The Challenges of Christianity in Suburbia, Part 1: How Suburbia Shapes You
"The US is not only the world's first suburban nation, but it will also be its last.” - Kenneth Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier
Redeemer is located within a somewhat classic example of a suburban setting. We are all familiar with the design of our neighborhoods. If you drive anywhere around this neighbor or that neighborhood in the surrounding streets, you will find much of the same: a familiar looking home on a small yard, usually with a small front porch. A six-foot fall fence grows from the sides, hiding the privacy of that family’s space from street view. Behind that fence in all probability is a back porch that is much larger than their front. Well manicured, green lawns cover both sides of the street. And most often, even in the most beautiful of summer evenings - you may see some people walking about, but the streets are mostly empty. As you drive down the next street, with some slight variation, you observe the same. Through the front windows of these homes in the pale of evening, you may see half open blinds and the glow of a lamp. Lights from a television is flashing in the front room. A silhouette of a person sitting or walking around in the comfort of their home. A single light shines outside of their closed front door that isn’t exactly inviting for a stranger to walk to and knock.
You might be familiar with this classic American scene, dotted throughout our nation. The question I have for you is this:
Have you ever stopped to consider the power of Suburbia in shaping you? How are you shaped and affected by this repeated, familiar patterns of living, found all over the country?
As World War II was coming to a close and England was facing the reality of the post-war rebuild that was coming to London, Churchill was posed with a question in October of 1943 about the design and architecture of the new Commons Chamber building that was destroyed. Some wanted it to be completely new and modern, representing a new era coming in history. But for Churchill, he was worried about loosing something of the past that the War robbed his people of. He recommended that the building look exactly like it used to. Why? “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
I want you to consider the wisdom expressed in that statement. Have you ever considered how buildings shape you? To get more specific, have you ever considered how your suburban house shapes you? How your suburban neighborhood and its layout shapes you? To get as narrow in question as I can, have you ever considered how suburbia has shaped you? And as a Christian, how does this affect the practice and living out of your faith?
HOW SUBURBIA SHAPES US
I was born and raised in Suburbia. I’ve been in vocation ministry in its setting for over ten years. I have pastored many a passionate Christian who wants to, with all their heart, live their Christian life before and with others. They want to love Jesus with all their heart. They want to love their neighbors and care for them. They often find this a frustrating endeavor in many ways. Of course, the Christian, regardless of where they live, will often find Christianity a frustrating endeavor. Our hearts are always inclined to sin. Yet, I do believe in our suburban setting there are specific realities that cause Christianity to be especially difficult as we seek to manifest it as authentically as we are called to do.
The Positive Side of Suburbia
There are elements of our suburban neighborhoods that are positive. It’s always easier to be negative, so before I present the challenges, let’s look at the positive.
If you can afford to live in these neighborhoods, you will probably experience many elements of comfort, peace and tranquility. Regular up keeping of lawns and home repair fill your days of rest. Our homes are environmentally controlled. When it gets dark, we flip a switch and turn on a lamp. The home next to you is close, but your home does not share a wall with theirs. You can often sit in your back yard and feel alone, even though many hundreds of people are remarkably close to you in that present moment.
These are things that kings and queens and lord of old desired to have when they would build their castles with their moats. They desired independent, private living even while living around other humans. People couldn’t just walk into their castle. There was a wall or a big door preventing the way.
So, if there is a positive side to suburbia, it is this: the wealth of life experienced in its vicinity and its accessibility, if somehow through time travel could be displayed to all past civilizations in the western hemisphere, would probably be the envy of them all.
At least, we may think that. But… for people who are thoughtful concerning human nature in times past, it could possibly be the most confusing and undesired place to live.
A Day in the Life of a Suburbanite
What is Suburbia about? It’s about you. It’s not about the community. The goal is to create for you a private dwelling where neighbors might be welcome, but only by special invite. Let’s visit the day of a normal working person living in Suburbia:
It’s 7:00am, and you wake up. You briefly step outside in the cool morning air, and your neighborhood is almost completely quiet. Dead silence, aside from a distant roar of traveling cars from a nearby busy road. You shower, cook up some scrambled eggs, and sit briefly to eat them as fast as you can, because you have a thirty minute commute down the parkway. You get dressed, find your keys and remotely unlock your car from inside your home.
You step out, and see your neighbor about a hundred feet away, doing the same. He is holding his briefcase, tie blowing in the morning wind. You give a silent wave, and he does the same. Maybe you know his name, maybe you don’t. You get into your car, and you drive to your workplace. Your car acts like a portable home of sorts: it’s climate controlled, you have access to listen to whatever you want you, and you are surrounded on the parkway by hundreds of other cars filled and closed off from others, most of whom also contain individuals. Just feet away from you these individuals are also driving - so close to you, yet at 65 MPH down the highway, still all alone.
The day ends, and you drive home, surrounded by the same as your morning commute. You pull into your neighborhood. When you pull into your driveway, you get out, by habit lock your vehicle until you hear the horn beep at least twice, and you walk into your home.
It is unlikely that you will step outside of your home for the rest of the night. You cook some dinner, clean up, and sit around with your family browsing through Netflix. Or perhaps everyone is browsing through Netflix alone in their own rooms after dinner. Then after you doze off on the couch, you brush your teeth, climb into bed, and sleep until you repeat the next day.
All around you, in homes close to yours, a similar scenario is repeated. No one really needs to interact with one another. They all walk into their homes with similar habits into independent living. All the while, if you stood in your backyard, perhaps you’d hear some distant children playing somewhere. But it’s mostly quiet.
This is the common suburban way of life on, say, on a regular Tuesday morning. And it is repeated hundreds of times a year, thousands of days in a lifetime. Does this way of life accurately reflect human nature? How can Christianity flourish here?
The Night the Power Went Out
Something very peculiar happened this past summer. My wife and I were in our bedroom, reading with what little light we had. That is because the power had been put out hours before by a really bad thunderstorm that ran through the area. Since we go to bed early in our home, we had the windows open trying to soak in as much light as we could on the pages of our book.
It was two hours since we had no power. And as we were in our darkening room on what was now a beautiful, clear, cool summer evening, we heard a soft roar of voices. In our very quiet neighborhood, this was not a normal occurrence. The quiet conversations suddenly had sporlactic laughter. I peaked out my window and I saw neighbors, shaking one another hands. Then I heard, very distinctly “Hi! My name is…” and they were shaking hands.
People were meeting one another. Saying hello. Talking. Laughing. Interacting with one another. Meeting each other. This was because they had nothing else to do. These peculiar scenario lasted for an entire hour. Sadly, I didn’t join in on the new found community. I was stuck in my reading with my flashlight, being kept awake by the outdoor noise, apparently finding my book more important than meeting some of these neighbors that I rarely ever see.
After that hour, suddenly all our bedroom lights flash on. Power was back. Then, as if the Yankees just scored the winning run in the World Series, there was a loud roar of cheers. Instantly, the streets were emptied. Lamps were on. Televisions began flashing through the windows. And the crickets once again became the loudest on our streets.
Christianity Requires People
Suburban living doesn’t require your neighbors’ involvement. Your home is completely independent from theirs. With the advent of online shopping and delivery and the ability to telecommute to your work, you could literally never leave the four walls of your home if you desired, aside from taking the garbage to the road. That night the power went out forced people to interact with one another through pure boredom. People were shaking hands and laughing. But without realizing it, as soon as the power went on, our daily habits kicked in, and they walked away from one another to their private dwellings.
This is where the Suburban reality becomes in many way, anti-Christian. It provides the very tempting opportunity to live as individuals, and not as a community. In fact, to go beyond the word tempting, it almost requires you to live with the focus to be you and not others. And as Christians, this very powerfully shapes us often unawares. We live alone, perhaps with our families. But even in the same home, we can live in isolation from one another, our individual rooms offering a solace from the rest of the house.
The high fences on your back yard keep your neighbors from seeing you or speaking with you. Throughout the past four decades, front porches have gotten smaller and smaller while back porches have become larger and larger. As our homes are continually more and more comfortable with the increase in wealth and technology, the standard of living always progresses higher and higher. Thus our homes have become larger while we are having less and less children. The average square footage of a suburban dwelling was 900 square feet in the 1950s with four children. Now, today, it is 2,000+ square feet, with only 1.5 children in the average family unit. These statistics are generally also true for Christian families.
Over fifty percent of our nation lives in Suburbia. That means that 50% of the expression of American Christianity is found in Suburbia. And this means that, for those of us who live in Suburbia, we are living in the most individualistic, private, consumer-oriented society in world history. It has indeed shaped us. it's all we know. And, as it shapes its Christian inhabitants, it has thus deeply affected the church.
Stay tuned for Part II - How Suburbia Shapes the Church
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