I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about…
In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and older grandchildren of the builder generation (born between 1901 and 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And now millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), taking a cue from their baby boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should, too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.
There are many churches that are committed to being what is called missional. This term is used to describe a church community where people see themselves as missionaries in local communities. A missional church has been defined, as “a theologically formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered, united community of believers who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ for the glory of God,” says Scott Thomas of the Acts 29 Network. The problem is that this push for local missionaries coincided with the narcissism epidemic we are facing in America, especially with the millennial generation. As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.
To make matters worse, some religious leaders have added a new category to Christianity called “radical Christianity” in an effort to trade-off suburban Christianity for mission. This movement is based on a book by David Platt and is fashioned around “an idea that we were created for far more than a nice, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. An idea that we were created to follow One who demands radical risk and promises radical reward.” Again, this was a well-intentioned attempt to address lukewarm Christians in the suburbs, but because it is primarily reactionary and does not provide a positive construction for the good life from God’s perspective, it misses “radical” ideas in Jesus’ own teachings like “love.”
As a suburban scholar, I’d like to point out there are a number of interesting things going on in this argument.
First, it makes some sweeping generalizations. Is this true of all “missional” or “radical” Christians? If I remember correctly, Platt argued that Christians don’t necessarily have to leave their suburban settings though they should change their focus. Similarly, making broad claims about generations is a difficult task. On the whole, a majority of Americans live in the suburbs (and they didn’t necessarily choose it – there was a whole lot of public policy that helped pushed them there) though there are rumblings that millennials and younger adults are interested in more urban spaces, whether they are in denser suburbs or cities.
Second, the argument makes some interesting claims about narcissism and what is really the good/virtuous life. The charge of narcissism among millennials and emerging adults in America today is a common one. There may be some truth to this. (However, I wonder if there is also some golden age mythologizing going on here – are those in the builder generations the paragons of virtue here?) But, is narcissism completely limited by geography? How are participating in the arts and pursuing social justice necessarily narcissistic activities? What qualifies as a non-narcissistic action? Critics of the suburbs have argued for decades that the suburbs are built to be all about the individual: suburbs promote private spaces to the neglect of public spaces, individualism over community life. Are these values, “Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous,” necessarily Christian values? They may be general suburban or traditional American ideals but they don’t necessarily match up with Christian lives throughout the centuries or around the world.
Third, I think there is merit to the idea that suburbs can be home to Christians just as much as cities. However, this radical approach might be linked to cities because evangelicals do have a long history of anti-urban bias. This is due to multiple factors including thinking that cities are more evil, corrupting, and dangerous (this dates back to Christians like William Wilberforce in the late 1700s wanting to escape a changing London – see Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois, viewing cities as less friendly toward families (a primary conservative Christian focus), and a history of racialized actions and prejudice which is tied to white flight from the cities after World War II and residentially segregated suburbs today. Thus, the suburbs can often be a safe, comfortable space for evangelicals and people challenging this can make a pointed and needed contrast to cities. Christians could argue that the faithful need to be in both places without saying it is an either/or proposition and that living the easy life in a suburb or city is the way to go.
Fourth, there is a difference between feeling shamed and being confronted with helpful or unpleasant truths. I wonder if this is similar to the feelings of shame some white evangelicals express when confronted with the problem of race in the United States today. I don’t think authors like Platt or Chan are suggesting people should be shamed; they are more likely to suggest relatively well-off suburbanites acknowledge their blessings and advantages and then go to work in following and obeying God. It is not about feeling guilty but rather living a life that properly acknowledges and utilizes one’s relative privilege and status.
On the whole, this argument demonstrates how the categories, ideas, and values of American, suburban, and conservative/evangelical Christian can become intertwined. They are not easy to sort out and it is not as simple as suggesting cities are inherently good or evil or arguing the same about suburbs.