Missional in the Burbs
Jonathan’s post reminds us not to forget our suburban neighbors in our missional intention.
Jamie has an open poll
at his blog about Relocation for Missional Community. There is already
a good discussion in the comments about missional living in the suburbs.
However, I was struck by an assumption in both posts, common in blogspace Christian blogs (including this one), about how there are "the poor", who live in "the city", and then implicitly "the rest of us", presumably living in suburban material comfort (unless you're Erika - who is one lady I really respect and admire). But just this week I read an article in Atlantic Monthly about the future of the suburbs provocatively entitled The Next Slum? I recommend reading the whole thing, but the gist is simple:
- The younger generations like to live in walkable urban areas with lots going on. Many baby boomers do, too, as they age and become empty nesters.
- Rising fuel prices are going to make commuting look more and more undesirable.
- As the cities gentrify it will be at the expense of the suburbs, and much of what we saw as "urban blight" in the 1960s may end up replicating, and for the same reasons, in the suburbs over the next few decades. In many places this is already occurring.
- If that happens as the suburban homes lose value they will lose tax base and #3 will accelerate.
I throw this out for discussion if only to challenge our (my) view that the suburbs are a place of affluence and materialism sharing none of the problems with "the poor" in "the city". Times change. Demographics change. The suburbs are a recent historical phenomenon that basically mirrors the rise of the Baby Boomer(TM) generation. Maybe like the boomers the suburbs that raised them are entering a twilight phase and cities will become the focal point again.
Of course there are exceptions to all of this on both sides. But go read the article. Then look around you. If you are typing this from a suburb, do you see any of the warning signs mentioned in the article? If not in your neighborhood, perhaps the next development over? I don't live in a suburb - Jefferson City is too small for that, with a "greater metropolitan area population" of 50K or so - but we do live in a 30-year-old tract housing development on the edge of town (still in unincorporated county - but just barely) that is now starting to show some of the same signs. There's another development about a mile from here that's well on its way. The neighborhood in outer Houston my two older daughters grew up in went from decent middle class to dangerous poverty in just 20 years. I can point to lots of developments in the Front Range that have made that transition in my lifetime. The answer in the past has been to push the suburbs out ever farther and build even more new developments in former pasture land. But perhaps demographics change, energy prices, the opportunity costs of time spent commuting and other factors like not wanting to live in bland "McMansions" are adding up to that type of expansion being like a nova, and now it has reached its maximum limit and the "star" of an urban area will start collapsing back in on itself, drawn by the gravitation of the city itself, with its culture, non-chain restaurants, night clubs and so on.
Now wonder - if "the poor" are going to become our next door neighbors in the burbs how will that change things? Our attitudes? How many of us will rush to move back into the gentrified city where it's "safe"? (Of course, we'll justify it as being more for the "lifestyle" or to "expose the children to new opportunities", but really it will be to get away from "those people".) How will we build community in neighborhoods where the norm has become not knowing our neighbors, "snout-nosed houses" blocking off all sense of openness, right when what we will most need is that community and its relationships? How will we deal with the family across the street who isn't just obviously poor, but is also lowering their and our property values by letting their house go downhill? What if they're just renters? For the record, I am piss poor about any of that. I interact more with "the poor" in "the city" through volunteering than I do with any of my neighbors, as I resentfully watch a few rental houses in the neighborhood go to seed, but don't actually reach out and talk to any of the people living in them.
And how will our church react and change to all this? Or will it have to, if it is as disconnected from us as our neighbors, just another place we drive to during the week?
Anyway, just a few thoughts to challenge our complacent assumptions. Times change. Make sure your mental model changes with them.