Thursday, November 30, 2006

Article: "Suburban churchgoers rethink spiritual values"

Here are snippets from a recent article in the United Methodist Reporter that quoted me:

"I think there's a growing sense that the suburbs shape us in ways we don't always understand," said Mr. Hsu, author of The Suburban Christian.

"Suburbs were designed with cars in mind," he said. "You can't really get anywhere in suburbia by walking -- things are spread too far out." Living in one suburb, working in another and perhaps attending church in yet another, he says, "fragments our lives into different communities that don't overlap."

. . .
Attending one of the most affluent UMCs in the country, Mr. Lueder senses that "everybody would love to release the pressure valve, to be able to not feel all this pressure to perform and to achieve and to send your kids to Harvard.

"It makes me want to say, 'Can't we all just join hands and say we're not going to put this pressure on each other any more?"

Mr. Hsu envisions something like that -- a way for Christians to redeem the suburbs rather than to abandon them. More people live in suburbs than in central cities and small towns combined, he notes, making American suburbia equivalent in population to the seventh-largest nation in the world. That's a vast mission field, Mr. Hsu says, and one that Christians need to understand before they can have an impact.

"There's a difference between a self-centered suburbanism that gets sucked into all the materialism and consumerism, and an other-centered Christian suburbanism that's focused on how to herald the kingdom of God in the suburbs," he said.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Study finds: Suburbia is friendly!

A colleague just e-mailed me a link to an article in the Los Angeles Times about a study by a UC Irvine professor on population density and social life. I found a press release from UCI with more details. Some excerpts:

A new study led by a UC Irvine economist debunks a popular argument against urban sprawl – that living farther from neighbors decreases social interaction. In fact, the data shows that suburban living is better for one’s social life.

Using data from 15,000 Americans living in various places across the country, researchers found that residents of sprawling suburban spaces actually have more friends, more contact with neighbors and greater involvement in community organizations than citydwellers who live in very close proximity to each other.

Among their specific findings were that for every 10-percent decrease in density, the likelihood of residents talking to their neighbors at least once a week jumps by 10 percent. And involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly – by 15 percent for every 10 percent decline in density. To measure these and other social interactions, researchers used data from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey and controlled for other factors such as income, education and marital status.

The LA Times article also cites historian Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, as noting that the same criticisms about suburbia being anonymous and alienated were also made about downtown areas fifty years ago.

A Canadian news article reporting on the same study cites the lead researcher, economics prof Jan Brueckner (who is also editor of the Journal of Urban Economics), who said, "We found that interaction goes down as population density goes up. So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower. What that means is suburban living promotes more interaction than living in the central city."

The article goes on to quote a suburban resident as saying,

"You couldn't give me a free house in the city and say, `Move here.' Honestly, I could never do it," she says. "There's just too many people, people are too close to each other and people are not friendly. I'm a chatterer and people don't chat in the city."

Costa is a member of her community centre, where she uses the fitness facilities five days a week and knows "almost everyone." She contrasts her lifestyle with that of her sister, who lives and works in Toronto, and concludes that she "would never leave the suburbs."

"People are always in a rush to get where they need to go and they work a lot more," Costa says of life in the city. "A lot of the time in the suburbs, people have families and their life is a little more relaxed."

My take? Suburbia may not be as isolating and anonymous as urbanites think, but it certainly still takes a good amount of intentionality for us to connect with our neighbors. I still don't know the names of all the neighbors on our block, and we've been living in our subdivision for two years. I'd be interested to find out more concrete details of this study - exactly how much interaction are we talking about? Chatting with a neighbor once a week? Having someone over once a month? Even if it's not as bad as we might have assumed it is, I'm sure there's plenty of room for growth, for suburban Christians to practice hospitality, friendship and community.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

'Tis the season - shopping alternatives, Buy Nothing Day and ministry catalogs

The day after Halloween, our local Target had all their Christmas stuff up already. So the Christmas shopping season didn't really start the traditional day after Thanksgiving - they've added the entire month of November to extend the season even earlier. Which is ironic because if anything, the Christmas season should be shifted later, not earlier, to allow for the full Christmas season (in the church year) through Epiphany in January. Some churches have been encouraging folks to have all their Christmas shopping done before Advent starts, so the Advent weeks prior to Christmas can be spent in actual spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ rather than frenzied consumer shopping.

This Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is being reclaimed as Buy Nothing Day, a day to not buy stuff as a countercultural move against holiday commercialization and consumerism. My wife and I have been talking about finding something fun to do with our kids that day as an alternative. We haven't quite decided what to do yet; at the very least, we'll likely spend some time at the library. (This past weekend we were in Wisconsin visiting Ellen's family, and after getting back we asked Josiah, "Did you like going to Grandma and Grandpa's house?" He said, "Yeah." We asked, "What's your favorite house?" thinking that he'd say our house. He said, "The library! Because it has lots of books.")

Another alternative to Christmas shopping, of course, are the various ministry catalogs that provide resources to people in need around the world. There are dozens of these available now, and we've used them to contribute goats or other animals, healthcare resources, help kids get out of slavery or sex trafficking, etc. The catalogs we've most often used are from Samaritan's Purse, World Vision and SIM, though of course there are many more. One of IVP's authors, in partnership with Partners International, is working on a book, Harvest of Hope, that will tell stories of how these catalog gifts change lives and transform communities.

Peggy Wehmeyer, former religion reporter for ABC News and now with World Vision Report, had a great NPR commentary about how her own daughters learned global compassion through using these gift catalogs. Her daughters were getting overly greedy and self-centered about their Christmas gifts, so Peggy and her husband revoked their gifts and instead gave them some of these ministry gift catalogs. “Here’s how much we’d normally spend on you,” the Wehmeyers said. “We’d like you to think about giving one of your gifts away to one of these kids.”

The girls took the task seriously. After looking through the catalogs, Lauren compiled a long list of all the things she wanted to order for other kids. “But honey,” Peggy said, “If you get all that, you’ll use up your budget.”

“That’s really what I want to do, Mom,” Lauren replied. “These kids need so much. I don’t need anything.” Peggy concluded her commentary by saying that though there weren't any packages under the tree that year, “the best gift was the one my husband and I received—seeing our girls turn into young women who would choose compassion over self-indulgence."

Friday, November 17, 2006

YouthWorker Journal interview on youth ministry in suburbia

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.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New e-book on cutting and self-injury

My colleague Elaina Whittenhall has a new e-book out called Cutting: Self-Injury and Emotional Pain that tells her story and explains what's going on when people (usually young women) cut or injure themselves. Something like 1.5% of the population deliberately harm themselves, and nearly 12 percent of college students admit to harming themselves. Here's an excerpt:
I had been in recovery from anorexia and bulimia for five years before I started actively self-injuring. I’d been depressed for some time when the idea came to me to cut myself. I was at work one day a few years ago, ruminating on the emptiness and unexplainable, thus maddening, sadness I felt. I got a paper cut in the course of filing some papers, and I felt oddly soothed. Somehow the sting of pierced skin seemed an appropriate expression of my pain. All at once, the physical pain seemed to be empathizing with my emotional pain, bearing testimony to it, while also being more acute and diversionary, the physical distracting from the emotional.

I drove home from work that night, again feeling an intense and almost unbearable sadness. I had to get rid of it now, even though I only had an hour until my second appointment with my new counselor. So I ripped apart a disposable razor and used the blades to make several thin, red lines across my arms. Calm seemed to settle over me. The sadness receded, and I didn’t feel the frantic need to get rid of some pain that I didn’t know why was there in the first place.
I remember going to a session at a counseling conference a few years back where the speaker talked about how cutting oneself actually releases a particular chemical that works as a pain analgesic. If you know someone who cuts herself and want to understand the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dynamics at work here, check it out. The e-book covers:
  • what self-injury is
  • who self-injures
  • why people self-injure
  • how to spot trouble in someone you care about
  • how to help those you care about
  • how to get help for yourself
  • what types of therapy and treatment are most helpful
  • how to handle relapses
  • what makes recovery possible

"If you are an active or recovering self-injurer or if you are concerned about a friend or family member, you'll find here practical suggestions for help, hope and healing. You'll also find information about therapy options and treatment programs nationwide and suggestions for further reading on the topic of self-injury."

A free sampler is available, and it can be ordered here for immediate download as a PDF or HTML. Should be a helpful resource for teens and twentysomethings struggling with this as well as their parents and youth pastors.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What should I do with $100?

I have an envelope with five $20 bills sitting on top of my bedroom dresser. What should I do with this money?

Here's the background. This past summer, I was at a Calvin seminar on writing as Christian proclamation, and we were told that as part of the seminar, each participant would receive an additional $100 for use related to the purposes of the seminar. Originally we considered options like pooling our money together as a lump sum that could be used as a scholarship fund or something that would be used to encourage Christian writers, or to keep the funds as a reserve for us as an incentive - once we reached some goal, like writing an article or publishing a book, we would be sent the money. Ultimately we decided to use the money the way some churches have, inspired by the parable of the talents and the Pay It Forward concept, to use the money in some creative, constructive way for the sake of the kingdom, and then to write about the process and the results. We dubbed our project "Write on the Money."

Then we got word that actually, we don't have funding for this. It turns out that each of us already received our $100 in the form of reimbursement for the books we bought and read for the seminar. But instead of scrapping the idea, our seminar decided to proceed, and we'd come up with the money ourselves. What's been fun so far is that several of us have been surprised with money showing up unexpectedly - one participant received $100 for a medical study she was a part of, and another participant wrote an online article and got a check for, you guessed it, exactly $100.

In my case, this past July I was sent some interview questions about my suburban book by the editor of Youthworker Journal. He was going to put together a dialogue article by interviewing me and another author who had also recently written a book about suburbia. Part of the intent of the Calvin seminar was to set aside time to do our own writing, so one of the things I did during an afternoon was write out answers to the interview questions and send them in. A month or so later, I got a follow-up e-mail from Youthworker Journal asking me to submit an invoice for payment for my article. I hadn't realized that the piece was considered an actual article that I would be paid for. So I submitted the paperwork, and a few weeks ago I got my check for the piece. I deposited the check and immediately withdrew $100 to set it aside for this Calvin project. The envelope has been sitting on my dresser ever since.

So - what should I do with it? Any ideas? One of my fellow participants buried his money in the backyard, to try to understand the experience and thinking of the third servant in the parable of the talents. Since I got the money in conjunction with an article about my suburbs book, I think I should do something suburban-related with it. After all, two chapters of my book are dedicated to issues of consumerism and materialism, and I've reflected a bit on suburbia as a consumer culture. Is there a way that I could use this $100 constructively and Christianly in my suburban context?

I'm open to suggestions! If I end up doing some sort of ongoing project, I'll blog about it periodically here. And if anybody out there has been at churches that have done this kind of project, I'd love to hear what you or others did and what the results were.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vocation, calling and the Dilbertization of work

Here are some further thoughts about work and vocation. In college I was a biblical studies/theology and pastoral ministry double major, partly because I had an insufficient view of vocation and calling and thought that if I was really going to serve God, the only things I could be were a pastor or missionary. Along the way, I read Liberating the Laity by Paul Stevens, originally published by IVP and now republished by Regent College. Stevens was a pastor for many years but realized that his church ministry distanced him from folks in his congregation, and he did not have many natural connections with non-Christians. So he quit his job and became a carpenter. He then found that his ministry was revitalized, not only because he was now active in the marketplace but also because his church ministry shifted to an equipping ministry where ministry was done by the entire congregation, not just the clergy.

Some years back I wrote an article for the late, great Regeneration Quarterly on "The Dilbertization of America" that got me thinking about the differences between Protestant and Catholic views of work, vocation and calling. I later expanded that piece into "The Dilbertization of Work" for the vocation issue of Baylor University's ethics journal Christian Reflection. Here are some excerpts:

I’m a Dilbert fan. I have a plush Dogbert toy on top of my office computer, and one of my coffee mugs depicts one of my favorite strips. The pointy-haired boss tells Dilbert, “I’ve decided to be more of a hands-on manager.” Looking over Dilbert’s shoulder, the boss commands, “Move the mouse . . . up . . . over . . . more . . . now click it! Click it! NO!!! YOU FOOL!!!” Dilbert sighs, “This has ‘long day’ written all over it.”

Dilbert, which appears in more newspapers than any other comic, symbolizes a paradigm shift in our approach to work. Older comics had a certain work ethos, displayed in characters like Dagwood Bumstead of Blondie. Dagwood might symbolize the workers of the World War II generation: a lifelong company man whose years of loyalty had earned him his own office. Mr. Dithers may have yelled at Dagwood when he fell asleep on the job, but Dagwood never worried about job security or corporate downsizing.

Contrast this with Dilbert, the quintessential worker of the postmodern era. Despite Dilbert’s education and specialized training as an engineer, his work is meaningless and unsatisfactory. Instead of an office, he has a cubicle. And his coworkers drive him crazy.

Dilbert’s colleague Wally embodies the cynicism of the workplace; his purpose in life is to do as little as possible on the job without getting fired. In one strip, Wally rejoices because he realizes that he makes just as much money whether he works or twiddles his thumbs all day. Beetle Bailey was lazy, but that was more a statement of his individualism within the military industrial complex. In Dilbert’s world, the whole corporate structure engenders laziness, frustration and even despair.

One positive aspect of Dilbert is that it serves as a critique of workaholism. Christians can applaud this. But what about those who, like Dilbert, feel as if their jobs are meaningless? Dilbert’s vast audience suggests that a large group of disillusioned office workers identify with him. Some of us are deeply unsatisfied with our work, but we hang on because we need the paycheck. How do we think about work when we are unhappy with our jobs?

. . . While it is true that all work is potentially meaningful and significant, it is not true that all work is equally strategic. Some work may in fact be immoral or irrelevant. If a job seems meaningless and we don’t discern that our presence there is of any long-term benefit to either the company or others or our own well-being, and if the job doesn’t fit our skills, interests, personality or sense of calling, that may well be an indication that we should pursue other opportunities, either within this company or elsewhere. A plateaued career can be a sign that God has something else in store for us.

. . . Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, spent nine years as “a necktie-wearing, corporate victim assigned to cubicle 4S700R at the headquarters of Pacific Bell.” He quit that dead-end job and decided to pursue his love of cartooning. The rest is history. Has Scott Adams found his calling? He has certainly found a career that matches who he is, where his work is tremendously successful and lucrative. But I don’t know if he sees it as the fulfillment of a calling, or if he acknowledges his work as something that God created him to do. The cynicism that suffuses his cartoons, though amusing to a point, does not reflect the gospel hope offered by the One to whom he is called.

In contrast, another cartoonist, Johnny Hart, is known for his work on The Wizard of Id and B.C. Not only does Hart delight in his work and success in syndication, he also sees it as the fulfillment of a God-given call on his life. One of my favorite B.C. strips is posted in my office. A stone rolls away from a cave. A confused caveman sees footprints emerging from the cave and follows them. They go across the top of a pond. In the final frame, we see the footprints go right on top of a snake, who says, “Well, that was rude! Some guy just stepped on my head.”

Many non-Christian readers might not catch the biblical allusion, and some Christians may be skeptical about Hart’s evangelistic use of his comic strip. I find it a wonderful example of Christian vocation lived out in the marketplace, where a Christian cartoonist lets his Christian identity permeate his work in subtle and clever ways.

What if you hate your job? What if your pointy-haired boss is making work hell for you? On the one hand, Christians would counsel forbearance and perseverance. After all, it is still true that all work is significant. Wherever you are, be fully there. You may be there for a reason.

But consider whether your job is the most strategic fit for your identity and calling. Ultimately, we have only a few choices: We can change ourselves – either adjust our attitude, so we are happier with the job, or develop our skills, so we are better suited for it. We can change jobs and find something that fits better with who we are. If the job is fine but the environment is not, we can change companies. Or we could change careers entirely. None of these choices are easy, but this is why Gordon Smith titled his book Courage and Calling; it may require true courage to make the choices to answer God’s call on our lives.

Yes, God needs Christians in every field: he needs Christian lawyers and doctors and journalists and engineers and so on. But it’s entirely possible that he does not want perpetually frustrated Christians working in what they feel are dead-end jobs. If we suffer from chronic Dilbert-feelings, this might be an indication to us that God has something better in store for us somewhere else.