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The Problem with Suburban Christianity

The Problem with Suburban Christianity

I lived in the same place virtually my entire life. Dallas is home and it’s hard to ever see any other place rivaling it. This is where my family lives, it’s where I’ve developed lifelong friendships, and it’s a city that I’m proud to be a part of. If I’m honest though, I’ve really always lived in the suburbs.

After graduating college, I really wanted an apartment near downtown where I was attending seminary but Holly was strongly against it. She liked the quiet realities of the suburban life and I can’t really blame her. Plano, where I grew up, is one of the safest cities in America and one of the wealthiest. There are very few parts of town that aren’t perfectly manicured and well cared for.

That’s even true of McKinney, where we just bought our first home. It is regularly rated by Forbes as one of the best cities to call home. Our neighborhood is super-friendly and the city is nothing short of palatial. When I drive home, it feels welcoming and protected. The city has been specifically designed to feel as if you’re leaving any harsh realities of the city behind as you drive in.

Leaving Suburbia

It’s amazing what happens when you leave the suburbs. I used to go to school and work in downtown. Often, the best way to get down there was by taking our light rail system. When you take it everyday, you get to know the regulars. I became friends with a man named Gordon who I groggily chatted with every morning on the way in. I’d see the same nurses and doctors get off each morning at the medical district. I’d see others with more eccentric personalities jump on and off around mid-town.

In between all of this, there were also plenty of low income, often dangerous neighborhood where the train would stop, swing open its doors, and wait. I was always a little more guarded around these areas if I was riding later at night. These were often the stops where you’d meet some very interesting people, like the woman who waited until we were underground to call down satanic curses on everyone in the middle car. There was also the guy who had just finished his 13-year sentence for felony weapons possession and was on his way to pick up a new social security card.

Being completely honest, I really enjoyed getting to know some of these people. I loved seeing the excitement on a recently released prisoner enjoying his freedom for the first time again. The woman calling down curses was hilarious too. All at the same time, I was relieved to be getting off at the northern-most end of the line where there was sufficient padding between me and them. I liked talking with them but I also wanted to keep them at a safe distance from the rest of my world.

The Problem

I’m currently 18 months into my “Read the Bible in a Year” plan. (Yeah, it’s going that well.) Often this can feel routine but I was particularly convicted by this passage I came across in Romans yesterday.

“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. (Rom. 12:16)”

Paul goes further than just commanding Christians not to go out of their way to avoid the “lowly” – the poor, the drug addicts, the felons, or the calling-curses-down-on-you crazies. He calls on us to deliberately put ourselves in their path. The mark of a Christian should be our willingness to purposefully encounter, build relationships with, and minister to those who are economically or socially lowly.

He goes further though. Notice the connection between that command and what follows – “Never be wise in your own sight.” I’m really thankful for the fact Holly and I get to live in such a beautiful part of town and own a home at this stage in our lives. It’s a wonderful blessing. My parents had deep financial struggles at our age that made such a reality nearly impossible.

While Holly and I have made some positive financial choices, the fact we enjoy that life isn’t due to our wisdom or responsibility. We were both blessed with parents who paid for our education. Holly’s parents let her remain at home while we were engaged, allowing her to save a lot of money. We haven’t carried debt at any point in our marriage as a result. It is not our wisdom that led us to the great position we are in today. It is simply God’s grace and the support we had in the beginning from our families.

If you’re wealthy, it’s easy to think you somehow deserve it or have somehow attained something that gives you a right to such a lifestyle. But there is something you have to remember. It’s not yours. Your money isn’t yours, nor is anything it affords. It is something God gave you so you can use it for his glory. Using it to build up your own pride isn’t any different than the valet who cruises around in another person’s BMW to make himself look good. It’s thievery. And I’m not just talking about your 10% tithe either. None of it is yours. So how do you know you’ve become wise in your own eyes?

1. You look down on those who have less than you.
2. You are embarrassed around those who have more than you.
3. You have little or no regular interaction with those who Christ might consider “the lowly.”
4. Your wealth and “stuff” is a major source of confidence for you.
5. You find yourself secretly angry or frustrated when you’re asked to give financially to missions or designated ministry opportunities.
6. You categorically judge those who are poor or homeless.
7. You feel good about yourself when you occasionally help out in inner city ministries but make no effort to build meaningful relationships with those they are serving.

Ultimately the problem with being a suburban Christian is that we are often attempting to protect ourselves from the very people that Scripture mandates we care for the most. There is nothing wrong with living in the suburbs but it requires an extra sense of diligence to minister to those Paul is talking about here. Saying “I don’t know anyone who is needy” isn’t a valid excuse when you deliberately moved out of their way.

The Fix

So how do we fix this? Honestly, I think it requires an entire shift in our attitudes but here are a few suggestions I’d offer.

1. Sponsor a child overseas. Compassion International is my favorite of these organizations. You can actually build a relationship with the child and even go visit them at some point.
2. Support a missionary. In addition to our tithes, Holly and I support three of our friends who are doing overseas ministry work and give to our university. The next time you hear about someone like that, consider giving $25-$50 a month and be a part of what God is doing through them.
3. Get into the city. Consider taking your family downtown every week and begin developing ongoing relationships with ministries reaching the homeless in your area. Get to know the people they’re serving. Do it to make an impact, not to make yourself feel good for the weekend.
4. Go overseas. Nothing will wake you up like finding yourself in a village where the primary building material is mud. You’ll start to realize there is a world outside your suburbia. In fact, it’ll change the entire way you look at your place in the world.

Discuss: What else would you suggest?

Posted in: Ministry

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  • Jordon

    I don’t know why I’m surprised, but every time I am drawn to read your blog, it is something I NEED to read! I need to step outside my comfort zone a little more often.

    • Matt Morrison

      Hey Jordon, I’m glad to hear it’s been a ministry to you. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Rick B

    Having lived in the inner city of North Dallas for many, many years, I felt more of a shock moving to Frisco! I always found inner-city folk to be kinder and more willing to give of themselves than many in the burbs.

    • Matt Morrison

      Rick – I’ve noticed some of that too! Thanks for the comment!

  • Aubry Smith

    Yes! And doesn’t Jesus give us the ultimate example of this? He left heaven’s glory to be born in scandal, raised in Nazareth, ministering to people who were deemed the least worthy by the world, and then was crucified. And what does Jesus tell His followers? Take up your cross and follow. Christians MUST imitate this. We MUST be intentional.We lived on OBU’s campus, in a parsonage on a church’s property, and on a seminary campus…and because of where we lived, it was far too easy to just run in Christian circles. So when we moved to DFW, we intentionally looked for apartments where the mosques were. We live less than a mile from a large one. I have 3 kids 4 and under and no car during the day, so it is much easier to stay home. I often walk to a park or the library to build relationships with Muslim women – my 4-year-old is often the one initiating conversations for me! We also do some prayer-walking around the mosque as a family. God can use any of us where we are – but we need to be deliberate in serving rather than seeking our own comfort.

    Challenging post, Matt. Thanks for your insights!

    • Matt Morrison

      Aubry – Thats a great point about Christ’s example on this! Thats also exciting about how you and your family prayer walk the neighborhoods. I’m always encouraged by the way you guys live this out! Thanks for the comment!

  • Sarah B

    Hi Matt – I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and the fact that you took the time to bring this to the table. You stated, “Honestly, I think it requires an entire shift in our attitudes” and I don’t think you could be more correct about that. In my job, I work extensively with those we label as “the poor, the drug addicts, the felons, or the calling-curses-down-on-you crazies” and I think the key to this attitude change is education and conversation.I won’t pretend to be an expert (I am very new at what I do and have a great deal to learn) but here are a few emerging observations:

    1) The lives of those you’re discussing could not be more complicated. There are mental health issues, socioeconomic/racial discrimination, abuse and trauma, political injustices, grief and loss, and a general sense of hopelessness that things could be different. When we begin to think on these issues, I think we increase our understanding, empathy, and ability to build meaningful relationships. I think education, particularly through conversations with the real experts (the ones living through all of this), is key to loving others as equals in the way Jesus modeled so beautifully. Easier said than done, as this is not always a comfortable process.

    2) As “suburbans”, we have a tendency to label. I am just as guilty of this at times, but I think referring to folks as “drug addicts” or “felons” perpetuates the divide and highlights our differences. Your first commenter stated that Jesus “minister[ed] to people who were deemed the least worthy by the world.” The ugly truth is that in our scenario (2013 suburbia) we (the predominantly white, wealthy-ish, Christian folks) are often the ones doing the “deeming,” as opposed to the mostly non-Christian society of early believers. I guess what I’m saying is we have to own our part of sustaining this “us” vs. “them” thing that makes all of this so difficult. [And trust me, nothing is more embarrassing and gut-wrenching than when I unintentionally slip into this language at work and hurt the feelings of one of my clients.] We have to adjust our language so that it distinguishes the struggles from the Image of God humanity in our neighbors.

    3) Lastly (sorry, I did not intend to write so much), I think we (still the predominantly white, wealthy-ish, Christian folks) need to de-Jesus-ify ourselves and give others some more credit for the lives they lead. Please hear me say, I am NOT rejecting the concept that we are to follow Jesus in the path of love and suffering he walked for us. I am merely saying that a ton of these folks are loving God to the best of their ability, even as they fight their addictions, heal from mental illness, serve time for crimes, etc. And, perhaps, Romans is more about how we love our Christian brothers and sisters, rather than how we interact with the non-believing. Not that the latter isn’t important, but I think bridging the great divide between Urban and Suburban might look a lot like white, black, Catholic, protestant, dunking, sprinkling, charismatic, and traditional (etc.) churches all joining in conversation about our own segregation and how we can unify to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.

    Sorry for the novelette here and I’m not always the most clear writer. But I hope this may somehow add to the thought or conversation around this important topic. I hope this comment doesn’t seem critical since I agree with much of what you said! More often than not, I’m responding to things I notice in myself. Thanks again for the space to have this conversation.

    • Matt Morrison

      Sarah – Thanks so much for your thoughts. I love what you have to add here. I think you’re spot-on in your observations. I especially love this…”Not that the latter isn’t important, but I think bridging the great divide between Urban and Suburban might look a lot like white, black, Catholic, protestant, dunking, sprinkling, charismatic, and traditional (etc.) churches all joining in conversation about our own segregation and how we can unify to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.”

      I wish I could express how much that idea has been on my heart lately. Thanks!