I’m a product of the suburbs. Having grown up in areas surrounding Memphis, TN, Fredericksburg, VA, and now living just outside of Nashville, I am well-acquainted with suburban values and ideals. I had a friend in high school who literally lived in a cute cottage with a white picket fence.
When David Platt preached the sermon series that later become his best-selling book, Radical, my husband’s sister and her husband were members of his church. They witnessed, and participated in, a movement of people awakening to a global mission. Living for the American Dream was not only not enough, but was the opposite of what they saw in Scripture. So eventually Jen & Pete left their cushy loft and moved to “the ‘hood,” where God has done amazing things in and through their family.
Jen is one of my very closest friends, and we’ve spent hours talking through the implications of Jesus’ teachings. Like many others, I’ve wondered if we should also leave our suburban home and move to an inner city neighborhood. We’ve talked about how there’s nothing particularly special about Jen & Pete–it’s all about what God is doing. She’s told me she firmly believes everyone could do what they are doing. But the question remained–does that mean everyone should?
Then my pastor, Byron Yawn, wrote a book called Suburbianity. He wrote it partly with a suburban soccer mom in mind. I’m not a soccer mom (at least I hope not…we’re hoping for basketball and volleyball…nice indoor sports where more points are scored), but I can identify with his target audience. I’m the girl who grew up in the church, heard all the Bible stories about heroes of the faith, and tried to live a good life. But God used various passages, books and friends to awaken me to a much bigger picture of my purpose in life.
So now what? I still find myself in the suburbs, in the buckle of the Bible Belt. In many suburban neighborhoods here, everyone goes to church, everyone says he’s a Christian, and people are just generally nice to one another. But the gospel is missing. Our “good news” is this: Go to church, live right, move up on the corporate ladder, raise kind children, retire and enjoy the good life you’ve earned. The problem is that our “good news” is damning most of the families on our street. And the true gospel is almost impossible to find in the midst of the pseudo-spiritual karma language of many churches.
Byron has seen this firsthand, over and over, in our church and even in his own life. The impetus for this book, and the focus of his ministry, was a confrontation he had with a visitor to our church who expressed his utter disappointment that he had brought his parents to church to hear the gospel, only to hear the pastor preach on a passage in Matthew for almost an hour with no mention of the true good news–the gospel of grace. It was a watershed moment for Byron, and led to many watershed moments for those in our congregation.
So the book is a call to see the true gospel, to see how the entirety of Scripture points not to our own ability to be or do good, but to Christ. And it’s a call to see the neediness of our suburban neighbors. We’ve seen it time and again in the waters of baptism. The former stripper’s testimony is followed by the minister’s daughter, repenting of her trust in her own goodness. As he says, “When good suburban folks repent, it’s a miracle.”
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote along the same lines regarding the issue of self-sufficiency: “The dangers of apparent self-sufficiency explain why Our Lord regards the vices of the feckless and dissipated so much more leniently than the vices that lead to worldly success. Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.”
We’re still in the suburbs, and we’re very much in danger of seeing ourselves as self-sufficient. We exchange our souls for ease of living. Byron states,
Living in light of eternal things is difficult when material things are so abundant. We should not underestimate the war raging for our devotion and souls in the suburbs. […] But the final solution to the pervasive materialism in America is not asceticism or downsizing. Those are responses, not solutions. They are helpful, but they can’t touch the heart issue behind materialism. The solution includes a redemptive vision that so transforms our perspective that we are able to live as if we owned nothing even while possessing everything we need. […] The cross of Christ can compel you to live as if you were on the frontier of some unreached people group even as you live in the heart of capitalism.
So who’s right? The Christians overseas? The Christians selling everything and moving to the ‘hood? Or those in large homes in the upper middle class neighborhoods in the suburbs of the Bible Belt?
Obviously it’s a false dichotomy. I can’t tell you or anyone else where to go. That’s the role of the Holy Spirit. But the mission is the same. We preach Christ to all men and women and children. We support and encourage those who are being led by the Spirit to go overseas, and they encourage us as we are led to our next-door neighbor’s house. We assume the homeschooling, church-attending mom across the street is just as lost as the homeless drug addict.
Byron compares our reactions to two hypothetical visitors in our churches–one in rags, reeking of alcohol, and one in a suit with a nice Bible–and calls the church out (himself included) for our conditional love:
If your heart doesn’t sink with the man drowning in his affluence the way it did for the man drowning in alcohol, you don’t get it. You’re assuming he knows the gospel. You should be thinking the exact same thing you did about the bum. “How desperately that guy in the suit needs Jesus. Look at him! He believes his morality and church attendance save him. Most likely, right now he’s comparing himself to that homeless guy and assuming the best about his own condition. Oh, how blind he is! I’ve got to put the cross of Christ in his path. He needs to see himself as a leper and not a Republican.” This nearly imperceptible presupposition about human beings coats our souls in the suburbs, and it has robbed the church of its purpose and power.
So yes, I’m biased. He’s my pastor and if I didn’t agree with him I wouldn’t be sitting under his teaching. But I commend Suburbianity to anyone–those who have been awakened to the truth of the gospel and are passionate about sharing the truth, those who are still trusting in their own goodness, and those who have never heard any of this. It’s a call to see Christ–to see that it’s ALL about Him–and then to proclaim Him. Across the street and around the world.