The critics of the suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives. I agree. My life is narrow. From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow. Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger. —D.J. Waldie, in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir
Prompted by the ubiquitous bracelets and bumper stickers, many Christians are asking (or being annoyed by) the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Thanks to the creative folks at the Evangelical Environmental Network, we’ve also been encouraged to ask, “What Would Jesus Drive?”
So here’s another pithy iteration to ponder: “Where Would Jesus Live?”
If you’re like most Christians concerned about justice and peace, “the suburbs” would probably not appear in your answer. You might say the city, where Jesus could minister to the poor and the oppressed and walk downtown to preach to corrupt politicians. Or perhaps you think of the country, where he and his disciples could raise organic tomatoes and share their free-range chickens with the hungry. But Jesus in a split-level, mowing his lawn on Saturdays and waving to the neighbor kids on their trampoline? Hmmmmmm….
So what about those of us who do live in the suburbs? Are we doomed to live narrow lives of conspicuous consumption, super-commutes, and obsessive lawn care? Or is it possible to be a faithful, broad-minded Christian in a land of housing developments, minivans, and strip malls?
The recent or upcoming publication of several books on Christianity and the suburbs shows that many Christians are ready to begin examining the particular privileges and challenges of the suburbs. While the authors vary in their perspectives, all of them conclude that Christians can live authentic lives of discipleship in the ‘burbs. “The things I am called to practice here in suburbia are the same Christian distinctives of love, witness, mercy and justice that all Christians should embody wherever they may live,” said Al Hsu, author of The Suburban Christian, in a recent interview.
Christians in the suburbs may have more chances now than ever before to practice those works of mercy and justice right where they live: a recent study from the Brookings Institution found that more Americans in poverty now live in suburbs than in cities. And many of them are finding that the suburban communities they now call home aren’t as equipped with services such as public transportation, accessible health care, and job training programs as the cities from which they moved.
This changing economic face of the suburbs may mean that the fabled narrow suburban life might not be quite so narrow anymore. It may remind us to look for Jesus in the suburbs after all….
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Read more about suburban spirituality in the July issue of Sojourners magazine.