Why are there Strip Malls in Heaven?
So paradise is a parking lot, a spot up front is your reward
And all the rest walk down streets of gold to the house they could afford2
In Erie County (the location of our Church Plant in Buffalo, NY) the Evangelical churches do not typically pursue a missional presence in the City and are instead primarily focusing their efforts into suburban ministry. One out of every twenty churches within the City limits is an explicitly evangelical church, whereas one out of every five churches outside the City is evangelical.3 Of the half a dozen major evangelical denominations and associations in the area all are heavily weighted towards the suburbs; two denominations have not a single church in the City, the largest denomination in the area has thirty-two churches in the county, and only one in the City.4 Simply put, suburban missions have captured the evangelical imagination. To what extent this trend holds true for other areas is beyond the scope of my data, however, personal anecdotes, and corresponding data (e.g. the ethnic makeup of national evangelical organizations) in other ways suggests that this is not an isolated trend.
The differences between suburban and urban environments are staggering. With regards to ethnicity the City of Buffalo is majority minority (less than half of the population is white) whereas the suburban population is 92% white.5 With regards to class the City of Buffalo has a 27% poverty rate and a per capita income of $15K annually, whereas the suburban population has a 2% poverty rate and a per capita income $47K annually.6 Politically the suburbs trend Republican and the City Democratic; even in the last Presidential election where the suburbs narrowly voted for the Democratic candidate Barack Obama (51% - 48%), the City voted overwhelmingly Democratic (81% - 18%).7
These numbers, however, fail to convey the human texture of each environment. The City is a place of wonderful diversity. It is common in parts of the City to be in the presence of half a dozen languages at once and to be exposed to cultures from every continent (the choices for cuisine are mouthwatering!); the Upper West Side is peopled by Sudanese, Burmese, Puerto Ricans, Somalis, Iraqis, Cubans, as well as African-Americans and Italian-Americans; the University District is peopled by Pakistanis, Indians, Nigerians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Kenyans, and others.
The City is also a place of immense and systemic brokenness. Six decades of suburbanization has depleted over half the population, creating blight and abandoned housing with the attendant vandalism, vice, and violence. The employers have also disappeared leaving behind families without hope, burgeoning lines for public assistance, and the breakdown of familial relationships. The public schools are often powerless to educate, fraught with parentless students, violent cultural influences, and overworked and understaffed classrooms; students simply do not learn. Even the food delivery system is broken; food desserts exist where fresh food cannot be found within whole square miles of City. In these neighborhoods Doritos, Twinkies, and Pepsi form staples of the childhood diet.
The suburban context is vastly different. The suburbs are drowning in opportunity; affordable and available groceries, healthy and safe housing, schools that educate, a police force that maintains law and order, and a culture that encourages hard work and individual responsibility. The suburbs, however, often lack the network of relationships that are present in urban neighborhoods, and are completely lacking the cultural strength of diversity and immigrant ingenuity that helped to build the City of Buffalo (and our nation) in the first place.
And so the question is begged, why are evangelicals much more present in one cultural environ than the other? Ignoring for the moment the question of how we got into the suburbs (a historical analysis would be fascinating, but would be a diversion from our present task of exploring the implications for discipleship of our current situation), we must simply observe that evangelicalism is both influenced by suburban culture, and a contributor to it.
Suburban Churches are largely communities of white, middle-class, conservatives, and so they tend to have the thought patterns, values, and decision-making patterns of white, middle-class, conservatives. Suburbanites consider it normal, or even Christian, to make major life choices by considering things like safety, prosperity, and comfort; suburban churches end up endorsing this pattern. Conversely, evangelicals have often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, promoted a lifestyle of safety, prosperity, and comfort; this has led evangelicals to build and populate the suburbs.
We Evangelicals must come to grips with the simple truth that in our imagination the Kingdom is peopled by white, middle-class, Republicans, who live in well-manicured sub-divisions, carefully chosen for their safety and proximity to good schools, and whose choice to commute to work, church, and kids’ sports events inhibits most meaningful interaction with those they live next to. This may not be the language we use to describe it, nor the plan we have to enact it, but it is the Kingdom we imagine. This truth is manifested in our individual lifestyle choices and our corporate decisions; we live in the suburbs and consider it ‘normal.’ After all, we might hear evangelicals talk of a calling to ‘urban’ ministry, but no one feels the need to specify a calling to ‘suburban’ ministry (or for a calling to ‘rich, white, conservative’ ministry for that matter) that part is assumed; it is our default setting.
It is precisely this imagination that must be renewed. We must reexamine the way we think about life in God’s Kingdom. We must replace our values for safety, comfort, and prosperity with the King’s values for painful reconciliation, practical love, and enduring justice.