The Burbs—More Mission Field Now Than Ever
BY MIKE STONE
Remember the August 2003 power blackout out of that temporarily paralyzed the eastern half of our continent? Without electricity for air conditioners, appliances and entertainments systems, people were out on the street talking, eating, watching children play and enjoying each other’s company—a different kind of electricity. Years later I heard a neighbour lament that he had not experienced that kind of meaningful neighbourhood togetherness since. His bemoaning was an indictment on suburban life.
Suburban living became popular in the middle of the twentieth century as people fled the chaos and complexities of the city in search of refuge and tranquility. Cheap land at the city’s edge made home ownership—and the pursuit of the American Dream—affordable. Built on the principles of privatization and exclusion, suburban life was dubbed privatopia. (Simon Carey Holt, God Next Door: Spirituality & Mission in the Neighbourhood, p 38) Suburbs were little more than clusters of autonomous individuals, offering the façade of community without any meaningful togetherness. (Albert Y Hsu, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality In The Land Of Plenty, p 117)
MAKING THE BEST OF THE DOWNSIDES OF SUBURBIA
Sociologists denounced suburbia’s deprivation in the decades that followed. Eventually architects and city planners—the custodians of the new urbanism—modified home construction, adding verandas to the front, moving the garage to the rear and the reducing distance between front doors. By the turn of the century, even the Church realized suburbia’s deficiency was an opportunity for mission. Sermons called for incarnational witness, the priority shifted from church programs to faithful parish presence and the people of God were sent out to cultivate transcendent togetherness in the neighbourhood.
Though not first to act, the Church is best equipped to nurture community. Aware that each person is made in the image of God—the Eternal Dance of Three—we know people were created for community. We believe that God is reconciling all things in Christ and that we are agents of this reconciliation. We know that the Spirit has empowered us to live out kingdom one-anothers as a sign of God’s new humanity. The cultivation of genuine community in the world is central to the Church’s mandate.
SHIFTS IN THE SOCIAL LANDSCAPE
If alienation in the burbs isn’t daunting enough, recent shifts in our social landscape will generate further missional challenge. Over the last two decades we have witnessed in part what Alan Eherenhalt dubbed the Great Inversion—a reversal in fortune in which cities flourish and suburbs decline. (Richard Florida, “The Fading Distinction Between City and Suburb,” CityLab, October 6, 2014). The new urban elite have moved to the once forsake urban core, drawn by mix-used neighbourhoods, multiple transit options and a plethora of cultural amenities. For the most part they are young, affluent, talented, technically savvy and tolerant. Similar to white flight that emptied US city centers in the 1960s and 70s, this migration will inevitably impoverish the suburbs.
Eherenhalt’s predictions have materialized only in part. Though city centres are repopulating, the suburban population in many US and Canadian metroplexes has grown at a greater rate over the last couple years. As housing prices soar in urban cores, home ownership has become more affordable at the outer edge of suburbia. People are drawn to the newest subdivisions, designed with an emphasis on walkability, greenspace, and mixed-use policies. Artists and performers have arrived, pushed out of the urban core by skyrocketing rents and have brought a bit of culture once non-existent in the burbs. In the most flourishing metroplexes, city planners have developed high-density, urban nodes in the suburbs, connected to the greater metro area by regional transit. It appears suburbs aren’t dead yet.
While suburbs have become more urbanized, the urban core has become more suburbanized. Millennials are staying in the city to raise families, the affluent are importing their preference for single family home ownership, and big box stores are moving in to service consumers. The lines between urban and suburban realities are blurring.
However, the Great Reversal will have a negative impact on the suburbs, particularly where growth is by-passing older subdivisions (middle ring). The migration of the rich to the city centre is displacing the poor to the suburbs. A study of American metropolitan areas reveals that while poverty grew by 29% in the city between 2000 and 2013, it grew by a rate of 66% in the suburbs. Between 2001-2010 murder rates rose by 17% in the suburbs while falling by a similar rate in the cities. Related to density, suburbs will not be able to provide the same policing and social services that are available in the urban core and the suburban poor will be more isolated from employment options than their urban counterparts. (Richard Florida, “The New Urban Crisis,” CityLab, May 2, 2017).
According to Richard Florida, more than half of all immigrants by pass urban centers and settle directly in the outer regions of our metropolitan areas. Between 2000 and 2010, Caucasians accounted for just 9% of the suburban population in America’s 100 largest metropolitan regions and Caucasian population declined in one third of those regions during the same period. Suburbs decreasingly reflect the ethnic homogeneity they were once known for.
Challenges related to the growing poor and immigrant populations will be further exacerbated by structural decay. Shoddy construction and hastily installed infrastructure across such a large footprint will be difficult to address. In the mid-1980s, urban designer, David Lewis said to his colleague, Richard Florida that “the future project of suburban renewal would likely make our vast 20th-century urban renewal efforts look like a walk in the park.”
IS THE SUBURBAN CHURCH UP FOR THE CHALLENGE?
To begin with, have we learned from the missteps of the previous generation—a church that left the urban core for a better life in the burbs, unwittingly compounding the larger social crisis? Will any from the emerging generation stay for the sake of mission to offer the gift of presence and stability?
As the Lord welcomes us weekly to his table, will we likewise offer hospitality to the strangers that have come to our land? To the growing poor among us, will we merely bless them with a “keep warm and well fed” but do nothing about their physical needs—what good is that? (James 2:16)
Beyond care for the least and lonely, is the suburban church—it’s brightest and most innovative—prepared to join civic efforts to revitalize and beautify our social spaces? What can we offer? Imaginations shaped by blueprints of the Garden and the New Jerusalem.