A version of this post was first published at Mennonite World Review.
In most circles, theological ones included, the suburbs are spoken of as the illegitimate child of urban and rural life — and with good reason. The suburban ideal emerged in the 1950s and 1960s under the influence of highway construction and white flight. Isolated family units in gated communities became the symbol of the American dream, accomplished. The suburbs promised “security” in the form of distance from one’s (fearsome) neighbor.
Shane Claiborne often says, “Creation began in the garden and ends in a city.” Claiborne has used this metaphor as a call for Christians to be present in urban development and revitalization. A side effect of this image, though, is the implication that God has no room for suburbs.
But what if the kingdom of God looks more like a suburb? Not just any suburb — it’s a disservice to speak of suburbs as a monolith, just as it’s a disservice to talk about farming in Georgia the way we talk about farming in eastern Washington. The housing-development-and-strip-mall suburbs are intermixed but distinct from the rural-town-turned-urban-access-point.
When I took a pastorate in my suburban congregation, I saw myself in opposition to the suburbs. I feared becoming the suburban bogeyman I’d spent my teen years condemning when I lived in the lush, vibrant heart of my West Coast city. I planned to survive the suburbs — to be “in the suburbs but not of the suburbs.”
After three years, I’ve made a deliberate shift to embrace the suburbs, not for what it is but for the kingdom vision I see arising in the midst of it. Recently, as I walked on a muggy August morning through the center of town, I wondered, “What if the city of God is more like a suburb?”
What if the suburbs, with their small-town centers ringed by residences, built for long walking, are part of God’s dream? What if urban density is dispersed so that each of us has our own vine and fig tree? The apartments in the city of God might not be highrises. The city of God might not be so much concrete and commerce. God might not have use for the commercial downtown center, the sleek Willis Tower and flashy tourist sites.
What if Chicago, the city I go to and from every week, is only the beginning of what God is transforming? For generations, yes, we’ve tried to convince Christians — with mixed results — that God is present and active in the crumbling, abandoned (by white people) cities of America.
In the next decade, however, the church will have to shift. As gentrification rises, as cities flourish in commercialized materialism, as the landless are pushed into decaying suburbs, as brown and black people are edged out of historic urban neighborhoods into underserviced suburbs, the church will have to change its prophetic message. It will have to remind its body that God is also present in the suburbs.
What if the center of kingdom-building in the next decade is suburban life? What if God is redeeming those isolated developments and reinvigorating them with pedestrians and a slow-walking movement? What if our suburban churches are called to be on the forefront of developing social services and walkable communities? To embrace the new diversity of the suburbs? To make our suburbs places of welcome?
The suburbs won’t save us, as our cultural rhetoric has often suggested. But our suburbs can be saved, or at least salvaged, from a place built of alienation to a place of rich community. Mennonites, today, are suburban in large numbers. Is it possible God has a job for us here, in this place, to become what we sing, to bring forth the kingdom of justice, bring forth the city of God? It’s time for us to join the forefront of suburban redevelopment. To reshape the suburbs.