This entry is cut n pasted from a section of a paper that I’m writing on spiritual formation for my BGU Overture I class.
Spirituality in the Suburbs
Albert Hsu’s book The Suburban Christian contains the best-developed thinking that I have yet seen on suburbia as a mission field.
Contemporary culture tends to look down upon the suburban life. From my experience, this is particularly true among Christian leaders pursuing whole-life spirituality with concern for justice and the poor. It becomes difficult to believe that true mission can happen in the affluence and comfort of the suburbs.
The suburban world, far from an Edenic garden or American dream, often seems to be more of a fallen world… Living in such a material environment, we begin to suspect that suburbia may be detrimental to our spiritual lives. We feel spiritually impoverished in the midst of this land of plenty. Can we truly experience God in the suburbs? Is it possible to live authentic Christian lives as suburban Christians?
Hsu answers this challenge clearly.
While it is certainly true that different settings will lead to differences in how the Christian life is lives, we should not assume that faithful Christian living in the suburbs is by definition impossible. Rather, the challenge for suburban Christians is to discern how they might avoid the pitfalls of suburban life and be authentic Christians in this very setting.
The suburban setting is a significant place in our culture. By 2000, over half of America’s population lived in suburbs, and suburbs continue to grow. Further, contrary to popular opinion, the suburbs are not only home to the middle class. “We think of the suburbs as middle-class, but 46 percent of all people living under the poverty line reside in the suburbs.”
My own experience confirms this. Although my home is in an upper middle class neighborhood in North Bend, our community lived in trailer homes, older single-family homes, and in at least one person’s case, a variety of short term housing as a result of chemical addiction. Our cities include the poor, but they are not as easily seen as those panhandling in the urban center. Herein lies one of the challenges of suburban ministry: finding, befriending and being with the poor in an environment where minimal social services exist for the church to partner with existing agencies already doing the work of God among the poor and outcast.
Suburban life, because it has become central to American life, is an important location.
Suburbia has become the context and center of millions of people’s lives, and decisions and innovations made in suburbia influence the rest of society. If Christians want to change the world, they may well do so by having a transformative Christian impact on suburbia and the people therein.
Exactly how Christians can have that transformative impact is a serious question. Finding answers to it require that we understand suburbia itself.
My neighborhood is a community of 2000-3000 square foot sized single-family homes on small lots, fairly close together. New construction in Snoqualmie Valley continues this trend, with newer homes being smaller, lots much smaller and much closer to each other. Community spaces are outdoors in the form of parks and exercise trails, but few indoor gathering spaces are created – my neighborhood of several hundred homes does not have one.
Our homes are identifiable by small or nonexistent front porches, large garages and parking spots for our commuter cars, and homogeneity in home colors which is strictly enforced by neighborhood covenant and by architectural review committee who has final approval on a homeowner’s color choices when repainting.
In the summer months, our neighbors are easy to find – those with children, especially – in front yards on our cul-de-sac, and on the bicycle paths around the neighborhood. Friendships are grown, people are invited to others’ homes for dinner, and the details of life are shared.
In the fall, winter and spring months, which tend to be wet and cool in the Seattle area, kids play inside their own homes or the home of a friend, and adults much less seldom interact.
Until the past year, our neighborhood had a fairly fluid population. Most people on our street had lived there less than five years; often a family would move in for two or three years and move elsewhere with a change in work. In the past year, the downturn in the housing market has fixed our neighborhood’s residents for the first time in the ten years my family has lived there.
In this city it is easy to find consumerism hard at work. Name brand goods, comfortable to luxury cars, and ongoing home improvements are frequently spotted and the pursuit of them requires much time.
To counteract suburban consumerism, I offer three main alternatives. We need to reclaim the Christian spiritual practices of creativity, simplicity and generosity.
Hsu correctly argues that the opposite of consumption is production. Creative production, whether of art or homemade birthday cards or of gardens, can be a spiritual activity which subverts the tendency to consumerism. Generosity provides a path for us to release material possessions for others’ good instead of collecting more for ourselves. Simplicity gives us the opportunity to be released from the hold that our possessions have on us. Together, these spiritual practices remind us that we are not to be influenced by consumerism.
Hospitality and community are welcome practices among those who seek the good of others, and so they should be in suburbia also. Hospitality is the basic act of caring for others who are unlike us, so that they feel welcome. It can be practiced between neighbors intentionally in order to build relationship and community.
God needs suburban Christians who are willing to take a sharp look at their environment, recognize the challenges of the suburban setting, and then stay here to do something about it.
Christians in the suburbs can have amazing impact not only on the suburbs but upon the world that the suburbs touch, simply by intentionally living as faithful disciples in their culture.