Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty by Albert Hsu

In The Suburban Christian, Albert Hsu has written a great little book on the dynamics of living in suburbia and how the church should respond. The book is insightful, easy to understand, and practical, while avoiding finger wagging and soapboxing.

After briefly explaining the origins of suburbia, Hsu describes some of the major sociological forces of living in a suburb. To Hsu, these forces are commuting, consumerism, branding, and isolation. These chapters were extremely helpful.

About commuting, Hsu writes:

"Think of what happens to us when we live, work, and worship in different communities. If we live in suburb A but work half an hour away in suburb B and commute twenty minutes in the opposite direction to a church in suburb C, we find our sense of identity fragmented. We are dis-integrated, and our loyalties and connections are diffused into three different geographical areas. We especially feel tension and dissonance when driving from one area to another, say from a church function in one community to a school event in another. There is little overlap between our disparate worlds." (Albert Hsu, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty [Downers Grove: IVP, 2006], 67.)

Because of the loss of community due to commuter culture, Hsu argues that suburbanites find their community through consumerism and branding. He writes:

"Branding is about status and identity. It signals something to the outside world if the logo on your car is a Mercedes-Benz or a Lexus instead of a Chevrolet or a Kia. Or if you wear clothes from Ann Taylor rather than Kmart, drink Starbucks coffee rather than Folgers, or buy groceries at Whole Foods Market rather than Safeway." (102)

According to Hsu, the suburban church should both cater to and challenge suburbanites. On the one hand, the church needs to be "missional" in the sense that it needs to recognize the particular needs, wants, and values of suburbia and proclaim its message in that context. For instance, suburbanites long for a "third place" (a place to socialize outside of home and work). Churches can easily function as a third place, as congregations such as Willow Creek in Chicago have proven. On the other hand, the suburban church needs to be careful not to encourage consumerism and isolationism through its ministry methods. The suburban church needs to encourage its members to think beyond themselves and beyond their immediate surroundings.

Hsu's book is informative and at times profound. He offers practical advice without being too preachy. And yet, one gets the feeling that perhaps suburbanites need someone preachy--a modern-day John the Baptist who will cry out "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" Then again, prophets like that have a tendency to get beheaded.

It seems like there is a growing consensus among American Christians that something is wrong with suburban middle-class Christianity. I guess the remaining question is, "How wrong is it?" Do we need a gentle nudge like the ones offered by David Goetz in Death by Suburb and Albert Hsu in The Suburban Christian or a kick in the rear like Brian McLaren in Everything Must Change or Tony Compalo in everything he has written? I don't know, but my suspicion is the latter.


Scott barger said...

Have you read "Death by Suburb" by David Goetz? It's a great book that explores those elements of suburban living that are counter-productive to spiritual formation. A good read.

Matt said...

Yes, I have. I agree, Goetz's book is great. In fact, my latest sermon series called The Good Life: Redeeming Suburbia through Counter-cultural Living is arranged according to Goetz's chapters. (I am comparing suburbia's message of the good life to the Fourth Gospel's message of "life in abundance.") I have already done "I am in control of my life," and "I am what I do and what I own." Tomorrow I am preaching about suburbia's message, "I want my neighbor's life."