Does Suburbia Hurt Christianity?
By matt cochran
March 5, 2012
If you’ve been to a hip evangelical church in the last decade, you’ve probably heard the phrase “doing life together.” It’s the solution for twentysomethings’ need for a spiritual support system and community. It usually takes the form of a group of people who meet regularly to study the Bible and socialize.
The tragedy is that “doing life together” in America is a program now and doesn't often happen organically. Most people live 20 minutes or more from each other, drive 45 minutes to work and live such segmented lives that community has become largely an emotional necessity, not an economic one. If Christians didn’t get together and “do life together,” they’d rarely see each other. What used to happen in the course of living—running into neighbors at the grocery store or passing them while walking to the theater—is now a program that happens on a schedule. When did this deconstruction of community begin?
After World War II many Americans were lured away from cities to the suburbs. There was a lot to like about the era’s new suburban developments: bigger houses at affordable prices, backyards and good schools. Sadly, another factor also played an important role: suburban communities were overwhelmingly white, populated by former city dwellers who had sold homes and moved when the racial makeup of their neighborhoods began to change. Some were afraid of the growing presence of minorities and weren’t going to wait to see how the continued influx would impact their property values and schools. The white middle class was used to a neighborhood that looked just like them. Joined by others who had moved from rural farming areas to work in the city—but likewise didn’t want to actually live there—they spread out in suburbia and tried their best to recreate the homogenous notion of community they experienced in their city before it changed.
Many of those packing up for the suburbs in the 1950s and '60s represented the majority Christian establishment, as evidenced by today's sprawling megachurches 30 or so driving minutes from the city. It became an article of faith almost: good Christian families live in suburbia.
Evaluating the motives of people who fled cities for suburbs decades ago is not the purpose here—most of them probably just wanted to give their family a good life. And it's important to be sensitive to the real influence of time and culture on family and spiritual values. However, it's also important to consider and analyze the unintended consequences of the flight to suburbia and how it has changed the American church and life.
Community Is More Than a Program
Suburban lifestyles often shelter people from human interaction. Suburban dwellers start the day in a car alone and then conduct business with a relatively small group of coworkers and clients, many of whom live so far away it’s difficult to carry on a meaningful personal relationship with them. After work, they return home the same sheltered way they came. As soon as they get in the house, maybe they flip on the TV. When “doing life together” is a program, it’s too exhausting to put on the show every night.
Hollywood has often negatively portrayed this sense of alienation—consider director Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and American Beauty or the ABC sitcom Suburgatory, among others (ironically, those who would go to great lengths today to portray the suburban ideal as a mirage are part of the same industry that told us suburban life could be perfect in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver). While some pastors call suburban horror themes an assault on family values—which has some validity—there are elements of truthful criticism.
Suburban life feels unnatural because it lies between the natural habitats of man: city and country. As James Howard Kunstler points out in his book The Geography of Nowhere, suburbia has neither the benefits of the country—natural beauty—nor the convenience and community of the city. It’s a place that engenders little real love or affection because the only things holding it together are paved streets. Community is spread out. It occurs irregularly at appointed places such as schools, churches and athletic facilities that are miles apart. It offers little in the way of unifying cultural and civic institutions because there is no commitment to a place ... because there is no “place.” The "town square" is gone.
The result of this structure is that people only meet people they want to know. The schools are packed with children of the same socioeconomic status, and the same goes for the churches.
Protecting ourselves from the rawness of life is beneficial up to a point, perhaps when it involves sheltering children, but continuing the charade indefinitely into adulthood produces alienated, ineffective Christians and citizens focused more on protecting their neighborhoods than impacting and serving others.
By shunning minorities and the poor through complete geographic separation, many Christians did two things: deserted their neighbor and insulated themselves from the world and each other. As a result, the Church is now nearly impotent to deal with the challenges of the inner city. Believers exchanged Christ’s example of engaging others for a false “Christian” culture that lulled itself to sleep with its idealized suburban enclaves.
The problem is largely structural. People today live in a landscape created by their forebears. But deciding it’s less than optimal doesn’t make it go away or excuse Christians today from trying to change it. There are various adjustments that can be made depending on the trade-offs people are willing to make. For example, more people could attend churches nearer to them in order to worship with their neighbors, even if it’s not the "ideal" church. Families could live closer to the workplace in order to simplify and make room for more community, even if that means living in smaller homes. And engaging others outside their socioeconomic status should be a common experience for children.
Real reality is humbling and challenging. It encourages the onlooker to think deeply about his or her own choices and move beyond rote Christianity to a deeper faith and outreach. Young people exposed to real reality are more likely to understand that good parents and geography don’t separate them from poverty and disease, but good choices embedded in a strong faith do. Fully understanding that doesn’t require a move back to an urban setting—although maybe more Christians should consider that—but it will require more than a program.
Matt Cochran is a writer and public relations consultant residing in Atlanta, Georgia.