Anthony Bradley struck a nerve in his probing post on the dysfunctions of Evangelical twenty-somethings. He blames two salient ideas: the “missional narcissism” of the Radicals and the anti-suburban dictates of the Metro-Evangelicals. Both trends are animated by the conviction that the comfortable, consumer-driven suburban life of the previous generation of Evangelicals was a travesty. The young people Bradley is encountering are paralyzed for fear that they will recreate their parents’ lifestyle choices and hold down hum-drum jobs in a peaceful ‘burb.

Bradley, while spurring these young folks to action, did not actually defend the suburban lifestyle — chiding the “lukewarm Christians” living in “safety, comfort, and material ease” there — but he just thought that the Radicals and Metro-Evangelicals were overreacting.

In response to Bradley’s mild critique of this reflexive anti-suburbanism, the editors at Fare Forward (HT: Mere-O Notes!) reflexively proclaimed their anti-suburbanism:

[T]here are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. . . [A]s the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary lives and ordinary relationships.

In other words, “No, really, suburbs are that bad.”

Dalas skyline and suburbs

Dalas skyline and suburbs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am prepared to say the unthinkable: suburbs are good. Stay with me now. While suburbs have suffered decades of derogatory propaganda, there is still much to be commended. In fact, I wonder if the only reason we think suburbs are bad is because we were told they were bad and we believed it.

Hating the Suburbs since 1921
Denigrating suburban living has been a favorite pastime amongst the hip-cool set for almost a century. Joel Kotkin outlines some of this history in a fabulous post on his New Geography blog. Since the 1920’s when Lewis Mumford described the expansion of New York’s outer boroughs as a “dissolute landscape” and “a no-man’s land which was neither town or country” the chattering class has been convinced that suburbia is eternally boring and somewhat sinister. F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed this jazz age sentiment in The Great Gatsby by describing the inferiority of the “bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions.”

The condescension only accelerated after the Second World War and the ensuing boom of suburbanization:

In the 1950s, the rise of mass-produced suburbs like Levittown, New York, and Lakewood, California, sparked even more extreme criticism. Not everyone benefited from the innovation that allowed the Levitts to pioneer homes costing on average just $8,000—African-Americans were excluded from the original development—but for many middle- and working-class American whites, the housing and suburban booms represented an enormous step forward. The new low-cost suburbia, wrote Robert Bruegmann in his compact history of sprawl, “provided the surest way to obtain some of the privacy, mobility and choice that once were available only to the wealthiest and most powerful members of society.

The urban gentry and intelligentsia, though, disdained this voluntary migration. Perhaps the most bitter critic was the great urbanist Jane Jacobs. An aficionado of the old, highly diverse urban districts of Manhattan, Jacobs not only hated trendsetter Los Angeles but dismissed the bedroom communities of Queens and Staten Island with the memorable phrase, “The Great Blight of Dullness.” The 1960s social critic William Whyte, who, unlike Jacobs, at least bothered to study suburbs close up, denounced them as hopelessly conformist and stultifying. Like many later critics, he predicted in Fortune that people and companies would tire of them and return to the city core.

(Joel Kotkin, The Triumph of Suburbia)

In recent decades, New Urbanists like Richard Florida have taken up where Jacobs left off. They extol the virtues of compact center cities and lament the continued bane of suburban sprawl. Some of the modern rejection of suburbia now features argumentation about carbon footprints and climate change.  But that is largely a retrofitting of the old aesthetic prejudice with scientific-sounding rhetoric.

Suburb as suffocating, anti-human landscapes has also become one of the most clichéd themes in twentieth century literature and film. From Babbitt and Revolutionary Road, to Pleasantville and American Beauty, the creative class seems quite certain that suburbs, well, suck.

Have Evangelicals Bought Into This Critique?
In light of this barrage, it would be unsurprising if we did not eventually become convinced that there is something morally suspect about suburban life. I think this has happened even amongst Evangelicals.

Here are a few of the most prominent Christian objections to living in the suburbs. How many of them hold up to even a slight bit of scrutiny?

  • Suburbs are inauthentic: I confess to not quite understanding what this means. Yes, suburban things are often newer and feature less exposed brick, but how is that a moral argument?
  • Suburbs are consumeristic: No more than large cities.
  • Suburbs are morally repressive: Wait, overt exhibition of immorality is a good thing?
  • Suburbs lack diversity: The most diverse places in the country are suburbs.
  • Suburbs are full of a lot of Evangelicals who vote Republican: Oh, wait, now we are getting somewhere…

Obviously, each of these charges deserves a post of its own to address these issues with the requisite nuance, but even the one-liner responses should cause us to think. Why are we down on suburbs? Do we have a biblically grounded objection rooted in our personal experiences, or have we merely baptized a secular prejudice and called it Christian ethics?

Posted by Keith Miller

Keith Miller is an Assistant Solicitor General in the Federalism Unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. He is married and has four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • eesh. I hate to be too harsh on a Mere-O article, but you just pummeled a bunch of strawmen (I’m shocked you didn’t mention Arcade Fire.) Links on those “prominent Christian objections,” please?

    Most informed critiques of suburbia focus on the way that design, land use, and culture have encouraged less meaningful community, less walking and/or use of public transportation, less mixed-use space, and more distance between the places where people live, work, or worship. Not to mention the history of the suburbs and how the flight from cities in the mid-20th century was so often part & parcel of covert or overt racism (and nowadays this pattern continues, people just hop from bad suburb to good suburb.)

    There is certainly a reactionary passel of young hipsters just nodding along with Shane Claiborne, but I’m surprised & saddened that you’d suppose that we have have simply taken a secular prejudice and baptized it. Rather, many people after reading, thinking, and worshiping in many different contexts have noticed the spiritual, relational, and health hazards of a suburban lifestyle.

    • Not only did I forebear the Arcade Fire reference, I didn’t make a Lewis Mumford & Sons joke!

      I’m surprised that you found my list of common objections so lacking. I agree that they are pretty easy to poke holes in (as I did), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the coin of the realm amongst anti-suburbanites.

      That said, my list wasn’t intended to be exhaustive. I’ve read the Fare Forward article you linked and know that there is a lot of talk about walkability, mixed-use zoning, and “meaningful community” as what’s missing in the ‘burbs. Having lived in some suburbs and some center-cities, I did not notice any difference in the meaningfulness of the communities I have been a part of, but that’s just me.

      But let me ask you: Do you see that anti-suburbism has been a staple of “LA Hip and NY Chic” (obscure Steve Taylor reference there) and is fairly characterized as a secular prejudice? How is your opposition to suburbia different than Robert Florida’s?

      • Keith,

        I do see what you mean about NY chic– but I don’t think
        that’s a particularly helpful or interesting line of reasoning. It’s
        like saying that it’s hip to diss CCM; of course that’s a secular trend
        but lots of Christians do it, too, because of what they’ve seen,
        experienced, read, and thought about. My “opposition” (if you can call it that) doesn’t have to be different from Robert Florida’s to still be right, but I think we can add that poor suburbs, rural towns, and inner cities are in need of more good Christian neighbors with social capital working for the common good (not any more than the nice suburbs… but they’re pretty thoroughly churched in most places and already have lots of resources.)

        Your anecdotal experience is certainly as good as mine when it comes
        to meaningful community, and I do think a lot of it has to do with the
        choices that we make (as Chris observes above.) However, I think the
        point still stands– the design of the suburbs makes forming that
        community harder.

      • I agree with Matt here, and I don’t think you can get off by saying your list wasn’t exhaustive. It not only didn’t address all of the critiques of suburbia in the Fare Forward post/article, it didn’t really address ANY of them, certainly not the strongest ones. Giving a history of cultural stereotyping is not a response to the substantive criticisms Christians are making of the typical suburban lifestyle. This is one of those subjects where it’s easy to get sidetracked with pointless debate over who thinks what is cool, none of which changes that the typical suburban U.S. lifestyle is terrible for the environment, terrible for people’s health, and aesthetically deformative (which even some evangelicals now realize the danger of).

        And Joel Kotkin is a decent guy who is sometimes right, but his suburbs cheerleading is frequently just as overblown and speculative as Florida’s “creative class” stuff. There is no serious debate about density being the key to future environmental stewardship and economic growth, and people like Kotkin are often just telling status-quo conservatives what they want to hear.

        • cynthia curran

          Well, preaching in Portland means you meet less people of color than Anaheim. The same goes for Seattle, sure there Asians but there are a lot more Asians in the San Gabriel Vallley of Los Angeles. Big Cities are not all immirgant or people of color like New York, there are some like the two mention above that effective enviromental hipsters.

    • stefanstackhouse

      The suburbs are indeed deeply flawed, broken places – as is the rest of human habitation, because we humans are deeply flawed and broken beings. Both people and their places are desperately in need of substantial healing. Being instruments of God in that healing is a big part of our calling as Christians.

      For those Christians that do find themselves called to the suburbs (and there should be some!), I would say the most urgent need is to help build community. As Matthew Loftus, among many others, has pointed out, the suburbs seem almost intentionally designed to discourage community as much as possible. Since that design is literally set in concrete, it isn’t going to be changing anytime soon. Extra effort will thus be made to work around that and overcome the obstacles. Suburban Christians need to try really hard to reach out to neighbors, get involved in and actively support community activities, etc. The temptation is to turn their church into a kind of Christian ghetto, where all their own need for community is supplied within, but which leaves themselves disconnected from the wider surrounding community. This temptation must be consciously and actively resisted. We need to reach out and engage, even if it is sometimes unpleasant to rub shoulders with unbelievers. Talk about “missional”, there it is right there.

  • chrisblackstone

    I think for many suburbs = American Dream, and we reflexively think that the yearning after the “American Dream” is subChristian, which would automatically make the suburbs subChristian as well. I disagree, but that’s of little consequence.

    What “anti-suburban” people seem to miss in this discussion is the truth that everything in life is a choice, from where you work to where you live to where you worship. Just because someone chooses to live in the suburbs far from where they work doesn’t mean the suburbs are themselves evil, but that the person made a choice about where to live in relation to his/her work. Could a closer location have been selected? Perhaps, but he/she decided the extra distance was worth it. I for one am a big proponent of people living close to where they worship, but living near to where you work for most people, in urban core or suburbs, is a-typical.

    It’s just as hard to reach your local area with the gospel in the urban core as the suburbs, it’s just a different hard.

    • Eugene Scott

      It is very true that some yearning for the ‘American Dream’ IS in fact, subChristian and it would be most helpful to address those in defenses of the suburbs instead of ignoring them. By no means am I suggesting that some yearnings for urban life aren’t ‘subChristian,’ but when we respond to challenges that some suburban ideals are ‘subChristian’ with ‘but so are urban ones!’ that’s not helpful.

    • 3boys

      People don’t necessarily make a choice where to live. People buy what seems like the best home that their budget will allow. Developers buy inexpensive land far from urban areas so they can offer more house for less money. Many people would prefer to live closer to cities but blighted land is not being redeveloped for housing because it is easier for developers to use a greenfield site. Infill housing in existing neighborhoods is not as attractive and profitable to developers. Retail flees because the young families who make businesses profitable are gone.

      In the state of Oregon each city has an urban growth boundary that forces land to be redeveloped instead of abandoned. Seems folks back in the 1970s didn’t want the state to become another California. During the housing boom of the 00s, many people with parcels of land outside of the growth boundaries banded together to try to change the law so they could develop rural land into housing. Before their efforts could be successful the housing bubble popped. The growth boundaries that they hated saved those landowners from ruin. It also helped maintain property values for existing homeowners. We know now that the demand for housing was artificial.

  • wmrharris

    I would suggest that the problem with suburbs is that they are (at least in their newly-minted form) insufficiently organic. Culture making institutions such as schools, jobs, churches, and shopping districts are dispersed. As such, the real meaning of place as the location where one invests and grows and contributes tends to get lost; the place can no longer name me. Instead, we use broader definitions of my location must suffice, when a name does come out it is as a socio-economic marker. I am not a person shaped by my town so much as I am a consumer or economic-maker.

    A second critique may be more Romantic, that the sprawl of the suburb often overwhelms the countryside, stripping it of its earlier agricultural or small town meaning. The fold and flow of land and water can still be scene, as can remnant buildings in half-grown fields or second generation woods. To live in this environment is to become aware of a haunting, of one organic meaning stripped away and another seemingly solid reality of ranches and neo-Georgians in its place. To see favorite woods blanketed with a consumer culture does create a loss for some.

    Over time, these new places do acquire the stuff of culture making.
    The naked field becomes the shaded parkway; the township offices acquire
    a certain architectural heft; we even learn to infill with an eye for
    interaction than mere convenience. it’s an organic process. The land gets healed and the old stories fade like mist or remain like the rock wall wending its way through the stand of saplings where the 8-year olds still explore.

    • Great point re: suburbs looking their worst at their inception. As trees grow up, subdivisions look a ton better. I have noted that articles decrying sprawl often use images of brand-new McMansions before the foliage has been able to soften the uniformity.

  • Tim OK

    I agree with Matthew. I think the article is not taking seriously the arguments that are being made. Here are some responses to your arguments:

    Suburbs are inauthentic: what is the difficulty understanding what this means? Suburbs, as opposed to the city or country, are carefully manicured to people’s expectations- nice lawn, 2 car garage, well maintained house. . Because they conform to expectations, they don’t represent the world very well, which is full of contradictions and mess. Suburban landscape is entirely man-centered, whereas you feel very small in a city (big buildings), or in the coutnry (big sky/land) Thus they encourage narcissism/ myopia. It encourages the ego to curve in on itself. Not a lot of people who visit Disneyland are struck by the injustices of the world, because Disneyland is designed to please. But it’s not very authentic to how the world is.

    Suburbs are consumeristic: No more than large cities. You have a point, that city folk can certainly spend a lot on strange stuff. But because suburbs have so much space, over-consumption is more prevalent. Shopping malls were designed out of and for… suburbs!

    Suburbs are morally repressive: Wait, overt exhibition of immorality is a good thing? I agree with your sentiment here: repressing impulses (esp sinful ones) are a good thing. Cities, in particular, can be very indulgent places. But I do think suburban piety tends to be very individualistic, which again I think is a product of the landscape.

    Suburbs lack diversity: The most diverse places in the country are suburbs. this is just wrong-it’s not correct first, and it’s not what that article is saying. as a person who grew up in chicago suburbs, I can tell you that, while those towns do have more ethnic minorities, the problem remains that like lives near like, and there’s not a lot of interaction. One of the beauties of city life is interacting with a lot of people who are not like you. That’s a very gospel-like characteristic, too.

    Suburbs are full of a lot of Evangelicals who vote Republican: Oh, wait, now we are getting somewhere… I think what you’re suggesting is that all of the suburban-bashing is just thinly veiled republican/white bashing. You may have a point, but I think it’s still one and the same. Part of the problem with a lot of white republicans is the fact that their policies tend to lack an appreciation of diversity and the greater whole, as mentioned above.

    To your list, I would add:

    -suburbs are escapist

    -suburbs are invidualistic (ie, anti-community)

    -suburbs lack serendipity (ie, they are tightly controlled and repel putting you in situations you didn’t already plan for)

    -suburbs are clean and controlled in a very messy world

    -suburbs are comfortable

    -suburbs lack creativity

    -suburbs are human-focused

    • Jonathan

      Tim’s list of suburban vices demonstrates that suburbs are ripe for Christians who recognize such problems to move into suburbs to minister to their residents. The evident difficulty of establishing community in suburbs makes them a particularly challenging mission field. The Gospel is for the sick and the suburbs are very, very sick.

      • …then how should Christians think missionally about the suburbs to overcome the challenges inherent in their design?

  • Linda Axon

    The church we attended recently moved into a more urban setting in order to do “authentic” ministry. We ended up leaving the church because it was too far to drive plus we felt they were insisting that all our personal ministry b connected to their larger urban vision rather than their encouraging us to minister in our every day lives. The really sad thing is that we live in Arizona where entire suburbs are made up of retired people. The church had been on the edge of the oldest and largest. Moving, they lost the opportunity to minister to a marginalized group who needs Christ – and them. The perception is that these suburbs are full of rich people who want to use up the earnings from investments during their senior year. This might sometimes be true in some of the newer 55+ areas, but certainly not in the 30-50 year old ones. There are many, many people living on social security alone. Many lonely people. Many isolated people. Many chronically ill people. Many dying people. I think old people are the most marginalized people in America but they aren’t cool. Besides, they remind you of what you will someday be and people don’t want to think about it – or invest any of their youth into the elderly because it won’t build an earthly kingdom.

    • Linda,
      Your comment really struck a chord wih me when you said, “old peope are the most marginalized people in America, but they aren’t cool.”
      Enjoyed the post, Keith.

      • Brad Bashem

        that is the same thing that struck me… on nailed truth to that line Linda. And great catch Heather…..if we decide who is “Christian-enough” or “needs based on income or wealth” would this be the work of Christ or of Satan? Me thinks God wants ALL to be included in the Message of His Son…..not just who is deemed “worthy of this”….those are false or seriously misguided ministers! There is room in the Message for all stratus of peoples…..that is why being Christian is so wonderfully uplifting! :)

      • Jhimmibhob

        That seems entirely right. And even though I don’t think much of most Evangelical arguments against the suburbs (suburbia’s not my cup of tea, but for secular reasons), that touches on a more valid point. The suburbs are largely built for the mobile and non-elderly–making one’s way in them all but REQUIRES being an inveterate and capable driver. To that extent, the suburbs are indeed poor matches for the elderly, or for other people who (often for socioeconomic or health-related reasons) don’t drive.

    • This is a tremendous comment. Thanks so much for reading!

    • Before the move, was the church intentionally ministering to the elderly or was anyone in the church encouraging people to minister to the elderly?

      • Matthew, Depends on what you mean by the ‘church’. I’ve loved being in cross-generational churches because it helps us all learn how to reach out. I used to attend a church in an area with a large elderly population. They did do ministry to this group, although I wasn’t involved. Linda’s comment struck a chord with me because sometimes I do struggle with feeling comfortable slowing down to spend time with this generation. A recent experience showcased to me how lonely they are and yearning for relationship and certainty about the life to come after death. City, rural, suburb or small town, I hope we all seek to minister wherever God has planted us. Since there is a large elderly population in my area, Linda’s comment reminded me of this important {albiet unglamorous} ministry right in my own neighborhood.

    • I think this is a product of the harmful practice of focusing on personal holiness and getting to heaven instead of bringing heaven to earth.

      I’m not for abandoning the elderly, but that is the most-churched demographic in America. By living in the suburbs you can infer that most of them have an acceptable income and transportation, and likely another church within a few blocks. You stopped going to your church when they moved into the city because it was too far to drive- imagine how the people with no car feel everytime their church moves in the opposite direction?

    • Sayeh

      You speak as though the same isn’t true of old folks in cities.

  • I think there is something that is maybe a more important tension to consider here – one that historically the surburbanites have missed, but I think one that the New Radicals are about to step in and it is simply this: retreating either direction misses reaching people with the message of the Gospel.

    Please don’t misread what I am about to write and don’t take it for more than what it is, but even with Tim Keller (who I love for his faithfulness to go to a city before it was ‘cool’ to go to NYC and also for his good teaching and wisdom) has championed the idea and moving toward cities. His logic is sound – reaching as many people with the Gospel as possible. But I think it is also limited, namely, if every Evangelical moves to the city, who is left to reach the ‘burbs? The same problem arises in the New Radicals and even Acts 29 (though admittedly, to a seemingly lesser extent).

    A bit of contextualization: I live in the Texas Panhandle. Amarillo and Lubbock are the two “cities” around; other than that, your “suburbs” are anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours away – the woes of dealing with a cultural idolatry of individualism and a largely agrarian society that demands space. So championing the flight to the cities leaves our ‘suburbs’ woefully devoid of the Gospel, and not devoid in a sense of “Better catch the 9:15 if I’m going to make it to church today” or “I hope traffic on I-35E isn’t bad today” but in the sense of almost complete inaccessibility to Gospel community due to sheer distance. And the assumption that our suburbs are Evangelical can’t be a foregone conclusion anymore either. Tiny towns that have largely just been spoofed in movies (Happy, Texas particularly comes to mind) have found themselves in a downward spiral of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, prosperity gospel, and the idolatry of individualism has led to a complete unwillingness to confess sin, repent, and proclaim the Gospel.

    In closing, I say all of that to say that I don’t necessarily have any hard & fast answers to “Should I go plant a church in the ‘burbs or in a city?” But I do think there is a lot more at stake than what has been considered, and is seemingly getting sadly ignored in Christian circles and people with a voice to the entire church. I think the simplest answer is just to reach all people, be they surburbanites or urbanites, rich or poor, Pharisees or tax collectors with the Gospel.

    • AnnaS


      I am a fellow Texas Panhandle native (a farm kid from Dalhart), and my (architect) husband has written a few critiques of the suburbs. Naturally, I feel compelled to respond to a couple of your points. You contrast the cities such as Amarillo and Lubbock with the “suburbs” of Happy, Dalhart, Channing, and Texline. However, no one I know in suburban-critical circles would consider those towns suburbs. McKinney, yes. Perryton, no. But more generally, the suburban critique is about how the towns themselves are structured (the “grid,” building scale, and zoning) than it is city population. The suburban critique is not a personal one, extolling the virtue of the Manhattanite over that of the townsman from Borger. Rather, it is a call to make both Manhattan and Borger more beautiful places to live, work, minister, and play. The infrastructure, zoning, et al of suburbs inherently subverts these ends (for a number of reasons that the critical articles have addressed) more so than the typical, older, traditionally-planned city. That doesn’t mean there is something immoral about the people who live in suburbs, that people cannot form communities there, and that Christians can’t minister there. It does mean that designers, developers, architects, and laymen should fight for better-designed places. Whether that’s in Dalhart or my current home in DC.

      • Anna, thank you for the clarification on some of those issues and nice to run into someone on here familiar with the Panhandle.

        I suppose my issue still lies in the fact that the loud cry that seems so prevalent right now for people to run to cities is one that is going to leave towns – which I actually do agree are not really suburbs, but they are places people are fleeing in light of the fact that they aren’t ‘cities’ … I live in Amarillo and serve at an A29 church and we have a rather large number of Canadian locals who drive the 2 hours to come to our church because they don’t have a Gospel-centered (apologies for the buzz phrase) church. And a church we work with out of Pampa has even more who make the hour drive… Which I have mixed feelings about – I love that we have people coming from as far as Canadian, but I also wish that there was a church that they could go and serve at for Canadian as their hometown and as a group of people who need the story of Jesus every bit as much as anyone here.

        So all of that to say, while maybe the issues being raised aren’t what I had thought, but the flight to and focus on cities is also leaving places that are ripe for a church plant devoid of anyone willing to go plant one.

        • As a quick point of clarification I thought of after typing a kind of hasty response – I wouldn’t argue with any of your points about the need for suburbs to have a bit of an overhaul in planning or design. Certainly Amarillo suffers from that (one notable point comes in the fact that our garages all enter on the back side of our homes – we have become so enamored with the idea of rampant individualism that we shudder to think about looking at someone for so much as 10 seconds as we park and shut our garage doors) … but my point is more toward the lines that often the case for cities and speaking the woes suburbs gets turned into a ‘flee to cities’ message or it is translated that way. I think we need to think through those sorts of things and be more careful with how we approach the subject with carefully chosen words.

          • Will Seath


            A small point, but if I read you correctly (and I have some familiarity with Amarillo), I would argue that it is a good thing that the prevailing way that suburban homes there deal with garages is to put them on the back of the house. If we want to avoid the expression of rampant individualism symbolized in suburban domestic architecture, then the public face of our homes should not be ill-proportioned boxes scaled to the automobile, but the semi-public front porch that encourages neighbors to converse leisurely in an “outdoor room” scaled for the human being. If, indeed, most of Amarillo’s suburban homes are placing their garages in the back, accessed by an alley, then they are actually doing something right.

          • Will,

            While that is the case in many of the older neighborhoods, the case in the newer ones is that the entrance to the driveway is in the front and wraps around to the back of the home – back alleys and really any “outdoor room” is slowly vanishing in the community. In our church the hardest task to overcome initially was encouraging community and everyone not to just show up once a week on the back row and vacate the premises as soon as possible, but to actually dare people to be involved in genuine community in praising God, confession and repentance of sin, and being missional together. We’re trying to encourage more and more the idea of having a “front porch” so that our neighborhoods are full of sort of “open places” to be in accessible Gospel-centered community that people could partake in. Some of the older neighborhoods this happens way more naturally than in some of the newer ones, but it is a challenge to overcome all the same.

          • hcat

            Is it alleys, or driveways running past the house?

  • I thought you’d like to know that I wrote about this same subject yesterday. This is not just an issue for evangelicals, but mainliners as well.

  • Dan Jones

    What I believe has been lost in the the criticism of the suburbs is the fact so many of the ‘christian missional class’ abandon them. I actually agree with much of the criticism, but if the suburbs are as broken as the ‘hipster’ ‘missional-christians’ claim….its precisely where they should be going with their passion for the Gospel. You think the suburbs are sufficiently churched? I can drive you up and down block after urban block in Chicago, and I’ll let you count the dozens….hundreds of neighborhood churches. Oh….now you want to criticize those churches? Narcissism complete.


    • When you talk to people in these neighborhood who are invested in the health and well-being of the community, you will find that they often cast aspersions on many of these churches and would be happy to have Christians from outside who are willing to come in as humble learners & servants to help out in the neighborhood.

      • Some of my friends who do urban development as part of a church community will quickly point the other direction, though, about how white-churches often send folks into the neighborhood with all sorts of opinions and ideas about how things should go. Many of them have spent years trying to overcome suspicion of such efforts, as many of them are simply fundraising photo-op service projects and nothing more.


        • you are exactly right, Matt. I think that my paragraph and yours are both equally true.

  • Matt Mills

    I wonder–and this is just me thinking out loud–if sometimes we hate the suburbs simply because we’re bored with them.

    I mean, let’s face it–for those of us who grew up in the suburbs, it’s way cooler to live in a city (or even the country). Getting away from our boring roots as suburbanites and moving to the cities makes us feel special, important, romantic, and superior. We feel like we’re somehow doing more, when perhaps all we’re really doing is something different.

    Seriously, though: how many of us would respond with heartfelt enthusiasm if we were called to ministry in a metropolis, yet respond with unwillingness and even terror if we were called to ministry in the suburbs? I know I myself am guilty of that sentiment. And yet, Christ is still king, even in suburbia.

    • my anecdotal experience about people telling me, “gosh, I could never live in the city” or “I understand that you want to help your neighborhood, but aren’t you going to move now that you have a baby?” or “I’m moving out of this area, there’s too much crime!” suggests otherwise.

      • Matt Mills

        Oh, for sure; and I’ve heard similar, and I should make it clear that I’m not attempting to make a blanket statement. Obviously, there are still many who would easily prefer the suburbs; I’m not really addressing those people, though. I’m addressing the those of us (and I truly do say “us,” because I have found myself in this place) who tend to be “city-snobs,” almost as if Christ is only working in the cities and everyone else is missing out.

        I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with excitement for the city; I LOVE living in a city. There is plenty of ministry to be done hear and it’s wonderful to see people who have a heart for working in urban areas.

        But the danger, I think, for those of us who live in and love the city, is pride. We need to remember we are not somehow better people for living in the city; we are not superior. (Yes, you can argue about whether or not the city is better to live IN than the suburbs, but that’s not the same thing).

        People in the suburbs need Christ, too. More than that, Christ is WORKING in the suburbs, too. And while, like you described, there are plenty of people who flee–even wrongly–to the comfort of the suburbs, I don’t think you can discount the idea that there are indeed those of us who would be incredibly, incredibly resistant to the idea of ministering in the suburbs. The city may be more dangerous and difficult, but we’ll jump at that risk; however, faced with the call to “love the least of these” in suburbia, our hearts quail.

        • while I certainly think that pride is a temptation that me and my friends struggle with, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with saying, “I would have a hard time working in the suburbs because I would rather minister to people who are more obviously in need and neglected by various institutions.” (I think there is some Biblical weight to having our efforts more focused on the poor.) I would also suggest that, given the needs that exist in the city, in poor suburbs, in our foster care system, and (slight off topic but still relevant) global evangelization efforts, that there are more Christians suppressing a call to the city than Christians suppressing a call to the suburbs.

          • Matt Mills

            I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either. My point is not to demonize those of us who feel called to the city, but rather to make sure that WE don’t demonize those called to the suburbs.

            I think Jake Meador said it best over in the Mere-O Notes: “The reality is that we need faithful Christians living in the suburbs to love the other people in the suburbs and to help transform the suburbs into something more sustainable, beautiful, and ecologically sound. It may not be my calling, but it is a calling for plenty of members of the church and we need to support them in their calling.”

            As for the idea of “suppressing a call to the suburbs,” I’m not really questioning the proportion of people suppressing a call to the city vs. suppressing a call to the suburbs as much as I am hoping to examine the motivations of our hearts. Since I can’t judge any heart but my own, though, the only critiques I can bring are the ones I would levy against myself:

            For me, it’s not about “suppressing a call to the suburbs” as much as it’s about a willingness to go anywhere and do anything for the Lord. There are times when I have said, “I will go anywhere for you, God.” Yet, if I’m honest, I don’t really mean anywhere: I mean somewhere adventurous, overseas or the inner city, somewhere where I can see the impact I’m making with my own eyes. But what if that’s not where He chooses to send me? What if He calls me to small things, boring places, where I serve Him diligently for years and yet feel as though I never “see” the impact? Would I still follow Him? Or do I need the works of my own hands to prove to myself that I am somehow worthy in His eyes?

            I don’t think Christ’s ultimate goal in our lives is how much He can get us to DO for Him, but rather how much like Himself He can make us. Yes, sometimes that means He wants us to do big, risky things; other times, though, maybe it means he wants us to STOP doing things and to sit at his feet quietly…to be Mary instead of Martha, as it were.

          • I think you’re absolutely right, and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you or anyone is “suppressing a call to the suburbs”– I was just trying to slyly impy that there are probably more Christians in the suburbs who ought to be in the city than the other way around. I don’t want to demonize those called to the suburbs, but I do want Christians to think more about where they’re called, especially those that are on cruise control and wound up in a comfortable, safe place.

            I can tell you that it’s rare to see the impact you’re making in front of your eyes in the inner city or overseas. There, too, loving God & loving our neighbors is mostly about cultivating the slow, patient disciplines of life & love in a much more spiritually hostile environment. I certainly agree that whether you are in Pleasantville or Afghanistan, God would rather have your heart than have your works.

          • “I don’t want to demonize those called to the suburbs, but I do want Christians to think more about where they’re called, especially those that are on cruise control and wound up in a comfortable, safe place.”

            Oh, absolutely; I’m in complete agreement with you there. I’m not intending the things I said in the above post to be addressed to those people, but rather addressed to those of us who have indeed rejected the “cruise control”-style of life. I think it’s important to recognize that we–the “non-cruise-control” people–face a whole different set of temptations, and it is those temptations that I am trying to balance out: pride–as we’ve both noted–, the mistaken reliance on what we do to give us worth, and a distraction with “doing things” rather than sitting still, etc. Again, this stems largely from self-critique.

            “I certainly agree that whether you are in Pleasantville or Afghanistan, God would rather have your heart than have your works.”

            Amen, and absolutely.

          • Right on! I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just trying to keep the other “non-cruise-control” people from writing us off, which is kinda what the OP felt like.

          • hcat

            Actually it’s the poorer suburbs (the midopolis) not the inner city, that is being overlooked by today’s Christians. Who ever thought of moving to an unfashionable suburb outside the “favored quarter”?

    • Emily

      Good thoughts here. Are we choosing where we live based on our identities or are we basing our identities on where we live? It’s difficult when as Christians, our identities are to be firmly rooted in who Christ is.

      • Matt Mills

        Well said!

  • I’ve been unaware (clueless?) that life in suburbia is so uncool and “wrong”. I grew up in the ’60s in a neighborhood of cookie cutter houses (there were three different models) in a small town. We knew and “borrowed sugar” from all our near neighbors, played hide and seek in the street after dark in the summer with the neighborhood children. I didn’t know it was preferable to grow up in the city or on a farm. I certainly didn’t find our place stifling. It was home! I did feel sorry for people who lived in apartments having to cope with other people’s noise so close. And I thought anyone who lived in the country must be lonely living away from near neighbors. It’s true that generally speaking, by the time I got to high school I was aware that my peers thought our whole town was uncool, referring to it as the armpit of the state of Arizona. I never did though. I thought living nestled under the beautiful Huachuca Mountains in the high desert near where the last of the Apache scouts had served the US Army was special. My dad was very proud to be an owner of a small patch of land he could call his own. By himself he built a burnt adobe fence all around it. He drove down to the San Pedro and cut a limb off a cotton wood tree that became the tree in our front yard. How is all this uncool?

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  • Toby

    Alan Jacobs made a great point in his recent ruminations on cities that it is far easier for hip Christians to feel “called” to cities now that the grittiness of them is virtually gone and you can live really close to great ethnic restaurants and museums. They are more like theme parks than anything else. Is there a great Christian renaissance in urban Detroit that I am missing.

    Suburbia is what you make of it. When I was slightly younger and more zealous I used to berate my in-laws for their comfortable, conformist suburban lifestyle. But they have lived on the same street in North Denver for 25 years and walked those streets and helped people move in or plant a garden or change their oil and in the last ten years or so they have reaped a harvest greatly exceeding anything my wife I experienced in our city dwelling days. My experience with cities was that there were so many people around, but I didn’t really know any of them. It was no easier in NYC to introduce oneself to a neighbor than it is for my in-laws in Northglenn, Colorado. My guess, and this is only a hypothesis, is that Jesus wants to save people in the suburbs to.

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  • Peter Blair

    Keith- Thanks again for this post. Here’s a response I ginned up. Would look forward to any further thoughts you had:

    • Thanks for that extended engagement. I’m working up another post which will respond to some of the concerns you raised.

  • Matt Miles

    This post lost me when it dismissed people raising concerns with the suburban lifestyle as just being trendy. Many people do bring biblical concerns to the table, and by dismissing that with an example from a shoddy article (there’s a great rebuttal of it on Out of Ur) and even misrepresenting the reasons people have issues of conscience with the suburbs the author is flushing any opportunities for productive dialogue down the crapper. I say this as a suburbanite who daily struggles with very real conscience issues and tries to use the Gospel as a rubric to work through them. Can you serve Christ in the suburbs? Yes, but you can’t do so by sweeping true indicators of disobedience under the rug.

    • James M.

      Matt, for those of us who are sympathetic with some of the concerns about suburbia, I think it only fair to ask how the connection is necessarily made between “true indicators of disobedience” with the kinds of choices being made by those in question. If one is satisfied that he in good conscience can make a visit to the typical suburban mall, it seems to me that the onus of burden on the one making the critique a very large one to convince him that he should not be doing that.

  • Dave Strunk

    Like Jake over at Mere-O notes, I’ve had some more recent ruminations in light of all the reading.

    1) It’s much more biblical to talk about “money” than about place. The reason I live in a place somewhere between urban and suburban is that I can’t afford to live in either. The biblical category of “money” is much closer to the bull’s eye of what we really want to be talking about. Greed is a sin. Envy is a sin. Perhaps these are just more noticeable in the suburbs? But I’m inclined to think “place” is the wrong starting place for this discussion.

    2) I have a very bland house, architecturally. An interesting house, architecturally, could be in the suburbs or an urban neighborhood (contra Jake’s comments over at the Notes). I have a bland 1970s that probably was a suburban home 30 years ago but isn’t any longer. Of all my hipster friends in urban or suburban neighborhoods, my neighborhood is vastly more diverse racially and socioeconomically. Again, this is about money, and then it’s about race.

    3) So, let’s talk about race and money instead of suburban or urban. We can start identifying more concrete notions of sin (yes, I’ll even concede consumption as a subcategory of greed) that contain real biblical categories, and we can start applying the finished work of Christ to our sin, then we can repent, and then we can love people and serve the city wherever we are located.

  • It’s trendy to dismiss other peoples’ critiques by labeling them trendy. I’m a pastor who lives in the suburb of suburbs, northern Virginia. It’s a spiritual wasteland. Suburbia is the geographical expression of the theology of the total depravity of everyone else. What defines suburbia is the pursuit of a place that is “safe because those people aren’t there.” I wrote a little piece on the ethos of the community where I live that you’ll probably hate. Here it is:

    • And if it is indeed safer, then that is a good thing.

      • Sayeh

        Doesn’t sound like a terribly christian thing to say. Is this supposed to be a lost line of the Beatitudes? “Blessed are the wealthy upper middle class, for you shall find a place to sequester resources away from the poor and non-kin”

        I mean, you can’t take seriously the words “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and at the same time seek to segregate yourself from others for temporary comfort.

  • Caleb Scott Roberts

    I went ahead and expanded a critique of this post here:

    But my main issue is this: Miller dismisses much of the “metro-evangelical” critique of suburbs because of their underlying prejudice against the “evangelicals who vote republican” which presumably populate the suburbs. However, the main reason he gives to cast doubt upon the disdain of suburbs is that it has been the “hip-cool set” who have done most of the disdaining. This is an inversion of the very prejudice upon which he discredits evangelical criticism of suburban life. And as I say in my post, “If Miller is right to discredit the criticism of suburbs because of an underlying and illicit prejudice against a certain type of people – and he is to the extent that this prejudice exists – then he must also discredit a rejection of those criticisms which relies upon an illicit prejudice against the people making the criticisms.”

  • I’m the author of the “Fare Forward” piece that’s been referenced in the comments, which I’ve been skimming. I’d like to offer some off-the-cuff responses to Keith’s rebuttals of common Christian objections to suburbia, and to some of the other responses that have followed:

    1) Suburban “inauthenticity” is not merely about aesthetics or the cheap, imitation materials used so often in contemporary residential construction. The very land use patterns of suburbia are inauthentic to the natural ways in which human beings have organized themselves socially. The history of human civilization is deeply intertwined with traditional urban life.

    2) “Tim OK” made an argument – if I read it correctly – that the suburban landscape is entirely “man-centered,” and that cities and the open country alike leave man awed and humbled by his smallness. This may be nit-picking, but suburbia is certainly not “man-centered” at the urban scale, but rather “auto-centered.” The width of even minor streets, the prevalence of front-facing garages, and zoning parking requirements are all reflections of the primacy of the car. The traditional city is scaled to the human being – and that doesn’t at all make it “man-centered,” if that term is meant to be synonymous with ego-centrism. The street widths, higher densities, and presence of public, civic spaces and architecture in any pre-industrial European (or colonial American) city center are scaled to the human being. It is good – indeed necessary – for places to have this human scale.

    3) The discussion of diversity in cities and suburbs is an interesting and complex one. Indeed, Linda Axon’s comment should be a reminder that the places we build and the places where we live must not marginalize or isolate the people who need ministry – the poor, the sick, the elderly, the immigrant, etc. And yet, much of the strength of the traditional urban neighborhoods – such as the St. Nick’s parish mentioned in the “Fare Forward” piece – comes from a common culture (in the case of St. Nick’s, the predominant ethnic Catholicism of the neighborhood) that binds neighbors beyond their physical proximity. Diversity, broadly-speaking, is not an end, a virtue, or a good in-and-of itself to be pursued, but it is a value and a reflection of a community’s capacity for justice and solidarity.

    • cynthia curran

      Some of the most whtiest cities are large Cities, Seatttle,Porland, Minnespolis, there are a lot of suburbs with people of color, Anaheim- over 50 percent Hispanic, Huntington Park in LA, over 90 percent HIspanic and Aracada over over 60 precent Asian or Irvine 39 percent Asian.Yet, people here prefer the white hipster towns like Seattle or Portland.

  • Eugene Scott

    Keith –

    You know I love you, but I think your defense of the suburbs was weak. Your refusal to deeply address many of the questionable principles that lead people to flee cities for suburbs is unfortunate. They are out there. Deeply spend some time with them. Drop the ‘I know you are but what am I’ response and stop being willingly blind to or ignoring some of the very real philosophical and practical issues with suburbia. The urban elitism isn’t helpful, but the ‘the suburbs never hurt anybody’ is factually wrong and insensitive. Besides, your real issue isn’t with attacks on suburbia. You are afraid that people are really attacking Republicanism.

    • The principles that lead people to live in cities are questionable. Desire for anonymity, desire for anomia, arrogant racist/classist condescension toward people who would like a lawn. Clearly those qre the sole reasons anyone live sin a city…

      Oh, you say those are unfair generalizations? Well, what do you know. Pot, say hello to Kettle.

      • Eugene Scott

        Jack, you don’t know me, so you shouldn’t speak as if you do. Nor did I list specifics in my original post, so you don’t know what I think of suburbia.

    • Ryan Crum

      I think what you’re missing is that many of us don’t consider those principles that get you so worked up over as actually sinful. They are only unethical in light of some arbitrary set of humanist morals superimposed over the real mission of Christ, which is to redeem His people.

      • Eugene Scott

        I’m very well aware that many in the suburbs fail to consider some of those principles sinful. Hence, my problem.

  • I’ll be interested to read the follow-up posts. My initial thought, and reinforced by the comments, is give it 5-10 years. It’s not unusual for youth to trash where they grew up and look for greener grass (on top of the media routinely looking down its nose at suburbia). However, amazingly, when these same folks are married and have kids getting ready to go to school, being crammed into an 800 sq.ft. apartment, on street parking and having to walk 10 minutes to the park to play catch with your kid becomes is not nearly as cool as it was when you were making a statement against your parents.

    There’s nothing inherently morally superior (or inferior) about the city, small towns, or suburbia (I’ve lived in all of them). Community and healthy faith community can (and do) exist in both. Suburbia exists for people to have a home where the kids aren’t piled on top of one another without rent overdrawing your checking account, play catch with your kids in your yard and feel decent about the school to which your kids are going. When these young hipsters start having grown-up responsibilities suburbia will not be nearly so terrible for most of them.

    • Will Seath


      Indeed, communities can exist in suburbia, but they tend to be fractured by the discontinuity of members who live, work, and pray in places that may be miles apart. “Place” is vitally important to community.

      The expense of many good, dense urban places today owes more to the relative scarcity of and demand for such places coupled with the near impossibility of building new places in a traditional way. There is nothing inherent to dense urban places or small towns that makes them more expensive than suburbs. Bear in mind that just sixty years ago, life in city neighborhoods was the affordable norm for the middle and working classes.

      Before so easily dismissing life in cities as the domain of carefree hipsters, it would be wise to consider the genuine goods made possible by traditional urbanism which are difficult to achieve or maintain in the suburbs, and then to ask how we might make those opportunities more accessible and affordable to all.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Both US suburbs and cities (and small towns, for that matter) can all come in for considerable legitimate criticism. The fact is, though, that in all of these are people for whom Jesus died and who are the objects of God’s love – and who should be the objects of our love as well. Christians are called to live in all of these places. Since individuals can only live in one place at a time, each individual has a choice to make and must seek out the Lord’s leading for them personally at this stage of their life. Regardless of where one lives, or is called to live, there is one thing that should be a constant: we are called to be Christ in our community. When our neighbors see us, they should see Christ, or at least whatever is as close to Christ as possible. This means, among other things, that we must actually be engaged in our community, so that we are known by our neighbors. ALL of our communities – cities, suburbs, and small towns – need Christians living within them that are actively engaged in their community and are trying to be as Christ-like as they, with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, can be.

    The absolutely worse thing there could be would be either the creation of Christian ghettos or Christian-free no-man’s-lands.

  • FWIW, I chimed in with a few thoughts here:

    With apologies to everyone involved.

  • JLW

    Wow…what a discussion. I seem to be late to the party, but I have been considering this topic a good bit lately and stumbled on this post.

    Honestly, this whole discussion feels like two Martians trying to figure out who lives under the best rock. On one hand I feel encouraged that there are so many here who are sold out to reaching people with the gospel. But on the other hand most of this discussion sounds more like an exercise in moral superiority and less one of biblical mission. I have heard lots of talk about zoning, population density, driving versus walking, racism, politics, and a whole host of other differences between the city and the burbs.

    Now I will admit, I live in a southern suburb of Atlanta. The same suburb my parents, and grandparents, and even great grandparents lived. I went to a school with better racial diversity than most city schools. I live in a county of 120000 people, and a full 60 percent do not attend a church. I work about 10 hours a day doing a job that is mostly manual labor. At night I come home and kiss my wife and play with my little girl and go over her homework. I tithe and serve in my local church.

    I love the idea that some good men and women have been called to live and witness in the city. I know some who have. I have not. Am I then somehow not serving the Lord to my full potential? Is there a bigger mansion in heaven for those that take on the task of serving Christ in the city? Obviously I know the answer, and I don’t believe anyone here is trying to denigrate serving the Lord in the suburbs. But I do think some caution is in order, because the arguments I hear extolling city life sound defensive, reactionary, and almost morally superior.

    I am a gen X guy, and we were sold a terrible lie by our selfish baby boomer parents. You can be whatever you want to be. If you can dream it, you can do it. It is hogwash. Only 12 men have walked on the moon. There are only 100 senators at any one time. Of all the millions of Israelites that lived during the writing of scripture, only a few made the Bible. God gave each of us different abilities and skills, and we can’t all be a professional musician or starting QB. Most of us are called to live an ordinary life for God. It isn’t a worse life, it isn’t a better life, it is just the life we have. It can happen in the city, or in the suburbs, and can be just as useful to the Father either way.

    Abraham was called out of Ur to the wilderness. Moses was in the city, left the city, went back to the city, and then back to the wilderness. David left the country for the city. It seems Elisha lived outside the city. Jeremiah was in the city, and hated every minute. Jesus picked country boys and city boys for disciples. Jesus did much, if not most of his ministry outside of Jerusalem. Paul did most of his ministry in the cities. There is no set formula. We minister where the Lord has us, and then we minister where he sends us. One is not superior to the other. Before we begin to pat ourselves on the back for making the more spiritual choice, lets remember God often picked the screw ups to use for his amazing purposes. Reluctant people, who worked mostly manual labor jobs for 10 hours a day, and went home at night and kissed their wives and played with their kids.

    I will admit, there are some draws to ministering in the city. Atlanta has some great places to live, many cultural experiences, great restaurants, and cool communities. I wouldn’t mind ministering there, but for the 72 thousand unchurched people that surround me already.

    • JLW, Next time I’m in Atlanta, I want to buy you a drink. This is simply a fantastic comment.

  • John Hunt

    Is there not plenty of sin in all types communities? Are we not to take the Gospel everywhere? Bring sinners to repentance and saving faith in Jesus?
    If we want to be cultural analysts, try analyzing human trafficking and sex slavery. It needs Christians to confront the sin and save its victims, and save the perpetrators from their sin. Plenty of real issues out in this fallen creation.

  • I think we need to have an honest discussion on gentrification and the reality of it in addition to this urban vs suburban wars.

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  • Jennifer Melfi

    This is the worst viewpoint I have ever heard expressed with regard to the city/suburb distinction. Joel Kotkin is favored here while Jane Jacobs is talked down…. this is the zaniest thing I have ever seen written. Does the author not have eyes to see what is actually happening?