Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press. He is the author of three books, including The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty. He blogs at thesuburbanchristian.blogspot.com and is also a columnist for Christianity Today magazine. He and his wife, Ellen, serve as worship leaders at their Anglican church plant, and they live in the western suburbs of Chicago with their two boys. In November Al will be speaking at a sub•text forum in suburban Chicago.
1. Tell us about your experience in American suburbia. (Where do you live? What’s it like? Do you like it? Etc)
I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in Bloomington, home of the Mall of America, just south of Edina, home of Southdale, the first indoor enclosed shopping center. Mall culture grew up in Minnesota partly because of the frigid winters! My hometown experience very much reflected the suburbs of the ’70s and ’80s, hanging out at the mall, watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. It wasn’t until college and later that I realized that suburbia was not necessarily a normative experience.
I now live in the western suburbs of Chicago; I came here about 14 years ago for grad school and stayed because of employment in the area. So the majority of my life has been spent in suburban contexts. A few years ago, I started to wonder how the suburban landscape and culture affected me, for good and for bad. So I started researching the history and geography of suburbia and explored the sociological dynamics of how suburbia works. I came away with a greater appreciation for suburbia on its own terms, even as I resist some of the challenges of suburban culture. Like any place, suburbia is something of a mixed bag. But we as Christians are called to live here incarnationally and missionally, exegeting the culture and finding prophetic, countercultural ways to herald the gospel in suburbia.
2. How are churches doing in reaching suburbanites? Successful? Not? Why?
Some of the most “successful” (in terms of numbers) churches are suburban churches. Part of this is simple demographics - churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback were in the right places at the right times to connect with a growing suburban population. But they’ve also been very intentional and savvy about seeing suburbia as their mission field and connecting with suburban people in suburban ways. This too has been a mixed bag, as sometimes suburban ministry efforts have focused more on contextualization and have not been countercultural enough.
For the average local church, however, it seems that many churches struggle to find a clear sense of their particular ministry calling within their suburban context. They can no longer rely on denominational loyalty to bring them new members. They can’t compete with the megachurches; they can’t be all things to all people. But they can be some things to some people. And the challenge for them is to discern what specific kinds of ministries their particular congregation is called to.
Also, this is probably a vast overgeneralization, but my guess is that most suburban churches are better at transfer growth than actual conversion growth. There’s regional variation, of course - some areas of the country that are more post-Christian might lend themselves to more radical efforts to reach the unchurched. And the biggest challenge today may be the de-churched, the formerly churched who are simply no longer interested in traditional congregations. But this may be an opportunity for the non- traditional church plant, or the alternate Christian gathering that might come up with different ways of being a Christian community in suburbia.
3. How should churches approach ministry to people in suburbia?
The gospel must be translated into suburban culture and contexts, but also must challenge suburban assumptions and expectations. So suburban church ministry should be both contextual and countercultural, and that balance can be tricky to discern.
I love the example of the church that gives free car washes. One person going through said, “Oh, I get it. Back in Jesus’ day, people walked around, so he washed their feet. Today, we drive, so you wash cars.” Duh! Suburbia is a commuter culture where we have to drive to get anywhere. We can challenge the dependence of car-based culture and encourage people to live more locally and think in terms of neighborhood parishes. But we also need to meet people where they’re at and offer transportation ministries to help people navigate suburban commuter culture, with things like providing free oil changes for single moms.
I also think a major opportunity for local churches is to reframe their ministries in terms of “being good neighbors.” It’s not just a matter of individual evangelization; it’s also a matter of churches seeking the welfare of their suburbs. I like a phrase that Scot McKnight used to describe one particular church; he called it “a gift to the community.” One fellow I met at a conference told me that his church has gotten involved with community institutions like the park district, fire department and local school districts to see if there are ways that their church can be of help and assistance. This kind of local involvement and investment has helped their church build relationships with people in the community, and has been more effective in helping people find God than traditional efforts in individual evangelism.
4. You’ve written The Suburban Christian. What is the contribution you want this book to make?
I wrote The Suburban Christian in part because I saw a number of books about missional ministry to urban centers, but comparatively little was being said about missional ministry to the suburbs. In terms of sheer numbers, there are roughly twice as many people inhabiting the suburbs than city centers, so it seemed like this was a significant oversight. And certain circles of the church seemed to write off the suburbs as shallow, vapid and a place of “selling out” rather than a place just as much in need of the gospel as anywhere else. I wanted to help the church realize that suburbia is a mission field, perhaps one of the most strategic mission fields of the early 21st century.
I’m encouraged that there are now a growing number of “new suburbanists” that are taking suburban mission seriously. Blogs and sites like this one, sub•text, are great resources for the suburban church and helping people see suburbia as a legitimate and strategic mission field.
One of my friends mentioned to me that their suburban church, which had been meeting in a rented location, just got their own property. And now their church members are talking about the possibility of moving into the local community, to be able to minister and invest in the immediate neighborhood and area. I’m encouraged to hear about more suburban churches thinking in these kinds of missional terms these days.
5. What do you see as the future for the suburbs and suburban mission considering the difficulties of the housing market, high gas prices, etc?
There’s no doubt that suburbia is changing, but projections about the impending death of suburbia are probably premature. We’re seeing a maturation and aging of suburbia, which includes increases in suburban poverty, the weakening of suburban infrastructure, the urbanization of suburbia, the diversification of suburbia. As new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities, with all the same challenges and problems.
But suburbs are still home to the majority of residents and jobs, and it’s unlikely that there will be any mass exodus from the suburbs to either cities or small towns. The demographic population trends all point to continued suburbanization, though those suburbs are changing. The mortgage crisis has shown that suburban development has limits, and that there’s an increasing need for more affordable housing. High gas prices are affecting suburban commuting patterns, but it seems more likely that people will switch to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars rather than relocate to urban centers. I think it would be a healthy shift for suburban residents to recover the notion of the local parish, and to live, work, shop and worship all in the same geographic area. But because of the uncertainty of the economy right now, folks are hesitant about making big changes unless they really have to.
In short, suburbia is not going away anytime soon. It will certainly change as the economy changes and as the culture changes. McMansions may be retrofitted into multi-family housing. Big-box churches may give way to smaller, more nimble multi-site communities. Whatever happens, the new suburban landscape will require a new generation of suburban Christians and churches that take suburban mission seriously and herald the gospel to suburbia.