On a Theology of “Non-Place” & Being the Suburb of God


Yesterday’s post on how I’m wrestling through a Theology of the City really seemed to have struck a chord. Here on the blog, there was an interesting discussion about how to theologically view the suburbs. We asked many questions, but landed at few answers. And so, I thought I’d continue the discussion by posting the essence of these conversations on the blog and seeing if we can’t keep the conversation going.

To further offer context, I’ve also added a video I had to record as an introduction to my “Urban Christian” seminary class. In it, I offer a little background on where I’m coming from in this discussion and how I came to question my own subtle sense of urban elitism. The angle also makes my hands look massive, so you can enjoy that as well. Feel free to read these exchanges, and jump in, offering your own comments to move this discussion along!


Jacob Haynes wrote:

I am an architect so I have spent some time in research and in competitions looking at ways to redeem the suburbs from a built environment standpoint. I hope that there are smarter men than me figuring out this problem because every time I come to it I get pretty frustrated and end up just wanting to raze them to the ground and start over with denser, smarter, more sustainable infrastructure.

Probably my own prejudice against the suburban lifestyle but I see it as a toxic environment for the church. I do see a greater intrinsic (spiritual and material) worth in cities (and rural living) over suburbs. I might be persuaded that it is precisely due to their low worth that they are ripe mission grounds but the only thing I can think to say to my suburban friends is to move.

I believe Christianity has great applications to both the urban and rural lifestyles (and you appropriately mentioned Keller and Berry) but I have yet to see a great model for suburban Christianity.

As a disclaimer I think that there are vastly different types of suburbs out there. In the Dallas area there is the relatively dense, multiethnic suburb of Richardson or Irving compared to the quintessential white flight suburbs of Highland Village or The Colony. When I speak of my vitriol of suburbs I am speaking of the latter not the former.

I responded:

I completely agree. I have no clue how to appropriate the suburbs into this discussion. My parents pick up that I feel this way, and they defend themselves simply saying “this is where we want to live! It works for us. We love that you do well in the city. That’s great. We couldn’t. Nor could we live on a farm. This works best for us.” And I can’t argue with them about that. They’re right.

I grew up in one of those types of Dallas suburbs you mention (Mesquite, TX), and yeah, it was diverse and dense economically and ethnically. Before you mentioned that, I had never made that connection with my upbringing and how not all suburbs are created equally. Since then, my parents have only lived in the other kind of suburb, though. They’re currently in Northern Virginia, and really enjoy the suburban life and seem to flourish there.

Everything there is no more than 20 or 30 years old It’s crazy what a built environment looks like when it was entirely conceived and created during this particular cultural flashpoint that obsesses over convenience, security, and self-gratification. And the built environments reflect that.

The suburbs still create amazing, godly people, and so perhaps we simply have to have a place for a theology of “non-place”? That’s what the suburbs feels like to me: a non-place. I’m sure as white flight reverses and suburbs become lower-income, with more immigrants and minorities living there, missional theologians will begin thinking more deeply about them.

In the meantime, I guess we just have to trust the Spirit that he is just as strong in suburbs, even if certain dimensions of full, historical Spirituality will inevitably be missing. I feel bad that suburban Christians seem to have to work even harder at simply being Christian in a fuller sense, but perhaps that is their lot and we can trust the Spirit with it.

Jacob replied:

Non-place is a great label. A theology of a “non-place” brings to mind the inaccurate picture that a lot of evangelical Christians have of a non-physical eternity. The picture of a bunch of bodiless souls floating around God forever. Where will all these souls who receive their new bodies live in the new world?

One of the main problems with a lot of suburbs is that they are ontologically parasitic on their urban neighbors. In a redeemed world all I can picture for them is to be incorporated into the redeemed version of their host city.

Which brings me back to the different types of suburbs – I think the successful ones are ones that find a sense of place and start building on it. They become their own being. This is the strength of good cities, good neighborhoods, good small towns, good homes, etc. I don’t fault the suburbs for being new – every place was new at some point – it is just how they look to mature that is the question. Most have not built a great foundation for the future so I expect that there will be some rather bad growing pains.

Jon Price, a suburban pastor then helpfully joined the conversation:

I don’t have a lot of time to fully engage this, but here are some initial thoughts. I’m a pastor of a church in the burbs, and have always served churches in the burbs, even though until and through seminary I lived in an urban environment, and desired to serve a church (or plant a church) in the city – but God’s plans are not my plans.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the suburbs (I’ve actually found many aspects of living in the burbs life-giving), it’s just that we as the Church don’t know how to be the Church in the suburbs.

Here’s what I mean… as the suburbs grew we just ‘threw’ up churches and people came to church because that’s what “good Christians” who were moving to the suburbs did. But, as the suburbs are beginning the second/third/fourth generations – who aren’t ‘church goers’ – we don’t know how to be the Church in the ‘secular’ burbs. We don’t know how to be in community with fellow believers in a way that impacts our communities.

I think one of those reasons is because being in the suburbs means you’ve got people who are a part of your church from several different communities because of the ease of travel, etc. We haven’t really had to exegete the suburbs because up until this point if you ‘just had good programs for kids/families’ you could grow your church.

But that’s changing. Not that kids don’t want good programs for their kids, they just aren’t looking to the church to find them. They can be found through the community center, YMCA, etc. I agree that the cities can be strategic and that we need gospel centered churches there, but the suburbs and the rural towns need them too. I don’t have any great answers at this point, so I’d love to hear more and engage this topic more with others.

And finally, I offered some thoughts and asked some questions for us all:

Thank you so much for commenting! This is a perspective I was looking for. Like I said above, as this next iteration of the suburbs continues, I think we’ll finally start seeing theologians consider how to “be the Church” in the suburbs (at least I hope so!). I wouldn’t want to the suburbs to be treated like the city of the past 200 years or so and neglected because it’s seen as “not as worthy” of Kingdom pursuits and work.

But still, how important do you think things like diversity, poverty, systemic and institutional injustice, large cultural centers, long geographic history to draw from, and a solid theology of “place” are to the fullness of Christian faith? I’m genuinely asking. These are the sorts of things that are offered in the usual attempts to say that more Christian resources should be spent on cities than the suburbs. Is there an aspect of our Spirituality that’s lacking when you spend all your time in absolutely homogeneity, comfort, and ease of use for everything around you?

I wrote recently about the damaging and “un-Christian” rhythms that are woven deeply into urban centers. I also asked if those things were “essential” to the way a city is, or just a way we’ve perverted them. I think urban theologians have been good at offering alternative visions in light of these deadly dynamics in cities and how Christians can be a “Counter-City” within the city. Does that make sense?

Now, how would you apply that to suburbs? I admit, I think I see those soul-crushing, “un-Christian” dynamics woven deeply into cities (I mention some above). And these are dynamics that can easily and blindly overtake Christians and shape and form them into certain types of people that look a whole lot more culturally “suburban” than “Christian”.

But, if I’m honest, I just realized that (right or wrongly) my assumption is that these dynamics are “essential” to suburbs. It’s the very purposes for which they were designed. I haven’t thought beyond that right now, so I don’t know right now if that’s ultimately correct, but I’ll ask you: what do you think?

In other words, what does the “Suburb of Man” look like, and what does it look like to be the “Suburb of God”? What are the wicked aspects of “suburban culture” and how can Christians live as a counter-Suburban culture, protesting against it?

And this is where the conversation left off yesterday. And I’m still thinking through this. I would really love any and all thoughts, so please fire away below. Also, here’s that video, introducing both myself and my perspective on these urban issues (sorry for the sound clipping).

[image credit: “suburbs“, by Maureen Sill, adapted according to Creative Commons licensing]

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