This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information about the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When we pulled our 26-foot moving truck up to our suburban tract home five years ago, we not only had a household to unpack, but we also had all the excitement, trepidation, and hopefulness of a church plant to unbox and find a home for. We’d lived in large cities and overseas: seminary and graduate school in Scotland, a church-planting apprenticeship in San Diego, and several years of campus ministry in Salt Lake City. Then, our family moved home to the suburbs of southern California to plant a church.
We dreamt that a new local church would help our neighbors with their questions, provide a place of belonging among long commutes and big box stores, and ground a mission and purpose beyond consumer goods and services, typified in houses and cars.
While the urban and rural divide became a hot topic on the heels of the 2016 presidential election, where did that leave the suburbs? Are they a sort of no man’s land, caught between worlds, or a strategic place for evangelism and discipleship?
THE RETURN TO THE SUBURBS
While a “return to the city” movement among millennials peaked in the early 2010s, the suburbs have continued to be a valued place to live, work, and worship. In fact, during the latter part of the 2010s, suburbs have continued to increase in popularity. Many suburbs are more affordable than the city, they may offer amenities with a downtown feel without the price tag or congestion of city life, and they are connected to larger city centers (now dubbed “hipsturbias”1). Additionally, as fears of communal contagion grow due to the COVID-19 pandemic, suburban homes, rather than city center apartments, are increasingly desirable.
While the suburbs are growing, they are also becoming more diverse. A recent Pew study highlighted how the suburbs were not losing numbers that cities were as the decade progressed.2 With more racial and ethnic diversity and political variance (more than their urban or rural counterparts, which tend to be liberal or conservative, rather than split), suburbs are poised to be a place where civility can grow.
Suburbs embody much of the American ideal: an emphasis on community, property ownership, and safety, as well as architecture that expands outward instead of upward. Even cities are looking more like suburbs. Ian Bogost recently wrote in The Atlantic that many American cities are sprawling: “roughly three-quarters of the population live in single-family homes, a reminder that even the urban cores of big American cities, such as Dallas or Phoenix, wear the trappings of suburbia.”3 That is, while more than 50 percent of Americans live in a proper suburb, the markers of suburbia — good schools, single-family homes, and a white-collar workforce — typify much of what we consider the “good life” of America, no matter where you live.
There is tremendous need to embody the good news of Jesus wherever we live, including cultures of affluence. Affluence is more than wealth or prosperity, but a state of our bank account that can change the state of our hearts. As our affluence grows, it’s easy to become more isolated, individualistic, and self-serving. When we speak about opportunities for Christians in suburbia, we should think of ourselves as missionaries in a foreign land. We begin to embody the gospel in the suburbs by extricating suburban idols of comfort and safety, by practicing ordinary hospitality, and especially by listening to one another.
EXTRICATING SUBURBAN IDOLS
On our first Fourth of July in our new suburban home, we brought red, white, and blue milkshakes to the neighborhood street party. Our master-planned community had an HOA-organized parade, BMX bike shows and races throughout the day, and a firework display that made our neighborhood feel like Mainstreet, USA. While the neighborhood dazzled that day, it also reinforced that most of us want community on our own terms, in grand gestures, not in small moments of daily life.
In his interaction with the rich young ruler in Mark 10, Jesus reminds us how wealth, prestige, power, and even good moral deeds can be barriers to the kingdom of God. When we determine our decisions primarily by what is in the bank and our schedules by suburban hurry, we can easily be lulled into a false sense of autonomy. Our neighbors, too, are hustling for the good life. Meanwhile, Madeline Levine notes, between 30 and 40 percent of affluent children struggle with psychological problems, and 10 to 15 percent struggle with anorexia and suicide. She continues: “Our affluent children — the children of the suburbs — are experiencing emotional and psychological problems significantly higher than the average child, and often even greater than children in dire poverty.”4 All is not spiritually healthy in a culture that holds out material prosperity as the good life.
The job, then, of the Christian in the suburbs is to put flesh on the gospel story. We should aim to develop a communal identity, rather than care only for ourselves or our nuclear family. We should pay attention to our actual neighbors in ordinary conversations and interactions. We should put our fingers on the wounds of affluence — offering presence, companionship, a listening ear, and a salve of identity in Christ. What Jesus requires of the rich young man isn’t destitution, but that Jesus would have his first love.
We can do these outward actions of evangelism only when our idols of comfort and control have been replaced by “the expulsive power of a new affection.”5 Nineteenth-century Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers reminds us that love anchors and transforms. He wrote, “We know of no other way by which to keep the love of the world out of our heart, than to keep in our hearts the love of God.” For “faith worketh by love; and the way of expelling from the heart the love which transgresseth the law, is to admit into its receptacles the love which fulfilleth the law.”6 It is the love of God that melts our hearts, changes our desires, and motivates our actions.
Christians in the suburbs, through their deliberate habits to turn outward instead of inward, moving from behind picket fences and automatic garage doors into the neighborhood, can offer hope to neighbors who have to do more, earn more, achieve more, and be more in order to achieve the good life. The good life is Jesus Himself, and the way forward is through ordinary practices of hospitality.
A WAY FORWARD
Jesus reminds us that others will know we follow Him because of our love (John 13:35). Love often looks like attention, presence, and curiosity about our neighbors — things affluence cannot buy. The practice of evangelism in the suburbs starts by knowing our place: walking our neighborhood, knowing our neighbors, and inviting them in.
We can begin developing relationships by simply regularly walking through our neighborhood. We notice the needs of our neighbors. We do more than wave. We make small talk and awkwardly re-introduce ourselves until we are fixtures of our cul-de-sacs. We find out the names and histories of our neighbors, and we practice ordinary hospitality by inviting neighbors into our homes and our lives.
When we were new residents in our neighborhood, my husband signed up as the neighborhood community representative. He and another man, Jason, organized street parties. It was easy to invite their family over for dinner and get to know them. They reciprocated and we began to speak about work lives, our hopes for our families, and faith. As we asked questions, invited them to social events, and as our kids played together, we began to speak of Jesus. They warmed to our family, so inviting them into our wider family — the church — was natural.
These are our rhythms of paying attention and of offering small encounters with Jesus on our suburban streets. We walk. We eat together. We pray. Through our daily habits of prayer and Scripture reading, we will have our hearts enlivened to love God and love our neighbors. As we gather with our local church throughout the week, we will have a reorienting worship to invite others into. We practice seeing people who are unseen — whether from their busy hustle or their lack of social capital. We entrust our neighbors to our good God who can reorder and widen our affections. We pray for the Spirit to do a new thing in our neighborhoods.
While the suburbs may be a strategic place for gospel witness, the values of affluence can often work against the transforming work of God. Still, there is cause for hope. Jesus told His disciples after the rich young ruler departed, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).7 And when the disciples were astonished and confused at the kingdom of God, wondering how they could be a part of it, Jesus reminded them, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (10:27).
May we pray as we walk. May we be curious about people. May we move toward our neighbors and invite them into our lives. May we be so filled with the presence of God that we offer peace and contentment in a suburban system that never has enough. May our small acts of hospitality bring many into the kingdom of God! —Ashley Hales
Ashley Hales (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs (IVP, 2018) and the forthcoming book, A Spacious Life (InterVarsity Press, 2021). She is host of the Finding Holy Podcast and a speaker, and you can connect with her at aahales.com or @aahales on social media.
- “Emerging Trends in Real Estate: United States and Canada 2020,” Urban Land Institute, https://ulidigitalmarketing.blob.core.windows.net/emergingtrendspdfs/ET2020FallMeeting.pdf.
- Ruth Igielnik and Anna Brown, “5 Facts about U.S. Suburbs,” Pew Research, October 2, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/02/5-facts-about-u-s-suburbs/.
- Ian Bogost, “Revenge of the Suburbs,” The Atlantic, June 19, 2020, accessed June 23, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/06/pandemic-suburbs-arebest/613300/.
- Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advance Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (New York: Harper, 2008), quoted in Ashley Hales, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 55.
- Thomas Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Christianity.com,www.christianity.com/christian-life/spiritual-growth/the-expulsive-power-of-a-newaffection-11627257.html.
- Chalmers, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.”
- All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.