Friday, October 16, 2009

Suburban Christianity Leads to Spiritual Death

I came across an article on today called, Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs? The article points to movies like Revolutionary Road that paint the suburbs as places of "spiritual and mental death." They are also stigmatized "materialism, lack of imagination, and conformity."

I am largely a suburban kid. I went to high school in Edmond, OK, suburb of Oklahoma City. I ministered in Liberty, Missouri, suburb of Kansas City. And now I'm back in McKinney, suburb of North Dallas.

It is no coincidence that I have stayed in suburbia. I am comfortable there. It feels like home. I know the homes, the schools, the chain stores--Home Depot, Target, Chili's. And of course, there is always a mall close by.

Chain restaurants are like suburbia itself--safe, predictable, comforting, and rather unimagitative and boring. I remember Chuck Monan, my preaching buddy, taking me around to a lot of "holes in the wall" in OKC. It was some of the best food around. But I never would have gone to these places on my own. You see, that's what suburban folk do--they stick to the comfortable and the familiar.

So guess what suburban Christians are looking for? A safe, comfortable, predictable Christian experience. Are the playgrounds safe and fun for my kids? Do they sing the 20 most popular Christian songs that are on Christian radio? Are they going through Max Lucado's latest book? (We are going through Fearless right now.)

All of this is fine in one sense, but let to itself, it leads to spiritual malaise if not spiritual death. My friend and missional leader Alan Hirsch, author of The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways, says that there is something about middle class, suburban Christianity that is antithetical to following Jesus. A similiar point is made in the book, Death By Suburb. One of my favorite stories in this book is of parents working on their child's 6th grade science project while their son is off playing videos games. When the child get's his grade, the parents proudly say, "We got an A." The point it that the parents are finding their identity in their child's accomplishments, which is a type of narcissism.

Here are some of the problems with suburban Christianity:
  1. Materialistic Christianity -- This results not only in personal materialism, but it in picking a church because they have the shiniest building.

  2. Consumeristic Christianity - Members come to worship, assemblies, events, etc. to be fed, never to give. They go to the church that offers the most goods and services.

  3. Crossless Christianity - I know that a certain preacher in Houston in one of the biggest churches ever seen has inspired millions of people. I am grateful for this. But I have never heard a call to sacrifice from him. This message, of course, would be counter to suburbia, which never advertises, "Come live in the Woodlands. You will have to sacrifice for others and your kids may not be safe. But if you'll deny yourself, you'll love it here."

  4. Christless Christianity - There is a whole book on this subject which I am eager to read. But Christ just doesn't fit in suburbia very well. Can you see Jesus riding around in his SUV, dropping off kids at soccer practice or church? No, I'm afraid Jesus is far too radical and dangerous for today's suburban Christianity.

The evidence is in, however. Typical suburban Christianity does not produce disciples of Christ. It produces consumers who hop from church to church looking for the best deal for their tithe--or rather, their 2.5% giving. And if the children's or youth program or the preaching or the worship or the carpeting isn't cutting it, their try the store--I mean the church--down the street. Rarely does a family say, where can I be best used? Where does God need me the most?

Calls to go feed the homeless? Far too unpredictable. And messy. Calls to go on mission trips? Too dangerous. And disruptive to one's schedule. Calls to devote money and resources to reaching lost people? Hey, don't you know that I'm the customer? Meanwhile, members take this consumer mentality back to their marriages and their other personal relationships, and we wonder why Christians are divorcing and have few real friends, just like everyone else.

Becki and I are not immune to this malaise. We both would enjoy living in the hubub of the new urban living. We enjoy meeting people and having lots to do. It would be a great place to do ministry. The reason we have ruled it out right now? Our kids. It's not safe or predictable enough.

That is the problem with suburban Christianity. It prevents us from taking any chances or putting us into situations where we would have to grow and depend upon God and each other. And by our actions and inactions, we teach our children that this is what the Christian faith is all about. And our kids drop out in droves.

Have you experienced the spiritual death of suburban Christianity? What is the solution?


teegardeng said...

How come I hear so many young pastors define real ministry as reaching out to the shopping cart lady or picking a drunk out of a gutter, when the last time I looked, I haven't seen to much of this real ministry taking place. And why do I hear so many young shepherds always wanting to blame the sheep. Hopefully its because of Youth and not Youthfull Pride.

Kevin M said...

"That is the problem with suburban Christianity. It prevents us from taking any chances or putting us into situations where we would have to grow and depend upon God and each other."

I don't know if I totally agree with the above statement. Suburban life does put us in positions to take chances and depend on God and each other. Taking a firm stance and being a follower of Jesus is a dangerous thing to do in current suburban life. You are risking ostracizing neighbors and friends who see you as acting "good" and trying to be better than them. Also, not making your kids an idol doesn't fit into current suburban beliefs either. I get angry when I see fellow believers skip church or commitments to teach a class to attend a soccer game or other secular activity. What lesson does that teach your child? What about not attending work parties that are filled with foul language, rude discussions, and copious amounts of alcohol? A tempting question becomes: How can I network and provide for my family if I'm not in the inner circle of guys who go drinking at lunch?
There are not physical dangers but there are still plenty of emotional dangers in the land of the suburbs.

"And by our actions and inactions, we teach our children that this is what the Christian faith is all about. And our kids drop out in droves."

I totally believe this last statement to be true.

Kevin M said...

subscribing to future comments - please disregard.

James Nored said...

Teegardeng, our actions should certainly match our words. I try to do this kind of ministry and encourage others to do this as well. We are feeding and clothing hundreds of people each month at High Pointe. I am actually proud of the way that the church has responded to these ministries.

Certainly the young--I guess I'm still there, at 36--can be idealistic or overly critical. I think that many ministers and members, however, see a great misplacement of emphases in many churches. The church is meant to be much more than a set of self-serving programs. We are called to be God's people on God's mission.

James Nored said...


Sorry for the delay here. I've been trying to get well! I so appreciate your thoughts and dialogue with you.

Certainly there are opportunities to serve everywhere, including suburbia. I simply am pointing out what many writers and leaders have started to observe--that suburban churches and those of us who live in suburba tend to reflect suburban values.

As you say, we can be countercultural and resist making our kids idols, and this requires quite a bit of bravery. While there are moral dangers in suburbia, which you rightly cite, I think the greater dangers are more subtle, such as materialism and idolatry.

I wouldn't mind people going to soccer games rather than Bible studies if they are going to meet others, serve them, and are trying to invite them into Christian community. This is what missionaries do. What we do not want to do is mindlessly participate in suburban life with the endless games and activities being the end goal and end game.

Cursing out the ref at our kids' soccer games--which I've sadly seen from Christians--is not being on mission! :) Getting to know all of the soccer parents and kids and inviting them into study or worship is being on mission.

Kevin M said...

I can sympathize with all the sickness going around. The kids had H1N1 (sounds so much better that The Swine) last week and were out almost all week from school.

A couple of points:

From my readings it seems that mission always is described as encompassing "others", not including the suburbs. Other countries, other cities, inner cities.

I guess my difficulty is that the suburbs are always described from church circles as soul-less wastelands. Which from my experience is totally untrue. I have met some deeply thoughtful and humble christians that live in the suburbs.

Most missional information deals with spreading the gospel to people who don't know Christ. In the suburbs I think the main problem is not that people don't know Christ but that they think they know him and reject him based on their "church" experience. We need tools to help minister to those types of people. The people that desperately need a savior but don't understand what they are looking for is not a church building but a relationship with Jesus.

I appreciate your messages when you bring these subjects up and talk about becoming missional in our own environments. I just think this needs to be constantly hammered on as it is against conventional wisdom and repetition is what I need to have a message sink into my thick skull.

James Nored said...


I am sorry about the H1N1 virus hitting your family! That is not fun. I am praying for all of us to get well.

As to your point about mission, ission should encompass reaching the whole world for Christ, including those nearby. Every Christian should see himself or herself as a missionary--including those in the suburbs.

The reason people are asking questions about suburban Christianity is because of the shallow results that it has been producing. To be fair, there is not necessarily evidence that Christianity elsewhere in the US is booming. It is just that often there has been the assumption that suburban Christianity as it is typically expressed is all good.

I have of coruse found great Christians in suburban churches, as have you, and I myself am a product of surburban Christianity.

I think that you are correct in stating that many suburbanites have rejected "Christianity-lite". We need to do a better job of showing true Christianity to those around us. I, too, need this pounded into my head.

Kevin M said...


I believe that it has become shallow because (I think it was you who initially mentioned something along these lines) people see a church as The Church. Which is totally not the case. In many cases members in in a church see the building and facilities as the ends and means which is totally wrong.

Sorry to keep going on like this but these thoughts have been on my mind and heart for a long time and it feels good to express them.

Anonymous said...

it probably depends a lot on how you measure a "good" Christian...