April 17, 2006
The Brutal 'Burbs: how the suburban lifestyle undermines our mission
A surge of new books have hit store shelves about the challenges facing followers of Christ who live in the suburbs. Many voices are beginning to say that the lifestyle of the affluent suburbanite, while heralded for 50 years as the fulfillment of the American dream, may actually be detrimental to the Christian life and mission. In this post David Fitch, a pastor and professor in suburban Chicago, and a regular contributor to Out of Ur, addresses the difficulty of practicing the biblical discipline of hospitality in the isolation of the 'burbs.
My church is very much in the suburbs. Specifically, the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Strangely as these suburbs have become more diverse (conspicuously more Hispanic, Asian, as well as other ethnicities) they have become more starkly spatialized. Each family unit is isolated in its own house with fenced in yard and automatically-opening garage that can be driven into permitting all contact with the outside world to be avoided.
David Matzko McCarthy in his wonderful book, Sex and Love in the Home, describes the myth of this suburbia:
The dream of the suburbs is a self-sufficient home, inhabited by affable kin and grace with plenty of yard to provide a buffer between neighbors. The aim of suburban life is to choose a home and neighborhood where we can be happy, where people work hard and respect the ways of others, and where families get along on their own and come together for recreation and leisure?.The great pleasure of home ownership is freedom and autonomy.
McCarthy proceeds to describe how the suburbs are built for the idolization of the affectionate family as the end and purpose of all life. The problem? When the family becomes another form of life separated from God and the church, it too becomes another form of self-imploding narcissism.
By idolizing the family, suburbanites may become focused on consuming more stuff to create the perfect home and family. There is nothing but contrived affection left to keep the home together. And children who learn they are the center of this universe from parents actually develop characters that believe they really are the center of the universe.
After decades of this suburban lifestyle America is left with families split by divorce, kids leaving in rebellion, and millions on various drugs to relieve the emptiness as the idolized family turns out to be a myth. Apart from the personal destruction the suburbs can bring, suburban isolation also poses a real problem for the spreading of the gospel.
If hospitality is to be a central way of life for the spreading of the gospel, the alienation of the suburbs is a condition of our exile we must overcome. Elsewhere I have said:
? evangelical Christians must consistently invite our neighbors into our homes for dinner, sitting around laughing, talking, listening and asking questions of each other. The home is where we live, where we converse and settle conflict, where we raise children. We arrange our furniture and set forth our priorities in the home. We pray for each other there. We share hospitality out of His blessings there. In our homes then, strangers get full view of the message of our life. Inviting someone into our home for dinner says "here, take a look, I am taking a risk and inviting you into my life." By inviting strangers over for dinner, we resist the fragmenting isolating forces of late capitalism in America. It is so exceedingly rare, that just doing it speaks volumes as to what it means to be a Christian in a world of strangers.
And yet this has proved so much harder than we ever expected for the reasons I've stated in this post. Inviting someone over for dinner in the hostile suburbs is regularly considered pathological. Suburban people are either too busy, too self-protected, or too worried what your agenda might be to ever come over. Likewise, I as a pastor and others in our church are regularly so busy, it hardly seems possible.
Do I believe it is impossible? No. We must continue to pursue a relentless practice of being hospitable as a distinctive subversive Christian act in the suburbs. I must change my life to live more simply, have more time and practice neighborhood acts of cooperative living. I must ask my neighbor, co-worker or friend in the park over for dinner "70 times 7" times if that is what it takes.
The city seems less afflicted with the problems of the suburbs. So they say? Yet I lived there for many years and I cannot say there is too much difference in at least the increasingly wealthier gentrified parts of the city (where many of the emerging churches are camped out). What worries me is that the inner city has become the hip place to live as more people reverse commute in Chicago. Just as the rich fled the city 40 years ago, now they are fleeing the suburbs for the inner city. And of course emergent churches seem to be more attracted to the hip of the city.
However, I plead for a truly subversive Christianity that practices hospitality in the hostile world of the white washed suburbs. I plead for more emerging communities of faith in the suburbs. Let us seek to be faithfully combating the overwhelming Walmartization of Christianity by a vigorous and relentless practice of hospitality.
David Fitch is pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois, a professor of ministry, theology, and ethics at Northern Seminary, and author of The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies (Baker 2006).