Last night our church had a discussion group about my book, The Suburban Christian. We spent about two hours talking about various topics - suburban anonymity, recovering the "third place," community, ministry and much more. We didn't go through the book systematically or have a list of discussion questions or anything; folks just talked about whatever issues they had been thinking about.
As the conversation began, people talked about their own experiences of suburbia. One woman talked about growing up in post-WWII suburbia and witnessing the shift from city to suburb. Former missionaries shared how suburban Chicago contrasted with their experience in Latin America. Several people talked about being former "urban snobs" who felt conflicted about having moved to suburbia. This reminded us that suburbia is not some abstract conceptual topic - it's an embodied, experiential one, and all of us interact very personally with suburbia based on our own life history and experience.
Two themes emerged from the conversation. One was intentionality. We often don't realize how suburban culture is shaping us, and countering those forces requires the intentionality of practicing particular spiritual disciplines and practices like creativity, generosity and hospitality. The second theme was community. Intentionality must be paired with community, so that we are part of a like-minded cohort of people who help each other in this journey. We can't do it on our own.
Because many folks in the group also happen to be leaders in our church, the conversation naturally gravitated to what our church can do to be a "third place" and have more ministry impact in our local suburban community. There was much appreciation for our habitual practice of dinner gatherings after church on Saturday nights, and some brainstorming about different ways we can connect with various people in our area. This seemed to be where the conceptual became practical, translating ideas from the book to our actual ministry context. I'm hopeful that other churches will likewise have similar discussions about how they can have strategic ministry and mission to and from their suburban areas.
Our group concluded with our hosts modeling one of the practices we had talked about, generosity, and sharing tomatoes and cucumbers they had raised in their garden. They have very intentionally used their new and spacious suburban home for the purpose of building community and ministry, hosting various events for our church, including this year's Easter Sunday service. As I've said elsewhere, all of us suburban Christians have a choice - we can either choose a self-centered suburbanism that just gets sucked into all the consumerism and materialism and status climbing and whatnot, or we can choose an other-centered Christian suburbanism that seeks the welfare of the suburbs and practices countercultural disciplines of simplicity, generosity, hospitality and community. I'm grateful that my church is a community that is intentional about trying to live out that kind of suburban Christianity.