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?

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