Evangelicals and when the “postmodern” and “urban” came to the American suburbs

A reflection on pastor and author Tim Keller’s life includes this line involving distinctions between American places:

Photo by Zekai Zhu on Pexels.com

His insights hit a nerve at a time when evangelicals were realizing that “postmodern” and “urban” challenges—religious diversity, isolation, transience—were becoming common in rural and suburban contexts as well.

In the American context, suburbs often served as a refuge from perceived problems of the city. Religious diversity in cities involved all sorts of religious traditions as people flocked to cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even with the number of people in cities, Americans often celebrated an ideal of families living in suburban single-family homes rather than feeling atomized in large cities. Whereas people moved in and out of cities and urban neighborhoods, Americans often perceived suburbs as built around family and children, neighbors, and community groups.

How might we evaluate these features separating places? It is hard to discuss religious diversity without addressing race and ethnicity. As suburbs often excluded people who were not white, religious diversity was limited. Suburbs are increasingly diverse in terms of race and ethnicity and social class. Regarding isolation, plenty of narratives have been shared and told where individuals found the suburbs to be isolating. Compared to suburbs, cities offer opportunities for exploration and finding a place among other similar people. The suburbs may have celebrated certain social relationships but they were also quite transient for decades in the postwar era as people took advantage of opportunities.

If the lines between cities, suburbs, and rural areas are now more blurred, are evangelicals better equipped to address a changing world? How might they address complex suburbia?

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