The suburbs smother the Christian spirit.
I know, because I live in suburbia. The message of the suburbs -- heck, the message of the city too, the message of culture -- is self-empowerment. Self-enhancement. Self-fulfillment. Self is at the center, and all things serve the self. (Self-service!)
Suburbia's highest virtues are convenience, abundance, and comfort. In suburbia you can have it all, and you can get it in a super-sized cup with an insulated sleeve.
The suburbs birthed the megachurch and its attractional paradigm, and this odd conflation of consumerist values and Christian religion has birthed a perverted sense of Christian entitlement. The suburbs have been good for spread of the prosperity gospel beyond the consumer ghetto of the poor.
The cultural tide of suburbia is exceedingly hard to swim against. We must have the nice house for our busy family, the nice car to get us to our "good" job, and the nice neighborhood amenities to make this apparently insufficient life more livable. And the kingdom of God? Well, we are sure it happens somehow. We certainly make time for God when we have the time, and when we do, we are sure to fit him in somehow between the paths from house to car, car to work, work to car, and car to home. We are captive to the rhythms of the world -- what the New Testament calls "worldliness," by the way -- and consequently we live compartmentalized lives. We live as though our life belongs to us, and God gets his own compartment.
This, for followers of Jesus, is backwards.
God owns all of life, and worshiping God means we must revolve around him, not he us.
The suburbs call us to make an idol of self.
The gospel of the kingdom calls us to deny our self, to take up our cross (which means death), and to follow Jesus. Not our hearts or our ambitions or our passions. Jesus.
The great kingdom blueprint, the beautiful proclamation of what the kingdom of God looks like, is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. This message outlines a glorious reality that hums and buzzes with life in the Spirit. In nearly every way, it runs counter to the way of the world, and today it calls out to us to abandon self-interest, embrace the dangerous life of discipleship, and live counter-culturally.
It is not a call to come out of society. In Jesus' high priestly prayer before his death, he referred to his followers being in the world (just not of it). You and I can do this in suburbia. It may be more difficult to do and require more discipline than it would, say, in the wilderness (where one has no choice but to depend on God's provision of physical safety and where there are fewer people to exercise love towards), but there are ways we can be "of the kingdom" while we are "in suburbia."
Suburbia has rhythms. We are highly susceptible to these rhythms because they appeal to our fallen nature, capitalizing on the divide between us and God and the divide between us and others. These rhythms include Hurry, Isolation, Comfort, and Efficiency.
There is actually nothing wrong with any of these things in their proper contexts and in their proper doses. But as rhythms, they are opposed to the ways of the kingdom, and the best way to wean ourselves off of these rhythms is to train ourselves to live in the rhythms of the kingdom. Some of these include:
What we suburban Christians are fond of saying is that we "pray without ceasing," that we pray as we go, that we bathe every moment in prayer. What in actuality we are doing, more often than not, is making prayer an afterthought, something we fit in to the "more important" thing we're doing, whether that's running errands or mowing the lawn or what-have-you.
Don't get me wrong: We should be praying as we go. But busy-ness is making us sick. We must slow down. And we must devote actual time, prioritized and intentional and primary time, to God. I have come full circle on this. I used to think insisting on a "quiet time" of prayer was legalistic and burdensome; and I still think it is if we make it a law and suggest no one can have a healthy spiritual life without it. But I do think now that it is vitally important in our increasingly unthinking and increasingly harried modern life.
Jesus did it. Luke 5:16 tells us that he often withdrew to lonely places to pray. And Jesus was a very busy dude. More busy than you or I would ever be. But he made time to be still, to be quiet, to be alone, to get out of the hurry and into the rhythm of intentional prayer.
I think committing to intentional prayer is a great way to recalibrate our values and concerns day to day.
Devotional Scripture Reading
Do we do this any more? As someone who's been in church culture for 33 years and in ministry for roughly 13, I have noticed the Church's gradual unfamiliarity with Scripture. We have our pet verses that serve our pet interests. We log the minister's message as our weekly Bible time. Maybe we get a bit here and there on blogs or on the "Christian mug" we drink our coffee out of, but the number of suburban Christians who make a life out of drinking deeply from the written word of God, delighting in its bountiful revelations, and finding transformation (as opposed to mere information) in its proclamation are few and far between, and becoming fewer and further.
What rhythm does this replace? We are feeding ourselves on radio, magazines, television, movies, video games, celebrity gossip, watercooler talk, social networking websites, cheap novels, self-help books and speakers, and myriad other amusements and diversions. All of which, again, are fine in their proper contexts and doses. But we are suffering from their inundation and the effects this inundation has on us -- a dulling of the spiritual senses, a losing of the taste for Scripture, the feel of the contours of Scripture. (Some of you don't even know what I'm talking about, and that's exactly what I mean.)
When we intentionally and prayerfully submit to God's Word -- I'm contrasting this with "using" God's Word, as if it exists to serve us, when really it serves us best when we make it an authority over us -- we will begin to see all of life differently, with clearer eyes and fresher hearts.
The suburbs call us to appease our appetites.
The call to discipleship calls us to go without, and to go without willingly and gladly.
We suburban Christians desperately need to reset ourselves against gluttony.
This isn't just about food. It's about consuming. Of anything. It's about living simply on purpose and ascribing unimportance to unimportant things.
It is easy and often necessary for the poor to fast. It is a privilege and often quite difficult for the well-resourced.
What values does a big church demonstrate when it spends multi-millions on a fitness center for its members?
What values do we demonstrate when we spend multi-hundreds on the newest gadget, only to resell it and buy the next best model a few months later?
The more we go without -- joyfully -- the more we can use to bless others who often don't have a choice but to go without.
Generosity and Service
Elaboration is probably unnecessary.
If the Great Commandment is to love God with everything and then to love our neighbors at least as much as we love ourselves, the vast majority of us have lots of repenting to do.
The great, painful irony of suburban living is that we are all very close together, often mere feet from broken people with many needs, and that is by design, yet we go through our days keeping each one to himself, and that is by design too.
The call of the kingdom requires us to love our neighbor, and loving our neighbor begins with lifting up our eyes to notice them, opening up our mouths to speak to them, opening up our homes to host them, opening up our arms to share with them, opening up our hearts to care for them.
The spirit of suburbia is dead set against generosity and service, but the design of suburbia is ripe and ready to make the rhythms of generosity and service quite easy to adopt.
Suburbia likes to think it is good at community. From the PTO to the public parks, we play at the illusion of community.
The most visible example of the illusion of community is the coffee shop. It is often set up to look like a living room. Starbucks, for instance, has cushioned chairs and even supplies board games. The coffee shops (and the cafes, and probably even the bars these days) have actually only provided a place for neighbors to come be alone together.
The life of Christian discipleship was designed to be lived in community. The Old Covenant was made with God's chosen people, and the New Covenant is made with God's called-out people. Jesus began his ministry with twelve friends and assorted other hangers-on. Acts details the birth of the church as it did life together. The rest of the New Testament is written to church communities.
As Paul says, one part of a body cannot say to another, "I don't need you."
So the very presence of the Church in suburban neighborhoods should be a constant, living proclamation, like a city set on a hill, of the benefits and blessings of community. Instead, suburban churches often reflect and emulate their cultures rather than challenge them.
This is not about going to church every Sunday. This is an Acts 2 kind of thing. This is about churches fostering actual relational intimacy and connectedness among their attenders, and this will require suburban churches and those within them thinking of church less and less as a "community center" where goods and services are provided and more and more as a training center where the community is inspired to follow Jesus and learns how to do good and serve each other in his name.
The rhythms of suburbia call us to make our faith personal, private, individual, self-insulated and self-protected. Consequently, our faith is often only as public as the Jesus fish on our bumper.
The rhythms of the kingdom, however, calls us to get outside of ourselves -- indeed, to nail ourselves to the cross -- and embrace living for the glory of God and the good of the world.
The knowledge of God's glory will someday cover the earth like the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). What a great opportunity we have to begin turning over the coffee shop tables (including the ones in the church atrium) with humble zeal for the spread of the kingdom!
This material was adapted somewhat for the first message in Element's current "God vs. Suburbia" message series. Audio here.