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The Suburban Christian…

April 27, 2009

Suburban Christian #3334This post is an assignment for class.  The first half will be key assertions Albert Hsu makes in the book The Suburban Christian:  Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty.  The second half will be my interaction with the book along with some thoughts about how this connects to my context.

Suburbia–Paradise or Wasteland?

“…suburbs are the latest version of the promise of the American frontier–blank slates on which  new residents can write their stories.”

David Brooks, “The places have no past, no precedent, no settled conventions.  The residents have no families or connections there.”

“The suburbs had always promised prosperity, upward mobility, a healthy life in an unpolluted environment, safety and tranquility, and above all, the best place to bring up kids.”  Baxandall and Ewen (11)

suburban ambivalence (11)

“Instead of an idyllic paradise or restful haven, suburban living is often hectic and frazzled.  Instead of a place of community, suburbia is often anonymous and isolated.  We find ourselves frustrated with our commutes, lacking time with friends and family, trapped by debt and consumerism.” (11)

Can we truly experience God in the suburbs?  Is it possible to live authentic Christian lives as suburban Christians?

This is the central question Hsu responds to in this book.  His thesis is shaped by the assumption that faithful Christian living in the suburbs (or in any environment) is not impossible.  At a minimum this requires discernment with other Christians who are seeking to not merely uncritically absorb all the characteristics of the suburban world.

“Poverty is suburbanizing.”  Robert Lupton

“American evangelicals have tended to have a theologically insufficient view of the city.  Many have seen cities as dens of evil and corruption…” (28)

“Our contemporary understanding of  ‘the city’ needs to include both city and suburb, and God needs Christians to have a presence throughout the entire metropolis.” (29)

The Promise of Suburbia

“Suburbia became the embodiment of a dream, a vision, a promise, appealing to the longings and yearnings of its newfound residents.” (33)

Creation, fall and redemption.

“We will see the fallenness of suburbia, and we will explore possibilities for redeeming suburbia.”

Suburban Housing and American Individualism

“Unlike every other affluent civilization, Americans have idealized the house and yard rather than the model neighborhood or the ideal town.”  Dolores Hayden (39)

“The more that individualism holds up ‘a home of your own’ as the suburban American ideal, the more demand there is for single-family housing.  The more single-family housing available, the more individualism, privatization, and isolationsism are perpetuated.” (39)

“Suburbia tends to lack ‘street culture’ or ‘street life’

“Suburbia is a commercial environment…a certain degree of economic and geographic determinism…”  “Most of us make housing decisions thinking more about financial limitations and constraints than any aesthetic or cultural preferences.”  (44)

“The socioeconomic stratification of suburban neighborhoods often leads to a certain degree of local socioeconomic homogeneity, where residents are isolated and separated from those of different income brackets and backgrounds.” (45)

“We should consider how Christian principles of hospitality and human dignity apply to our suburban context in regard to care for the poor,  the alien and the refugee.” (52)

“People [base] their decisions on where to reside, earn a living, shop, play and meet for worship on the basis of the automobile.”  Robert Banks (59)

“The cost of purchasing and maintaining automobiles is prohibitive for many low-income people, and limited resources are available for public transportation.”

“In many places in America now, it is not actually possible to be pedestrian, even if you want to be.”  Bill Bryson (61)

“…suburban living eroded the sense of neighborhood community.”

Sociologist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone)-there is a direct correlation between commuting and community–the more commuting, the less community.


“Not only is it helpful to invest in a particular geographic area, it is also important to invest a significant amount of time there.  Usually the longer we can stay in a local community, the better.  St. Benedict asked new members of his monastic communities to take a “vow of stability” rather than to wander constantly from place to place.  Many suburbanites move every few years, thus preventing them from investing deeply into local community.” (69)

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”  Simone Weil (69)


Conscientious Consumption

Consuming Locally

“Consumer culture makes us constantly aware of what we do not have.”  Aaron Freeman, in a commentary for NPR (82)




“…commercial forces militate against the emergence of distinct and unique communities.”

“the geography of nowhere”  James Howard Kunstler

“Shopping malls are a commercialized, privatized version of what used to be the public square.”

How identity shapes consumption and visa versa

Brand identities as markers for class status

Consuming Christianly

Moving from anonymity to community

I think Hsu outlines in a very helpful way the cultural, historical, and economic forces that have shaped suburbia.  This book was particularly useful in my own context.  I believe a key notion from this book is how Christians might embody the good news in suburban culture.  It is about incarnating the gospel by becoming rooted in particular places–whether city, suburbs or rural spaces.  And then how we might not be caught up in cultural forces which perpetuate mindless consumption, frenetic work schedules to be able to afford the house, toys and lifestyles of suburbia.

When we become rooted in particular places, how do we in fact build community.  How do we move beyond isolationism even as we live in close proximity to neighbors in suburban developments.  How can we bring character and social capital to the communities seemingly driven primarily by shallow forces such as economics and status?

The idea of stability in the pattern of the Benedictines offers some direction for suburbanites.  As we consider how to live missionally in suburbia, perhaps it begins with intentionality when we think about housing.  What if housing decisions were driven less by the calculus of how much house we can afford, than by ability to sustain relationships that have been built over a period of time?  This has implications for our patterns of consumption.  Choosing simplicity might involve remaining in a smaller house with a smaller yard so that neighborhood relationships might be developed.  Community is made possible as we remain invested in particular places over the long haul.

Hospitality becomes an important practice for embodying community in suburban developments.  Christians should bring a propensity to both host neighborhood gatherings and be guests.  Intentionality is also called for if we are to embody the good news in ways that transcend socioeconomic homogeneity found in suburban areas.  Hospitality again becomes a way we make room for the other in our communities through intentional efforts.

For Sunnyside Mennonite Church this impulse has been embodied in recent years through various ministries of hospitality and presence.  Refugee support projects have allowed us to build relationships with those who come from beyond the suburban utopia.  We are made aware of need in our immediate community with links to the world.  Tuesday at the House (TATH) has provided another context in which we meet at table around food with neighbors and friends who come from diverse income brackets.  These relationship also lead to other opportunities to build community beyond our suburban bubble as friends are invited to birthday parties, baby showers and other church community events.  TATH has become a viable way of creating a quasi-third place where authentic relationships can develop across socio-economic lines.

Currently, SMC is in the midst of a Missional Experiment.  We have set aside our traditional model of Sunday School for a period of time from March to June.  A number of ideas have germinated during this time that offer potential for helping us escape the Christian bubble and imagine other ways of connecting authentically with our community.  I will just mention several.

We are a church which has been moving more and more to a parish mindset.  From the outset, SMC has been a church with missional DNA with a particular vision for mission to the Sunnyside peninsula.  Many people who gather for worship drive into this neighborhood from within a 10 mile radius.  We represent some Lancaster city dwellers, suburban developments, small towns (burroughs) and rural areas (with Amish neighbors).  This geographic diversity can sometimes mitigate against a sense of embodied community.  So we look for ways to be in mission together.  This helps move us toward a deeper level of embodying Christian community.

The missional experiment has given rise to several current expressions along these lines.  A garden group will be working at gardening in a plot of ground with the produce being donated to those in need.  A coffee house concept has emerged as a way to connect into First Fridays in Lancaster.  This ties into nurturing a view that sees city and suburbs symbiotically related.

The questions that remain for me are these.  Where suburban culture represents conspicuous consumption and identity centered around status and brand, how do we embody something different?  I consider this question even as I am sitting in a session at Mobilization to end Poverty, listening to Jim Wallis say this:

We have been living in a greed economy. The greed economy has failed. Greed culture has not satisfied. It is a time now for a common good economy and a common good culture.

I think there is much that is inherent in the suburban version of the American dream that is driven by seeking meaning through self-realization as gauged by materialistic metrics.  Perhaps the shift from a greed culture to a common good culture will at least require Christians to not see their suburban enclaves as isolated from the issues that are present in cities and other places on the margins.  What would happen if we see the struggles of the most vulnerable as our own.  If we are going to embody the good news, it must be good news not just for a certain socio-economic strata.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. Jesus’ mission statement has now become the mission statement of the church. Now we must say that any gospel that is not good news to poor people is simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ.  –Jim Wallis

One Comment leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    May 4, 2009 10:51 am


    I love the quotes that you select and the complicated implications of them. I wonder what a vow of stability might mean to those of us prone to wonder and a vow of instability would mean to those of us prone to settle. I know for me stability is harder, requires something of me, is costly. But for some of us who are landed gentry the invitation to wander and itinerate might invite us closer to a Jesus-y lifestyle.

    Coming back from Israel, I’m aware of how Jesus seemed to take particularities seriously, seemed to wander a bit but seemed to be committed to place in the Galilee as well.

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