The Brutal 'Burbs: how the suburban lifestyle undermines our mission

A surge of new books have hit store shelves about the challenges facing followers of Christ who live in the suburbs. Many voices are beginning to say that the lifestyle of the affluent suburbanite, while heralded for 50 years as the fulfillment of the American dream, may actually be detrimental to the Christian life and mission. In this post David Fitch, a pastor and professor in suburban Chicago, and a regular contributor to Out of Ur, addresses the difficulty of practicing the biblical discipline of hospitality in the isolation of the 'burbs.

My church is very much in the suburbs. Specifically, the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Strangely as these suburbs have become more diverse (conspicuously more Hispanic, Asian, as well as other ethnicities) they have become more starkly spatialized. Each family unit is isolated in its own house with fenced in yard and automatically-opening garage that can be driven into permitting all contact with the outside world to be avoided.

David Matzko McCarthy in his wonderful book, Sex and Love in the Home, describes the myth of this suburbia:

The dream of the suburbs is a self-sufficient home, inhabited by affable kin and grace with plenty of yard to provide a buffer between neighbors. The aim of suburban life is to choose a home and neighborhood where we can be happy, where people work hard and respect the ways of others, and where families get along on their own and come together for recreation and leisure?.The great pleasure of home ownership is freedom and autonomy.

McCarthy proceeds to describe how the suburbs are built for the idolization of the affectionate family as the end and purpose of all life. The problem? When the family becomes another form of life separated from God and the church, it too becomes another form of self-imploding narcissism.

By idolizing the family, suburbanites may become focused on consuming more stuff to create the perfect home and family. There is nothing but contrived affection left to keep the home together. And children who learn they are the center of this universe from parents actually develop characters that believe they really are the center of the universe.

After decades of this suburban lifestyle America is left with families split by divorce, kids leaving in rebellion, and millions on various drugs to relieve the emptiness as the idolized family turns out to be a myth. Apart from the personal destruction the suburbs can bring, suburban isolation also poses a real problem for the spreading of the gospel.

April 17, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 18 comments


April 27, 2006  11:45am

This is interesting to me and largely rings true with ONE QUALIFIER - it's true of suburbs in large metropolitan areas. Having lived in suburban D.C. and Atlanta, this DEFINITELY rings true. But living in suburban Syracuse now (a small and manageable city), it's much less the case. The standard forms of community and hospitality are easily accessed and I regularly have friends over from across town - it only takes them 10-15 minutes to get to my place. So while it definitely takes effort everywhere to break down the barriers, the suburban problems are seen in exaggerated forms in larger cities, in my experience.

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April 27, 2006  10:49am

City or suburbs, sometimes I think the only people who really meet strangers anymore are the smokers.

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April 24, 2006  12:33pm

Suburbs, like any place humans dwell, are filled with those who by nature like their own kind and on the whole prefer their own company. "What if they come to know me and don't like me?" So I guess the suburb, the apartment complex, the condo, the whatever, are all places people hide from others. There are utopian pockets around the place as described by some idealists above, but I think on the whole, to exercise hospitality in the name of Christ ... or for any other reason, is seen as odd and takes time and energy and persistance and prayer before genuine relationships are built ... and then their job transfers them to another state and you start all over again! We are giving this middle-class suburban intentional mission thing a go here in Perth Western Australia, fun but -crikey - it's tough, for all the reasons outlined in the article above.

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T. Rogers

April 21, 2006  8:12am

Swimming is difficult to do for any significant duration. It is much more difficult to swim against a prevailing current. We, as men and women, swim in whatever culture we find ourselves. Our tendency is to simply drift with the current, and to occasionally cry out against the current as we float along. Far more difficult is the task of, first, recognizing the current (Indeed, it is refreshing and challenging to hear several voices offering a critical assessment of their environments) and, second, to swim against it. No culture in the world conforms to Christ's ideals for relationship and community with God and neighbor. Let us, as leaders and innovators in our churches and communities, begin the difficult task of swimming in the direction of love for God and neighbor rather than floating toward further isolation and self-centeredness. What's that? It sounds too difficult and time-consuming? Try carrying a Cross.

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P. Tippit

April 20, 2006  11:25am

Over a lifetime of living in suburbs I agree that whether we practice regular "hospitality," getting to know, help, and support our neighbors, is dependent on either the presence of kids who drag us into interaction with each other and provide a common ground for activity and conversation, or of some very outgoing neighbor who fills the same function. The truth is, suburbs or not, we do very little socializing in our homes nowadays, preferring our privacy except for occasional well-orchestrated parties and get-togethers that show off our stuff and our decorating and organizational skills. It's so much easier and less risky to meet casually, with no commitment, in a restaurant or Starbucks, quit when we want, renege if we don't feel like it. And then we wonder why we are lonely or don't have the kind of friends we had in college when we were in each other's lives all day (and all night).

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J. Inglis

April 20, 2006  9:06am

Also, I disagree that the suburb was developed to idolize the family. There is more than one theory available to explain the development of the suburb. The development is much more complex that acknowledged by McCarthy, and I would consider his theory to be one of the weakest. As for "After decades of this suburban lifestyle America is left with families split by divorce, kids leaving in rebellion, and millions on various drugs to relieve the emptiness as the idolized family turns out to be a myth." Suburbs existed before rates of divorce and rebellion skyrocketed, and currently the rates of divorce, rebellion, drug use, etc. is fairly consistent across all forms of residential development (urban, suburban, and–increasingly–rural). The causes of those issue are multiple, and linked, and have very little to do with the physical form of "suburbia". One need only do a little non-academic reflection to realize the vacuity of McCarthy's fashionable theory: rural farm life has to be the epitome of large lot isolated residential development. Yet many rural areas have fantastic levels of close community. It is because of social and religious factors that are unrelated to the physical form of development. On the other hand, condominiums and apartments keep people in very close quarters but are almost universally acknowledged as being extremely isolating. Although McCarthy (a theologian)is correct to identify the fact that marriage and sex need to be embedded in community, he is outside his area of expertise when he delves into issues of the physical form of development and the relationship of that to social structures.

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Matt Self

April 19, 2006  7:35am

As a writer and someone who grew up in the epitome of a classic suburban neighborhood (master planned community), the 'burbs represent the worst of homogenized culture. As a Christian, that's equally troublesome because it's a constant challenge to not be conformed to this world. The challenge of a Christian in the suburbs is to engage the community and become a leader. If not, the enemy is happy to step in and fill that void, where conforming to a consumer worldview becomes all too easy. When that happens, just try and raise children who fear God; the odds are no longer in the parents' favor.

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April 19, 2006  1:32am

The word hospitality simply means love to strangers or kindness to guests. The suburbs are not the challenge nearly as much as our hearts. I live in the suburbs and know nearly every person on my street. I have sent food when they were sick, eaten meals with them and recently when one lost their 22 month old child to cancer I arranged 30 guys from my church to finish a restoration project on their house. Why? Jesus wants these people to know He loves them. Evangelism is telling people that God loves them and then volunteering to prove it. Hospitality is a tool we use in proving God really does care. When we get that as a core value for how we live there are very few fences or doors that keep us out. A pastor friend of mine once told me that there is no door you cannot get through if you are willing to stoop, bend or crawl. I will admit suburb living does distract people to the point of not showing the kindness of God to others. But the real issue lies within our hearts as I bet people who move from the city to the burbs probably didn't share God's grace much in the city either. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

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David V.S.

April 18, 2006  10:34pm

Having lived in various suburbs, I would guess that the previous commentors' dichotomy is based on whether the suburub has lots of kids. In a neighborhood with lots of kids, the kids are often in each others' homes, which leads to the adults being in each others' homes. With kids, you have an excuse to not clean house before company arrives, and an excuse to visit. So in my mind Mr. Fitch's "suburb problem" is really a "neighborhood without kids" problem. Is it really news that the growing crowd that is too busy with whatever-in-life for children is also too busy for much discipleship or evangelism?

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April 18, 2006  6:36pm

Two interesting items: (1) Philip Langdon notes in his book, A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb, that "more than three-fourth of the American people live in metropolitan areas, and more than two-thirds of those live in suburbs." (2) In his book, The People's Religion, George Gallup Jr. reports that his studies and polls reveal that Americans are among the loneliest people in the world. One biblical mandate (which covers the suburban badlands): Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." –Matthew 28:19-20 Note: I live in the suburbs of Philly, which can be a pretty brutal place.

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