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Spiritual Vision for the Suburbs

April 27, 2009

suburban_christianThe latest text for our class is The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty, by Albert Y. Hsu. I was somewhat familiar with the author, having read some articles in Christianity Today and entries in his blog. I had a particular interest in this book due to having lived in various suburban communities (in greater Philadelphia) and also serving as a pastor in this context. While there have been tremendous amounts of ministry resources aimed at suburban churches (thanks to evangelical publishing houses, megachurches, or a combination of both), I haven’t found many which discuss the unique culture, challenges, advantages and disadvantages of suburban ministry. In a way, Hsu’s discussion of suburban “history” reminded me of my college days at Eastern University. I can recall my sociology professor talking about suburban development and what it does to community (i.e.-how things like air conditioning and garages led to more individualism and less relationship building), which Hsu also addresses in his text. It was at Eastern that I was also first introduced to the work of Atlanta community developer Bob Lupton (someone who’s books we read in class, and the father of one of my college friends). I confess I was not really expecting Dr. Lupton to be quoted in a book on suburban Christianity (if this was a text on urban ministry and development I would absolutely expect it). But in this instance I think I discovered just how easy it is to overlook some elements of my suburban context.

A case in point is what Hsu calls “The Urbanization of Suburbia” (22). While some suburban areas are imitating the features of urban centers,

many of the oldest suburbs are increasingly becoming like the cities they are adjacent to. While poverty is still disproportionately concentrated in central cities, in recent years urban renewal and gentrification has been dislocating the poor. (23)

I noticed this trend not long ago while driving in a North Philadelphia neighborhood with a friend from the Crossroads Community Center. We passed a block of brand new townhouses, which looked very nice (and having priced similar-sized housing myself, I thought might also be expensive). So I wondered, “Who can afford these new houses?” The answer was essentially more affluent people from outside the city. There’s a displacement going on. And Hsu and Lupton indicate that there’s a place for urban/suburban cooperation in the work of community development, as both contexts are increasingly dealing with similar issues (23).

I often wonder how in touch I am with my local community. Do I have a good sense of what sort of needs and poverty exist within my suburban neighborhood? It’s easy to overlook this in suburbia; we are so insulated due to the emphasis on car travel, single homes, etc. We need eyes to see where the needs are. When I was in youth ministry, I would annually take students on short-term service trips in various parts of the country; working in neighborhoods (urban to rural) experiencing poverty and decline. One goal of the experiences was to reach out and help those in need and serve Christ. But the second goal of the experience was to go home and look for a place to serve in our community. And this was usually the hardest part for most of the returning participants. A common question was “Where are the needs?” And if you don’t discover the answer quickly, it doesn’t take long for suburban culture to blunt one’s senses once again.

So perhaps those of us living (and ministering) in the suburban context can do some investigative work in our community to help determine its physical and spiritual needs? At SMMC we are working with our local food pantry to see how we might help care for needs in our neighborhoods (which are ever increasing due to the current economic climate), as well as looking at ways to partner with the other churches in our community. Also consider this article written by Lupton on the “new era of opportunity” for suburban churches. One church, The Well, in Feasterville has taken an in-depth look at the issue of suburban poverty and hosted a forum last year to address this issue. These approaches are challenging me to rethink some of my approaches to ministry in my context, the Perkiomen Valley.

The discussion on suburban poverty has me thinking that a spiritual vision for the suburban church must be missional. Not to be trendy, or to get mileage from the “missional” buzzword. But rather to get in synch with the mission of God, to get serious about things like reconciliation and hospitality, to get to know our community better and partner with other churches and organizations there, and to counteract the rampant individualism that we suburbanites face.

  1. May 4, 2009 9:53 pm

    Is there a sense of spiritual poverty in the suburban vision? How does a suburban church engage the hidden struggle in it’s midst.

  2. May 5, 2009 2:31 am

    I would think part of engaging the spiritual poverty present is being real about one of its main causes-individualism. I keep coming back to the “ancient-future” disciplines as being one way to help us unlearn what we have learned in suburban life.

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