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Intentional Hospitality Amidst the White-Washed Isolation of the Suburban Malaise: Rantings on Being the Church in the Suburbs

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The church community of which I am a part of is very much in the suburbs, the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Strangely as these suburbs have become more diverse (conspicuously more Hispanic, Asian, as well as other ethnicities) they have become more starkly spatialized – in turn isolating each family unit in its own house with fenced in yard and automatically-opening garage with direct access into the house which can be driven into and all contact avoided with the outside world. David Matzko McCarthy in his wonderful book, Sex and Love in the Home describes the myth of this suburbia:

The dream of the suburbs is a self-sufficient home, inhabited by affable kin and grace with plenty of yard to provide a buffer between neighbors. The aim of suburban life is to choose a home and neighborhood where we can be happy, where people work hard and respect the ways of others, and where families get along on their own and come together for recreation and leisure. … The great pleasure of home ownership is freedom and autonomy (p.80).

He then proceeds to describe how the suburbs are built for the idolization of the affectionate family as the end and purpose of all life.
The problem? When the family becomes another form of life separated from God and the church, it too becomes another form of self-imploding narcissicism focused on consuming more stuff for the perfect home, and contract services to make home life easier. There is nothing but contrived affection left to keep the home together. And our children who learn they are the center of this universe from us parents actually develop character that believes “they actually are” the center of the universe. Years later America is left with families split by divorce, kids leaving in rebellion, and millions on various drugs to relieve the emptiness due the loss of purpose left as the idolized family turns out to be a myth apart from its mission in Christ. But I digress here off the issue of hospitality.
There is a real problem here in the spreading of the gospel for Life on the Vine and other emerging churches who live under the imposed conditions of the hostile suburbs. If hospitality is to be a central way of life for the spreading of the gospel, the alienation of the suburbs is a condition of our exile we must overcome. Elsewhere I have said:

… evangelical Christians must consistently invite our neighbors into our homes for dinner, sitting around laughing, talking, listening and asking questions of each other. The home is where we live, where we converse and settle conflict, where we raise children. We arrange our furniture and set forth our priorities in the home. We pray for each other there. We share hospitality out of His blessings there. In our homes then, strangers get full view of the message of our life. Inviting someone into our home for dinner says “here, take a look, I am taking a risk and inviting you into my life.” By inviting strangers over for dinner, we resist the fragmenting isolating forces of late capitalism in America. It is so exceedingly rare that just doing it speaks volumes as to what it means to be a Christian in a world of strangers.

And yet this has proved so much harder than we had ever expected for the reasons I started out this post on. Inviting someone over for dinner in the suburbs is regularly considered pathological in these suburbs. Suburban people are either too busy, too self-protected or too worried what your agenda might be to ever come over. Likewise, I as a pastor and others in our church are regularly so busy, it hardly seems possible.

Do I believe it is impossible? No. We must continue to pursue a relentless practice of being hospitable as a distinctive subversive Christian act in the suburbs. I must change my life to live more simply, have more time and practice neighborhood acts of cooperative living. I must ask my neighbor, co-worker or friend in the park over for dinner “70 times 7” times if that is what it takes. The city seems less afflicted with the problems of the suburbs. So they say? Yet I lived there for many years and I cannot say there is too much difference in at least the increasingly larger wealthier gentrified parts of the city (where many of the emerging churches are camped out). What I worry about here is that the inner city has become the hip place to live as more people reverse commute in Chicago. Just as the rich fled the city 40 years ago now they flee the suburbs for the inner city. And of course emergent churches seem to be more attracted to the hip of the city. I however plead for a truly subversive Christianity that practices hospitality in the hostile worlds of the white washed suburbs. I plead for more emerging communities of faith in the suburbs. Let us seek to be faithful combating the overwhelming Walmartization of Christianity by a vigorous and relentless practice of hospitality.

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