 was Big for girls. I've used this kind of shorthand in my own presentations of book proposals: More Than Serving Tea is like a Christian Joy Luck Club. A forthcoming book, Conversations with C. S. Lewis, is like Tuesdays with Morrie except with C. S. Lewis.

Other cultural examples of sticky ideas: Jared, the guy who lost hundreds of pounds eating at Subway. "Don't Mess with Texas," which began as an anti-littering campaign and took on a life of its own about what it means to be Texan. JFK's goal to put a man on the moon. Churches can create sticky ideas; one example that the Heaths cite is Saddleback Sam and Samantha, which Saddleback Church has fleshed out as who they want to reach. Willow Creek likewise did the same with Unchurched Harry and Mary. Having concrete, sticky ideas of who they're ministering to helped these churches become what they are today. Fundraising appeals are more effective when personalized by stories of specific children or people who are being affected. As Mother Teresa put it, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

In my own writing and speaking, I realize that I tend to overdo the exposition and lack sticky illustrations and applications. At the retreat I spoke at last weekend, I talked about how witness in suburban contexts needs to be both contextualized and countercultural. Kind of abstract. But the illustration that got the most positive response was this one:
A church in Cincinnati gives free car washes. They have big banners in their parking lot - “Free car wash!” and another banner underneath - “No, really!” And people come by and look a little skeptical and ask them why they’re doing this, and they answer, “We’re showing God’s love in a practical way.” And they’ll wash the cars, and people will try to pay them, they think it’s a fundraiser, but they just refuse them nicely, tell them God loves them and send them on their way.

Now, one car came through and the driver asked them why they were doing this and they said, “We’re showing God’s love in a practical way, we’re washing cars for free.” And the driver thought for a second and said, “Oh, I get it. Back in Jesus’ day, they walked around, so he washed their feet. Today, we drive, so you wash cars.”

Washing feet makes no sense today. But washing cars fits the context of our commuter culture, and it’s also counterculturally Christian. And this illustration stuck with people because it was simple, concrete and practical, and it was a brief story that could be remembered.

Of course, a lot of this is nothing new - Jesus' parables were sticky precisely because they were simple, concrete, surprising, emotive stories that captured people's imaginations. But it's great to have modern-day examples of what this looks like in our culture. The Heaths live out their principles; the book is filled with dozens of concrete, practical stories and examples to show readers how ideas can be made sticky. They have great before-and-after exercises and illustrations to show how you go from "in a typical year, there are only 0.4 fatalities from shark attacks" to "Q: Which of these animals is more likely to kill you? A SHARK or A DEER? A: The deer is 300 times more likely to kill you (via a collision with your car)."

Made to Stick challenged me to rethink how I guide my authors' in their writing, how I write back cover copy, how we publicize and market those books. It should also have application for anybody involved in teaching or preaching. Basically, if you liked The Tipping Point, you'll love this book. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Book discussion chapter 3: Countering commuter culture

While I was out at the end of last week, I missed the fact that Charity Singleton and L. L. Barkat have posted their latest blog reflections discussing my book, specifically chapter 3 about suburban commuter culture. Charity is already living out many of the things I recommend. Here are some of her thoughts:
Having my home, church, work, shops, library, and coffee shop all within a five-mile radius is no accident, and most of my daily activity happens within an even smaller two-mile radius. Many of my closest friends also live within the larger radius, and most within a 15-minute drive. As Al Hsu, in The Suburban Christian, would say, I am living with a parish mind-set.

In chapter three of The Suburban Christian, Al discusses the role of the automobile in shaping the suburbs. As cars became more and more predominant, people could live further and further away from their jobs and churches. The suburbs just kept expanding. As the suburbs expanded, however, the people living in them spent more and more time in their car and less and less time with other people, especially their families.

My decision to keep myself and my daily activities all close together is much simpler for me as a single person who lives alone. . . . Long commutes between work, church, shopping and home don't just keep people away from their families. All this driving time means that people are exercising less and are generally less involved in civic and church activities. Al cites a stastistic that for every 10 minutes of daily commute, outside involvements are cut 10 percent.

Closely connected with these automotive issues are the ever-looming environmental concerns. All that time spent in traffic means more emissions, more wear and tear on roads and the vehicles themselves, more need to build new highways. Even in my little parish life in which most of my time is spent in a relatively small area, I still drive more than I would like. The part of the city I live in was not designed to encourage walking or bike riding.

. . . How does my relationship with Jesus come to bear on these issues of transportation? Several friends and I have been trying to carpool to social and church events. It saves on all of us driving, and it also gives us more time together in the car. Instead of driving to the park in the evenings, which takes 15 minutes because it's rush hour, I've started walking my dog in the neighborhood behind me. And more than anything, I'm realizing that driving and all its implications is an idol in my life -- or at the very least, an addiction.
At the Fire retreat this past weekend, after I talked about some of these commuting issues, several folks chatted with me afterward and pushed back a bit. Many folks in this group commute half an hour or more to church because the church is such a dynamic, awesome community that it's worth the drive to them, despite the commute time. I understand that, and obviously all of our circumstances vary and I can't make blanket one-size-fits-all suggestions for everyone. But I do challenge folks that if they're spending most of their time quite a distance away from their place of residence (especially if they're commuting a ways to reach their Christian community), to consider ways to either relocate closer to that community or to bring some of that community closer to home, whether getting together with a bunch of Christian friends to live intentionally in the same apartment complex or neighborhood or whatnot.

One fellow was a bit defensive, saying that his circumstances require him to have long days commuting various distances and places, but that because he's young and single he can manage it, and it actually enables him to minister and serve the community in ways that most other folks can't. So I affirmed him in his ministry and encouraged him to continue to serve his church and deploy his resources strategically, while at the same time giving a bit of a caution of living an extreme commuter lifestyle indefinitely. After all, there are stewardship issues involved (gas in Chicagoland is now at $3.64 a gallon!), and at some point being on the road all the time just becomes unsustainable. All of us have different thresholds of how much is too much, but in general, our lives are healthier when we do what we can to minimize our time commuting.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Being faithful, being missional

I just got back from speaking at a weekend retreat at a camp in New Hampshire with Fire, the young adults ministry of Grace Chapel in the suburbs of Boston. Despite some drippy weather, it was an excellent weekend, a hundred twentysomethings and thirtysomethings gathering to worship and experience God and grow in Christian community. I talked on some of my suburbs stuff as well as some of my singles stuff. And what struck me was that this group is already living out the things I was talking about, being a healthy community that is intentional about ministry and helping people get to know Jesus. The highlight of the weekend was witnessing eight baptisms (in a cold lake!) and celebrating the testimonies of lives that have been changed and transformed by the grace and power of God. It was a privilege to be part of this community for the weekend and see what God is doing among them. Here are some of my thoughts from my intro talk:

The theme for the weekend is “Being Faithful, Being Missional.” Here’s where I’m going with this. It’s hard to be Christians in today’s culture, for lots of reasons. We’re going to look at how culture shapes us and affects us in various ways. The challenge is not only how can we be faithful Christians in our culture, but how we can be missional Christians to our culture. Being faithful means that we live out the Christian faith in the midst of our culture, that we’re true to what Jesus has called us to be. Being missional means that it’s not just about us, but that we’re intentional about looking outward, influencing others and society.

Being faithful and being missional are two sides of the same coin. We need to be both. Being faithful is an internal thing; it’s about our personal faith and discipleship. Being missional is an external thing; it’s about how we can impact others and transform society. We need both.

Some Christians are faithful but not missional. They might be afraid of being affected by culture, tainted by culture, so they withdraw. They live godly Christian lives but keep to themselves and don’t influence the culture.

Other Christians are missional but not faithful. They want to change the world, and they throw themselves into mission and ministry. But in their zeal, they lose some aspects of faithfulness. Maybe they compromise personal integrity or active faith, or they don't do things in Christian ways. They get caught up in doing and lose track of being.

So we’re going to look at how our culture affects us, especially suburban culture, for good and for bad, and how we can live faithfully and missionally in light of our culture. Some Christians complain about how bad culture is, but they don’t do anything about it. It’s not just that culture shapes us. It’s also that we can shape our culture. We can influence our culture by creating a vibrant Christian community that is a distinct counterculture.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

How many new Christian books are there?

[This is a post I wrote for IVP's Behind the Books blog.]

A few months ago an industry friend e-mailed me and asked if I knew how many new Christian books are published each year. I wasn't sure. I know that overall, in terms of total new English language books published in North America, the number has ballooned from about 55,000 a year when I started in publishing in the mid-90s to 178,000 (as of 2005) or perhaps even over 200,000 now. The growth is largely a result of print-on-demand technologies and self-publishing vehicles being much more available. And something like 70,000 new publishers have cropped up in the last few years. Some of those are things like alumni associations publishing a book of alumni reflections, but even so, there are a lot more independent small publishers now. I have also heard a figure of something like 8,000 or 9,000 new religion titles published each year, the vast majority of which are Christian, but I haven't been able to nail that down.

Well, in an article in Publishers Weekly, I finally saw some concrete numbers. PW quotes Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, as saying that ECPA publishers published about 7,500 new books in 2005, but that number has declined to about 5,900 new titles in 2006. "Most of our publishers are trying to figure out how to get more out of fewer books," he said.

Whatever the number, the sheer quantities are still staggering. That's a lot of books fighting for shelf space and media attention. IVP publishes about 100 books a year, not including paperback editions of previously released hardcovers or other reprints. That's less than 2% of all the new Christian titles each year. I'm personally responsible for the acquisition, development and publication of about 12 to 15 of IVP's titles each year. It's humbling to think about how much work goes into the publishing of a book, and then to realize that that book is barely a drop in the ocean.

The same issue of PW quotes an author who says that if authors are feeling cocky and self-important about their work, all you have to do is go to a bookstore - "Tolstoy could go into a bookstore and say, 'Wow, nobody needs War and Peace; there's plenty of stuff to read!' If the bookstore doesn't depress you, go to BEA [BookExpo America, the annual trade show for the American bookselling industry]: it'll be very clear how unimportant your work is."

Despite the numbers, what keeps us going and keeps us publishing is that our books seem to be making contributions that people find helpful. I get a kick out of searching for our book titles on Blogger and seeing who's reading our books. We know that folks have infinite options for their discretionary time these days, not just the multitudes of books but all forms of entertainment media, so we are honored when people choose to spend time with our books. We try hard to make them worth your while, and we hope that they're helpful to you.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Going green

I was quoted in an article about environmental stewardship in the May/June '07 issue of Today's Christian magazine:
Where once there was a gaping hole in the conversational landscape, Christian voices are ringing out across the country.

"I remember that on Earth Day 1990, my local church didn't mention it at all," says Albert Hsu, associate editor of InterVarsity Press and author of The Suburban Christian. "My pastor later told me it wasn't a Christian thing to care about. That was a wake-up call. I think a lot of this goes back to Gnosticism, when people thought the physical world was evil. Those ideas can lead to bad stewardship. Certain denominations believe this world will be destroyed in the end times so we needn't bother caring for it. But God declared this world good and calls us to take care of it."

. . . Even so, says Hsu, with so many American Christians living in the "land of plenty," it's difficult to keep the environment at the forefront of one's mind. "Suburbia is a consumer culture," he says. "If we need something, we buy it and use it, instead of finding alternatives. One of the problems in suburbia is that it's a place of abundance where we don't see the scarcity and limitation of resources."
The article also has this handy list of ten things Christians can do (adapted from Matthew Sleeth's Serve God, Save the Planet):

1. Turn off the faucet while shaving, brushing teeth, and washing hands.

2. Pre-cycle by buying minimally packaged goods and choosing reusable over disposable.

3. Buy only "tree free" toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues made from recycled paper.

4. Bike, walk, carpool, or use public transportation instead of driving.

5. Change at least five light bulbs to compact fluorescents.

6. Install low-flow showerheads.

7. Caulk and weather strip around windows and doors to plug air leaks.

8. Use no pesticides or chemicals on your lawn or garden.

9. Pick one endangered species and do something to help save it.

10. Pray for people whose forests and habitats have been destroyed by material consumption.

Friday, May 11, 2007

I have 44 friends: On Facebook and friendship

I joined Facebook last week, after receiving an invitation from DJ Chuang. I'm still figuring things out, and I'm not sure how much I will use it, but it's been interesting thus far and has already burned up a lot of my time. I've "friended" a number of my IVP authors and various InterVarsity staff, as well as folks from college and work. Fascinating to find out who knows who.

Andy Crouch, who also joined recently, gave me a helpful guideline - he said that he is only officially being friends with people he has actually met in person. That makes a lot of sense to me. But then I was conflicted over whether to befriend some of my authors whom I have never physically met. I've interacted with some mostly via e-mail and snail mail and have never even talked on the phone with some! And yet I feel like I know them, despite the lack of an embodied relationship.

All this makes me wonder how Facebook, MySpace, the blogosphere and online technology in general is changing the nature of friendship. Besides the grammatical devolution that "friend' has now become a verb, it does seem that social networking sites can both enhance as well as detract from human relationality. Just as every communication medium has its own pros and cons, Facebook is very useful in connecting and updating people's status. Great for checking in with old friends and finding lost classmates. And it's helpful to see what groups and networks my friends are in, because many of them are interested in the same issues and concerns that I gravitate toward. But generally, these sites don't seem to be a good forum for in-depth heart-to-heart talks or extended discussion or discourse.

The question of intimacy and distance is interesting, too. I can see people's photo albums of family members, weddings, vacations, etc., but this feels odd if I've never been over to their house and they've not shown me a physical photo album. Without the embodied relationship to mediate and guide me through the pictures ("this is my mom, this is my cousin," etc.), it almost feels voyeuristic and intrusive to look at people's photos.

I also think the quantification of friendship is disconcerting. Before last week, I haven't really wondered, "Hmmm, how many friends do I have?" If I sat down and wrote out lists, I could quantify my high school friends, college friends, grad school friends, work friends, church friends, etc. And I have a general sense each Christmas of how many cards and letters need to be mailed. But now Facebook tells me I have a specific number of "friends." And I am tempted to estimate my worth in terms of how many friends I have. I want to collect as many as possible. Like Pokemon - gotta catch 'em all. Does this commodify the human relationship?

And at what point does collecting friends become unwieldy and unmanagable? I've seen profiles of folks with 700+ friends. It takes a long time to scroll through even a few of the pages. Even the greatest extrovert in the world (or "connector," to use Malcolm Gladwell's word) can't really maintain meaningful relationships with that many people, can they? Maybe, maybe not. When I see lists of hundreds of names, whether friends or blog links, my eyes glaze over. I lose a sense of perspective and the discernment to say which of these folks I need to be connecting with.

We are tribal people, and while the blogosphere and social networking sites help us keep in touch with our tribes, there's a danger of dispersing ourselves amongst too many contacts. Extroverts are often described as having broad but shallow contacts, while introverts tend to have few but deep relationships. Facebook seems to be making virtual extroverts of us all (even as we hide behind our screens!). In some ways, collecting hundreds of friends dilutes the very concept of friendship. If I'm friends with everybody, am I really friends with anybody?

The reality, of course, is that all of us have degrees of friendship: many acquaintances, some buddies, and a precious few real friends. And Facebook doesn't have a way of weighting these differences - it's not like it would say, "You have 189 casual friends that you could talk to at a party, 45 friends you would hang out with on Friday nights, 12 good friends that you can cry with at two in the morning and 2 best friends that know all your deepest, darkest secrets and love you anyway."

I don't doubt that Facebook could have technology to rank friends based on our traffic and how many interactions, messages or wall posts we have, just like Google ranks search results to find the most helpful links. But that would be scary, to have a page that ranks your friends from best to worst.

This also makes me wonder how much the numbers-counting of "I have 93 friends" ties into the evangelical tendency to want to quantify our church numbers, attendance, visitors, growth, etc. It's a similar reductionistic bean-counting impulse to measure by quantity rather than by quality or depth of commitment.

Anyway, there's much more that could be said (and indeed, there are a slew of new parenting and youth ministry books this year about the possibilities and pitfalls of MySpace and the like). These are just my first impressions as a Facebook newbie. While Facebook may be an helpful resource to some degree, I should be cautious about letting it suck up gobs of time. Ultimately, I need to remember that it's not just the number and quantity of friends that are important; it's the overall nature and quality of all the relationships in my life.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

$100 update: What happens when you bury your money in the ground

I've blogged about the $100 project a few times. My fellow Calvin seminar participant Al Haley just blogged these reflections on the $100 he buried in the ground seven months ago:
When burying money, especially cash, always protect it well. The Zip-loc bag I used was a good start, but… The bag should have been put inside some kind of metal or plastic box. Something mysteriously sliced a hole in the bag (a money grubbing grub?) and water got into it. The money that emerged 210 days later was dirty and damp and spotted with mold. There is abundant biblical truth in this. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy…” Matt: 6:19. It was a good object lesson to see the money so degraded. It made me feel almost physically ill as I tried to wipe off the currency and in my mind contrasted it with the crisp bills that had gone into the bag. What had I done? I had almost wasted everything.

The longer your money, your gifts, your opportunities are deferred, the easier it is to forget about them. For the first few months, not a week would go by without my thinking, “The money! I need to do something about the money.” This thought irritated me. It prompted me to scan possibilities for ways to spend the funds with something akin to divine wisdom. I thought (mistakenly) that hiding the money would function like having a rock beneath my pillow. I ought not be able to ignore it if I ever wanted to get a good night’s sleep. Instead, as I should have realized, the most human thing happened: I habituated to the money’s absence. Several months into my experiment it might occasionally come to mind, and then I would realize with a start that I hadn’t thought about it in weeks and I had been sleeping very well, thank you. If this continued, I might soon forget that shallow grave altogether.

What you do for God isn’t nearly as important as just doing something. Most of the time I’ve been involved in this project I believed that the only form of “success” would be to spend the money on some original idea that would somehow become self-perpetuating as it inspired others to do likewise. Just as Joonna and others expressed, the last thing I wanted to do was simply hand over the money to a homeless person or donate it to a charitable cause. Truthfully, once I read their accounts on this blog, I wanted to be like Debra and Nick and Al Hsu. I wanted to generate excitement and service to others and unexpected twists in the rendition of my plan that made it even better than anything I could have strategized. However, my wishing only led to a deep-valleyed procrastination as I insisted on doing things at a particular level of attainment that I now see was all about making myself feel good and important. Of course, I planned to give God credit, but everyone else would see that He had chosen me to do this great thing and…what hogwash.

Working together at this awkward thing known as the “church” often means supporting others who have already stumbled upon or been granted great ideas. I now believe a worthy way to spend the stash of money would be to shamelessly copy Debra and recruit students to teach poetry to disadvantaged kids. Or I could purchase Nathan’s book as Nick did and start a book study in our adult Sunday school class. Or I could play “tag” like Al. The point is that I don’t need to come up with anything new. All I need to do is find someone else who is already doing something brave and loving that “salts” humanity in places where people need it. [click here for the rest]
BTW, I still have an envelope with $100 sitting on my dresser. The only thing I've done with it since last November is to exchange a twenty for a ten and two fives because I needed change. And it occurs to me that I've blogged about this five or six times, but I haven't actually done anything with it.
I'm all talk, no walk. The deadline for doing something with it is June 2007. What should I do?

Monday, May 07, 2007

The missional suburban church

Suburban pastor and seminarian Todd Hiestand recently posted his paper The Gospel and the God Forsaken: The Challenge of the Missional Church in Suburbia, which is also available as a PDF. He's done some solid thinking about contextual ministry in a suburban setting. I applaud his work, not just because he quotes my book, but I resonate with and affirm his conclusions. Here is his summary of four areas the suburban church must address (the paper has lengthier sections discussing each of these four items), as well as his conclusion:
So what is the answer for the church in the suburbs? There are at least four main ways the default suburban lifestyle needs to be challenged. First, we need to speak out against the suburban value of extreme individualism and call Christians back to community. Second, we need to deconstruct the value of consumerism in way that leads instead to sacrificial living. Third we need to question the suburban value of safety and comfort and judge it against the call of the gospel. Finally, we need to understand how our individualism and consumerism lead us to neglect the hurting and needy people in our neighborhoods and cities. . . .

We have a monumental challenge if we are going to contextualize the gospel and live as missional communities of faith throughout suburban America. We cannot flee. We cannot get out of here. This is where we live. This is where God has called us. And this “God-forsaken place” that we have been called to desperately needs the Church to stand up and be the Church. We need to be a Church that truly exists for the sake of others. We need a Church that gives up luxury so that others may have necessity. We need a Church that rejects the lone ranger mentality and lives in sacrificial and compassionate community. We need a Church that views money as a resource of God’s Kingdom and not an object to be consumed. We need a Church that trusts the Spirit and takes risks for the sake of the Gospel. We need a Church that comes together to care for the poor in their backyards as well as those in the city.

Perhaps, if we are careful to listen to the voice of the Spirit’s leading, we will see the power of the cross and the Resurrection can transform a place as cold and hard to the gospel as suburban America.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book discussion, chapter 2: Housing size and mortgages

This week Charity Singleton and L.L. Barkat are discussing chapter 2 of The Suburban Christian, "Living in Suburbia: The Pursuit of the Promised Land," which talks about such topics as the American dream, Western individualism and single-family housing. Both of them comment about the nature and size of suburban housing. I blogged about the question of how much space do we need a few months back, saying,

we had had some default assumptions about kids each having their own rooms, which is a fairly individualistic, Western notion of privacy and personal space. American houses are larger by far than those in other societies - the average size of an American single-family home has increased from 983 square feet in 1950 to 2,329 square feet today. The typical American has 718 square feet of living space per person, compared to 442 square feet in Canada and just 170 square feet in Japan. Most American suburban homes, if set in other parts of the world, would be used to house multiple families. The authors of Suburban Nation write, "There is not another nation on earth that houses its citizens as we do, and few could afford to."

Here's Charity's response to some of this:
How does my Christian faith and a concern for God's kingdom intersect with my otherwise responsible pursuit of the American dream? Even though my house is very modest at 1,200 square feet, since I live alone, I have almost double the average 718 square-feet-per-person of most Americans. And I have 10 times more square feet for myself than the average person in Japan who lives in just 170 square feet. Is all this space dedicated just to me actually a sign of greed and wastefulness in my life?
Also, Spiritual Birdwatching has chimed in. Her thoughts on chapter 1 are here, and now she comments on the suburban ideal having a home of one's own, saying: "The received wisdom is that a house is the average family's biggest investment, so get as much as you can afford. The price we pay goes well beyond the monthly mortgage payments; it's the second job or both parents working, the hours spent commuting, how hard we work to fill all that space with stuff. What if a house was just that -- a place to live, not the nexus of my sense of well-being in the world? Or more, an opportunity to explore what it means to live Christianly in my community?"

Good thoughts, everybody. I didn't cite this in the book, but I appreciate Rodney Clapp's thoughts in the last chapter of Families at the Crossroads where he contrasts the notion of the home as a haven with the idea of the home as a mission station. In other words, housing is not to escape from the world but a means to minister to the world with welcome and hospitality. I think that helps us envision our homes not as private mansions or fortresses, but as space that we are called to be good stewards of, space that we can use missionally. (Some more on that is in chapter 6, so stay tuned.)

Also, here's something else I didn't say in the book regarding the home mortgage industry. Naturally, lenders try to maximize the amount of house that potential buyers buy - it's good for business to have larger loans. But about those mortgage calculators that suggest how much house folks can afford - when you input your income, etc., they never assume a Christian lifestyle of tithing and giving, or of saving. They assume a standard lifestyle of consumption and maximal debt. So these mortgage calculators end up saying that we can "afford" a home far bigger or more expensive than is healthy for most Christians who want to practice generosity and frugality. So beware the mortgage calculators! And don't believe them when they give you big numbers of how much house you can afford. Cut it by 25% or more, and you'll find something much more realistic.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Commuting gridlock

U.S. News & World Report has some good articles about gridlock and possible solutions. Here are some interesting snippets:
The status of the City of Angels as a commuting hell is nothing new. But by 2030, according to some estimates, driving in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and nine other urban areas will be worse than present-day Los Angeles.

Americans spent 3.7 billion hours in traffic in 2003, the last year for which such figures are available-more than a fivefold increase from just 21 years earlier. The amount of free-flowing travel is less than half what it was in the '80s, and the average commuter now loses 47 hours to congested traffic every year.

The issue mainly boils down to population growth outpacing road building. America has about 70 million more people than it did a quarter century ago, but highway miles have increased by a little more than 5 percent in that time. The Department of Transportation estimates that the demand for ground transportation-either by road or rail-will be 2½ times as great by 2050, while highway capacity is projected to increase by only 10 percent during that time.

Commuters to New York City increasingly call the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, two hours away, home, while workers in Washington have streamed into Gettysburg, Pa., a full 85 miles away. Folks in places like these are considered "extreme commuters," those traveling 90 minutes or more to work every day. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 3 million people-about 2.8 percent of workers- now have such commutes, a 95 percent increase from 1990.

. . . London Mayor Ken Livingstone's solution: a congestion-charge zone. In 2003, with the support of the business community, he surrounded 8 square miles of central London with traffic cameras and began charging cars and trucks about $16 a day to enter. The cameras photograph the vehicles and match license plates against payments made in advance.

Daily traffic into central London fell by 20 percent (70,000 fewer vehicles). Emissions were cut about 15 percent. Average speeds inched up from 8.5 mph to 10 mph. And last year, the fee generated some $212 million in profits, which funded better bus services.