Thoughts on Suburban Christianity

Peter Schuurman is someone who challenges me with his writing. He doesn’t have a blog, otherwise I would point you there, but I thought that the article below fits well with the conversation at our first gathering. This was sent out via email and also published in the Christian Courier, I believe.

Middle-Class as Messianic Mediocrity
by Peter Schuurman

When I was single and living pretty lean off the earth I had opportunity to feel that I was imitating Christ with some degree of integrity. Jesus had no home, no woman to warm him at night, and his life centered around teaching the crowds, healing the sick, and preaching about good news for the poor. Life was lived raw and spontaneous, open to serve everyone.

In the last few years I have married a wife, bought me some land, and settled into a comfortable middle-class home near a city park. I have a healthy young son who plays beneath my feet. As I write, my financial investments are doing what the Wealthy Barber says: compounding interest. Life has taken on a settled feeling, and imitating the pilgrim Jesus seems like a farther stretch.

I feel compromised when I see the counter-cultural lifestyle of some Christians. I’ve been to visit an agrarian collective where my colleague Brian Walsh now lives north of Toronto. Four families live there and produce their own electricity through solar panels and raise much of their food through farm animals and their large garden. Like Jesus, they get dusty feet and share their food with each other, while educating students and visitors.

I’ve also just read Shane Claiborne’s energetic book The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical. He talks about living with the homeless on the street, hugging children in Iraq as the bombs fall, and working with Mother Teresa in India’s slums. Its quite spectacular Christian activism.

Watered Down Christianity?
I’m tempted to say, as Kierkegaard said, that I am not a Christian. Kierkegaard said it because he wanted to own up to the ideal in Christ and be honest about what he did not truly imitate. This way he could also point out how others were even less genuine Christians. “The history of Christendom,” he said, “from generation to generation, became a story of steadily scaling down the price of what it is to be a Christian.” Christ seems to have more admirers, he concludes, than genuine imitators.

Some days here in our cozy Guelph home we have extended conversations about how to better steward the resources we have. In our household we have two cars polluting the air, two computers sucking electricity, and we are deeply invested in a society that sways a global market, which we suspect disadvantages the disadvantaged further.

What does Christian integrity mean for the middle-class? Can there be integrity where there is no risk of loss? Even if you wanted to, where do you find the time to discern what is truly right and wrong, not to mention the energy to act on it? Must we be resigned to feeling a little fraudulent, like imposters for Christ?

We could give up all we have and go to Africa. We’ve played with the idea. But recently a visiting scholar from Sri Lanka urged his audience to stay home and don’t mess up the rest of the world any further with ill-considered paternalizing interference. “Just stop your companies from making us irreversibly dependent on you!” he pleaded.

Still, we might do some good overseas. It is possible. But we are here now and seem called to serve where we are. Reformed theology has always emphasized how Christian vocation is more than missionaries overseas. Redemptive culture-making is what God made us for-in businesses, arts, sciences and recreation. But how can we be faithful to God’s call to love the poor when implicated in systems of global inequity?

The Good Life
The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class (Brazos, 2004) by David Matzko McCarthy offers some hope. He suggests by incarnating the Scriptures into our lives and thinking theologically about everything we do-what we consume, how we relate to neighbours, make friends, parent our kids, and construct our work habits-we can genuinely “seek first the kingdom.” Social pressures militate against it, but it is possible to live with generosity, grace and love in suburbia.

On a broader scale, Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises by Goudzwaard, Vander Vennen and VanHeemst (Baker, 2007) suggests policies that might mitigate the growing gap between rich and poor. There are ways for those with influence to do things differently, working for justice, freedom, stewardship, and shalom.

Suburbia need not be an insular, narcissistic wilderness. There are co-op garden opportunities, the 100-mile diet, community festivals and awareness-raising events, and simple everyday acts of kindness that truly make a difference. We know from our own neighbourhood that some middle-class homes are places of fractured relationships and dark loneliness. There is a profound poverty in the long, clean rows of the “suburban wasteland”, and we can cultivate loving Christian community in its midst. With the help of the church, we can think “glocal” and strive to be true.

Still, I feel uneasy, dissatisfied, and convicted that there is much more to be said, and much more to be done.


One thought on “Thoughts on Suburban Christianity

  1. Peter seems to have captured the struggle of the Christian suburban life well and while he offers some helpful suggestions he’s apparently left unsettled, thinking there may be lots more to do. I think he’s right.

    I’m beginning to see that while there are valuable things my family and I can do alone, by ourselves on our suburban street there is much more potential if the church as a whole were similarly engaged. But how?

    I came across an essay by Todd Hiestand where he not only provides a helpful description of the missional church (with illustrations!), but he also makes a stab at describing a framework for the missional church operating in the context of suburbia. Todd draws an intriguing contrast between the strengths of the missional church and the comfortable, individualistic, consumer-based plight of suburbia.

    A PDF version of the same report is here:

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