Friday, September 15, 2006

Is suburbia safe or scary? Both? Neither?

The other night when I was being interviewed on Moody Broadcasting's Open Line show, one of the callers mentioned that she used to live in the city and now lives in the suburbs. The gist of her comments: When she lived in the city, it was easy to see people's needs and to reach out and minister to them. People knew their neighbors and could look out for one another. But in suburbia, folks don't seem to have problems, or, at least, they won't admit to them. They can take care of themselves, thank you very much. She'd see her neighbors mowing their lawns, but they would be unapproachable. She'd occasionally go to malls and talk to folks who looked open to a conversation, but it was really hard to connect with anybody, let alone minister to them.

This highlights for me why Christians must take the suburbs seriously. Is it easier or harder to be a Christian in the suburbs? Yes. Here's a quote from Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution:

Sometimes people ask me if I am scared, living in the inner city. I usually reply, "I'm more scared of the suburbs." The Scriptures say that we should not fear those things that can destroy the body, but we are to fear that which can destroy the soul (Matt. 10:28). While the ghettos may have their share of violence and crime, the suburbs are the home of the more subtle demonic forces - numbness, complacency, comfort - and it is these that can eat away at our souls. (p. 227)

Amen and amen. Suburbia can be a challenging environment for Christian life and ministry precisely because people's spiritual needs are not always immediately apparent, and the forces at work are much more subtle, often invisible and attitudinal rather than structural. I remember back when I was a kid, during the Cold War '80s, people worried about Soviet communism threatening Christianity. And I thought, never mind communism - our Christianity is already being challenged by suburban secularism, deism, isolationism, materialism and consumerism. We just have a harder time noticing those things. Which means that suburbia needs savvy suburban Christians who will think missionally and herald the gospel and presence of the kingdom of God in ways that connect with suburban people.

And actually, we shouldn't be under any illusions about suburbia being "safe." A year ago someone broke into our suburban townhouse in the middle of the night and stole my wife's purse. He then stole a car from a house down the block (and was caught later that day). Shane tells a story in his book about a time in college that he was going into the city and was afraid of being robbed, so he left his credit card in his dorm room. The next day he realized that someone had stolen his card from his room and charged hundreds of bucks' worth of stuff on it. So nowhere is really "safe."

So anyway, as I mentioned during the radio interview, I am very encouraged to hear about pastors, church planters and lay Christians who are intentionally starting churches and ministering in suburban contexts, seeing suburbia as a strategic mission field. Even as I cheer on ministry efforts in urban centers and overseas, I'm encouraged that Christians are taking suburbia seriously and grappling with the subtle spiritual and cultural challenges here. All of us have callings to different locations, and every place needs faithful and contextual Christian witness. So, all you suburban pastors and church planters and intentional suburban Christians out there, kudos to all of you for all you do. May your tribe increase.


tony sheng said...

Hi Al,
I'm going to pick up your book one of these days - but before that, just wanted to say thanks for writing this blog and generating these kinds of thoughts about suburbia.
I'm a product of the suburbs and totally agree with you that we've got to see the importance of the suburbian context for mission as well. Very cool stuff - I will definitely be reading more on here.
Thanks again! Blessings

Justice said...

Enjoy the blog - As a California transplant, I agree with your assessment whole-heartedly. Very solid perspectives on an issue I never really thought of before.

in His grip,

M. Helseth said...

Wonderful blog idea! I'm a black woman, married to a very handsome Scandinavian man and we now live in the suburbs. (I used to live in Minneapolis.) I'm very inspired by your blog. I think sometimes Christians think it's more "spiritual" to witness to the "down and out" in the city, but we need to have a heart for the lost no matter where we are! I get the sense there are a lot of people right on my street with no joy, no hope, and no certainty what will happen to them when they die. Thank you for the encouragement to reach out to these people!
Marla Helseth

Bill said...

Al, God bless you, my friend! I'm poring through your book right now and will spend a good portion of today with it.

I am reminded by your writing that to create a better sense of community in the burbs, we have to fix our thinking, first.

Your parish concept helps me to form a mental map of "my little town" within the miles of generic sprawl. My wife and I now try to concentrate on a roughly 3-mile radius for most of our daily activities, walking and biking when possible.

We are hoping that by building more sustainable relationships with real daily face-time, we might "be there" for someone we wouldn't otherwise have ever met.

Thanks again.

Craver Vii said...

Marla reminds me of one of my favorite first impressions of the suburb I now live in.

Context: We came from Chicago. People from all over the world have their place in Chicago. You’ll find this neighborhood, and that neighborhood. That’s cool if you get a hankering for a certain kind of restaurant, but to me, it’s still segregation.

I prefer a community that more closely resembles heaven. I just can’t picture ethnic neighborhoods in heaven.

Now, my suburb: In Bolingbrook, where I live, and at my church (also in Bolingbrook) we have a delightful potpourri of many languages and skin tones. When I was in Chicago, multiethnic friendships felt like I was supposed to be bridging some kind of gap. Here, we more closely resemble one community based on (either) geography or worship rather than ethnicity.

Anonymous said...

al, thanks for this timely post. looking forward to ordering your book...

i'm passionate about seeing suburban christians think gospel first...can't wait to learn from you.

joannmski said...

Great post and blog - I have linked to it. We live in this world, and they are so comfortable that it's a pretty tough place to get people to realize they need Jesus.