Friday, September 4, 2015

Suburban Christianity, by Keith Miller

I think Keith Miller wrote Suburban Christianity for me.  Ever since my exposure to urban ministry on a trip to Chicago and a subsequent trip to Houston, as well as years spent working with an urban ministry in a medium-sized city, I have looked with disapproval on suburban churches.  I say this even as for the last ten-plus years I have lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and attended an even more suburban church.  The self-disparagement has been stifling.

Miller resists the idea that God's work in urban areas, which he narrows down to "pre auto urban core in a big metro area," specifically with a high concentration of multi-family housing and where walking and mass transit dominate, is somehow superior, more spiritual, or more important that suburban and rural work.  A movement has arisen, particularly among younger evangelicals, toward focusing ministry in these urban cores.  The reality, though, as Miller writes, is that this is simply a reflection of shifting cultural trends.  Just as the post-WW2 movement to the suburbs spurred the growth of suburban churches, so has the movement to new urbanism, gentrification, and downtown revivals led to growth in urban churches.

Miller addresses common criticisms of life in the suburbs: lack of influence, lack of diversity, lack of sacrifice, lack of authenticity, lack of community, and lack of beauty.  He shows that these criticisms are unfounded and stereotypical.  In my opinion the new urban evangelicals are making as aesthetic, lifestyle choice by choosing to live and worship in an urban core.  Far from being a sacrifice to "move to the heart of the city," they choose to live in hip, newly renovated housing, taking advantage of shorter commutes and cultural amenities, while couching their lifestyle decision in spiritual terms.

Miller's point is "No matter where you are and no matter where you want to live--live there on purpose." I think about my neighborhood, in the city limits of a big city in a major metropolitan area.  The neighborhood is quintessentially suburban, surrounded by green space, but filled with similar homes, all distant enough from schools, churches, shopping, and commercial areas that walking is not an option, except for a bit of exercise.  It is diverse, with whites, hispanics, blacks, and Asians.  Community is rich: my kids call our next-door neighbor their second mom, and kids from the neighborhood knock on the door to play and feel just as comfortable hanging out in our living room as their own.  Several teachers from the neighborhood school live in the neighborhood.  These are features that are supposedly absent from suburbia, according to the critics.  But they are just as likely in dense urban areas and in suburban areas like mine.

In no way would Miller say that Christians shouldn't live in the city.  Ministries such as the one I was involved in and that I observed in Houston and Chicago play an important role in the body of Christ.  He wrote this book "to demonstrate that evangelical Christians can live lives in suburban locations without compromising their commitment to biblical ethics."  Every area has opportunities for ministry.  Needs associated with "inner city ministry" can be just as prevalent in pockets of the suburbs.  On the flip side, materialism, self-centeredness, and status seeking are just as prevalent in urban areas and suburban areas.  (In other words, anywhere human beings live!)  I appreciate Miller's balance and insight.  I won't be so quick to criticize Christians who live and worship in the suburbs--including myself!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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