Observations from a Suburbanite

A few weeks ago I was looking at books at Cokesbury Press (one of the best Christian bookstores that I have found here in Columbus), and I stumbled upon a book I had to buy. Death by Suburb. If the cover art wasn’t enough to catch my eye, the subtitle had me: “How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul.”

I picked it up the other day to get reading in it. I’m a third of the way through, and have been challenged by much of what the author presents. I have read few books that have called out suburban life as directly as this one. The opening chapters have forced me to reflect on the suburban life and the impact it has on spirituality.

Those from rural areas or small towns would have great difficulty connecting with the things mentioned by author David Goetz, but having been a suburbanite convert, I, sometimes convictingly, am struck by his words.

I grew up in a small town in Ohio, then transplanted through school to suburban life in Nashville, TN, but because that was mixed with school life, it wasn’t until I moved to suburban Columbus, OH in 2003 that I really began to experience, “life in the suburbs.” The suburb I now reside in is Westerville – on the northeast side of Columbus. We have our own parks, our own school system, our own tax base, and our own pride. It is quickly becoming diversified (so now the “white flight” is beginning from Westerville, as families are moving even further north and east).

Life in the midst of the suburbs is quickly having a numbing impact on my spirituality. Much is said and written regarding the plight of religion in the ravished inner cities of our nation, but what of suburbia? Are things better there? Certainly the problems are different, but better? I am finding that not to be the case.

It seems as though, in the suburbs, we’ve taken the cross out of the message of Christ. Sacrifice is gone. Discipleship is only a catchword, but lacks any substance. This is a battle I fight daily as a minister. The suburban church culture has been allowed to create a false gospel that simply adds tasks to the weekly schedule of already-busy families. They have baseball practice and soccer tryouts, girlscouts and cubscouts, their week getaway to Tahiti or Lake Tahoe. Their passions are for their children to be smarter than the next, more athletic than everyone else, more well rounded than anyone they know . . . oh, and by the way, if they can find time, they’ll be dropped off for a youth group meeting.

More and more I see parents who are in love with the idea of an active youth program, but are unwilling to do anyting about it to commit. But, I refuse to get down on the youth program. It is an epidemic that runs through our suburban church. Just as the aisles at Target should be uncluttered and appealing, the service at Apple Bees should be prompt and friendly, the movie at Rave Motion Pictures should be entertaining and cutting edge, the sports program at the local high school should be state of the art, the church I attend should have just as much to offer if not more.

In a word, the suburban culture is built around the concept of commerce. The McChurch parody does not go far enough. It is more than simply shopping around and finding a church that has all the bells and whistles, it is finding a place that has all I want, and will never force me to give anything I am uncomfortable with or unwilling to give. How quickly we forget the many that turned their backs on Christ because the call was too strict, the price was too high. In many suburban churches, the call coming forth has been, “Come to Jesus, he’s the ticket to heaven.” That call is way too cheap for all that Christ did. The call needs to be, “Come to Jesus, he’ll change your life. He’ll make you do things you never thought possible. He’ll bring you to sacrifice at a level you never dreamed about. He’ll show you love you never have experienced, but he’ll also expect more from you than you ever thought possible to give.”

Our churches must rid themselves of cheap grace. We need to stop talking in church talk (which “cheap grace” comes from) and shoot straight with people. Maybe coming to Christ means your children giving up sports to become more evangelistic. Maybe it means leaving boyscouts behind to minister to the poor more regularly. Maybe it means giving up a promotion to spend more time with hourly employees. Maybe it means quitting your job because of the unethical situations it puts you in. Are these choices easy? No way! But that’s the point! When Jesus asked us to pick up our cross daily and follow him, I don’t think he had in mind picking up our heavy cell phones and loading our cross into our SUV and following at a safe distance behind him. Shame on us. The suburbs need prayers too.

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One thought on “Observations from a Suburbanite

  1. I concur with your comment that suburban life is built around commerce. This may be a vast oversimplification, but if rural areas are primarily agricultural and urban areas are primarily industrial, suburban areas are primarily commercial. The challenge for us suburban Christians is figuring out how to live Christianly in such a consumer environment. Not that anybody has any easy answers here, but I appreciate your perspectives on this. It seems like there’s a double danger here – some Christians just dismiss the suburbs out of hand as evil or shallow or whatever, but other Christians (probably many more) don’t think critically about suburbia at all and just get sucked into the consumerist, materialist ethos. But God calls us to herald his kingdom everywhere, including suburbia. Nothing is beyond redemption!

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