Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The New Suburbanists

In recent years, there have been all sorts of new things percolating, from the new monasticism of Shane Claiborne to The New Friars by Scott Bessenecker and The New Conspirators by Tom Sine. Tony Jones has just released The New Christians, which describes different kinds of approaches to Christianity, and there's also something of a neo-Reformed/New Calvinists movement afoot. In counterpoint, the "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been increasingly vocal.

In a completely different realm, for some years now the New Urbanist movement has called for a more sustainable approach to urban planning and land development, with walkable neighborhoods that minimize automobile use and facilitate community and human interaction. Principles of the new urbanism have been applied in suburban contexts, with efforts toward a "new suburbanism" and work being done on "sustainable suburbs."

Well, I seem to be sitting at the convergence of these different worlds. I've been invited to be part of a project that is working toward a new Christian vision for suburbia, both in terms of how the church lives out its faith and practice, as well as how the suburban landscape itself is configured. There's a growing movement of suburban Christians who are dissatisfied with how things are and are thinking creatively about how we can live differently.

At this early stage, there's nothing concrete to announce yet, partly because we haven't quite settled on a good name for all of this. "New Suburbans" sounds like a bunch of new SUVs. "New Suburbanites" is slightly better but a bit generic. "New Suburbanists" has the advantage of paralleling the "New Urbanists," but it lacks any distinctively Christian content.

So we've also been playing around with things that might tie in to the various emerging church movements. "Suburgent" is an interesting possibility because it evokes things like Presbymergent and Anglimergent, and I like that "urgent" is part of the word and adds a sense of urgency to the idea. But the suburban part of it isn't quite as clear, and it could be confused with the already-existing Submergent community. It also sounds like an ad for Subway: "Be suburgent - eat subs now!" Another possibility is "Suburbant" but that struck me as blah - suburban ants? And there was also "Suburbent," which looks misspelled, or like it's about suburban ents, or that the suburbs are bent (which is interesting, but do we want to self-identify as bent?).

It's really hard to come up with a good name! I really like the phrase Missio Dei Suburbia, but that's taken. It might be better to go with something straightforward like "Missional Suburban Christians," but that's a mouthful, and who knows if "missional" will still mean anything in three years?

Another possibility is "post-" something, since there are all these postconservative, postliberal, postmodern, postevangelical things happening. (I'm waiting for the post-emerging/postmergent community to emerge, or demerge, or something.) Is it accurate to call ourselves "post-suburban"? That doesn't seem quite right, because we're still suburban, though we're looking toward a different kind of suburbia. And it would be weird for me to self-identify as a post-suburban Christian - I'd have to change my book title and blog name.

At any rate, interesting things are afoot! If anybody out there has a suggestion for a good name for this movement, let me know - we're very open to ideas. And we hope you'll come and join us!


Marcus Goodyear said...

This post really made me laugh, Al. I guess New Suburbans are really Hybrids, right? Urbanites living in the suburbs, refusing to be defined by their location...

Anonymous said...

Al --

Loved your piece in CT this week.

I have a proposal for the movement. How about some sort of riff on the word "sublimate?" In class last week, we discussed Karl Barth's concept of Christianity as the sublimation of ordinary "religion." Barth viewed Christianity as a sublimated form of religion in that it was the one religion where the Word of God singularly dwelled. However, Christianity still retained some artifacts of "religiosity," making it simultaneously similar and distinct from other religions.

Barth held that this was not unlike the Incarnation, in which the Word assumed human flesh, transforming it into something totally "other" while allowing it to retain some of its original characteristics. Perhaps "(sub)limation" corresponds to your conception of how suburban life can be redeemed. Hopefully it's clever enough to catch on and not too obscure!

Nick Liao

Matthew said...

Hey Al,

I saw that you will be speaking at a seminar at Todd Hiestands church in PA. I was wondering if you are doing anything similar in the Chicago suburbs. If so, I would really be interested in pointing my church to it. If not I would love to talk with you about the possibility of doing something. Either way let me know.



Al Hsu said...

Matt - I'm actually talking with some folks about doing a mini-conference/seminar in the Chicago suburbs about suburban ministry/mission for later this fall. We haven't nailed down details yet, but the tentative dates are Nov. 14-15. I'll let you know more as things develop.