[Above image: "Anomie" by Ana Susanj
Suburbolationism and American Christianity: Turning the Page on the Anti-Urban Bias of the Church in America
There exists today an epic crisis in America’s urban areas. This crisis of crime, impoverishment, and anomie has been exacerbated and facilitated over the last several decades by the mass exodus of middle-class Christians from the city to the suburbs. This exodus has left a vacuum of resources both economic and spiritual. While they may exhibit some short-term external benefits, social and political solutions to this crisis can never suffice to bring about a full resolution of the structural problems within our cities. It is only the mighty power of the everlasting Gospel that can transform the heart and life of those within the city. The American Church must turn its eyes back to the city as a place teeming with the very people that Jesus has called us to love and serve: the poor and the outcast.
The problems in America’s cities are multitudinous: anomie, poverty, homelessness, crime, desolation (spiritual, moral, and physical), decay, addiction, and so on. Unfortunately, the Christian Church has behaved in a way that facilitated the downward spiral of the American cityscape into this state of crisis. Over the last few generations, evangelical Christians have fled the city for the relative peace and safety of the suburbs, and in so doing, have all but abandoned the city as a place to be avoided and even despised. More importantly, Christians have not only abandoned the city, but have abandoned the people who live in the city, both believers and unbelievers alike. Largely as a result of this flight, “The city…remains the repository of the poor and powerless” (Henslin, 2008, p. 409).
Evangelical flight from our nation’s cities was and is a powerful indicator of a larger-scale, ongoing cultural disengagement by the middle class. The departure of the middle class has left the city devoid of resources, both material and personal. For decades, white Christians with money have fled the city for the suburbs and left behind a “mostly brown and black population that was often bereft of resources” (Byassee, 2008, p. 22). Without these spiritual and physical resources it is terribly difficult, if not impossible, for the city to be renewed in righteousness. Unless and until the Church repents from its neo-monastic stance and behavior and turns its eyes upon our nation’s urban areas, wickedness will continue to reign in our cities and we can expect no real lasting spiritual and cultural change to occur in these areas.
Government and social programs can assist to alleviate suffering and chaos only in the short run; long-term solutions can only be realized as a result of deep-rooted, spiritual-structural change. Such transformation can only be found in the Gospel. Urban regeneration and renewal must begin with and focus on individual people as holistic beings made up of physical, mental, and spiritual components.
The main purpose of regeneration in urban (or indeed any other) areas must always be the promotion and encouragement of all that will enable human beings to flourish. In this sense, one of the failings, from a Christian perspective, of many statements about [urban] regeneration is that they fail to offer an understanding of what it means to be human…. My argument is that one of the things that Christian theology can offer to urban regeneration…is a strong reminder that regeneration is about enabling everyone to flourish, in every sense (Knights, 2008, p. 220, emphasis in original).
In order for the city to experience renewal there must first be a renewal and regeneration of individual human hearts within the city.  This type of transformation can only be wrought by the power of God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While we cannot and should not disparage the impact of social programs that are enacted to combat the various social problems within the city, we must keep these human constructions in a proper context. These institutional arrangements can never bring ultimate or lasting renewal to the city. It is only the grace of God through Jesus Christ that has the power to transform a landscape of chaos, brokenness, and dependency into an environment of love, wholeness, and sustainability.
It is important to note that this environment of grace will, in all probability, manifest itself incrementally. While God can act swiftly and bring social-spiritual transformation in the blink of an eye, often in this dispensation of grace He acts in an incremental fashion throughout society.  Even in periods of great spiritual revival, one can sense order in the process, rather than wide scale upheaval and instant social transformation.  Perhaps it is that the Lord works in this fashion in order to soothe our anxieties, as humans are wont to abjure change rather than embrace it, even if the change is for the good. An understanding of this dynamic reality can help to prevent Christian workers in urban areas from becoming too quickly discouraged or burnt out. It can assist Christians in keeping their focus on the task at hand, their hands to the plow (Luke 9:62), working and serving diligently for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
The Importance of the City
The city is “a place of shelter for the weak and different” (Keller & Thompson, 2002, p. 45). It is a place that the poor and the outcast flee to for refuge. The city is a place of mercy for those who would not be able to survive in other settings: “The city is always a more merciful place for minorities of all kinds. The dominant majorities often dislike cities, but the weak and powerless need them. They cannot survive in suburbs and small towns” (Keller & Thompson, 2002, 45).
As a place where the poor and needy congregate, one would expect it to be a place to which the followers of Jesus Christ would flock. You know, the same Jesus who taught us how to be merciful unto those in need, as in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37); the same One who taught us to freely minister to “the least of these” in society (Matt. 25:45)’ this same Jesus who taught His followers to heartily serve those who are unable to repay them such as “the poor, the crippled, the lame” (Luke 14:13-14, 21). Unfortunately, it seems that many suburban evangelical ministries have rendered themselves urban-crippled and metro-lame through the dogged pursuit of things belonging to the kingdom of this world. The sectarian political agenda of the Republican Party and the quest to secure the comforts and conveniences of the mirage of a suburban/rural utopia appear to be two areas where suburban Christianity devotes much of its energy and attention.
The kinds of Christians bred in twentieth and early-twenty-first century evangelical churches simply do not seem to take well to the teachings of Jesus with respect to the spread of the gospel in the cities and the care of the poor who congregate there. Mercy ministries as a whole are looked upon with suspicion in many churches. A neo-docetic  view of humanity has comfortably nestled down into our midst. Instead of viewing people in a holistic fashion, Christians seem to be obsessed with the spiritual needs of others to the total neglect of their physical needs. Perhaps the Church is in need of a reminder that human beings are composed of bodies, minds, souls, and spirits: “not as discrete compartments, but as overlapping facets, and all need to be attended to” (Knights, 2008, p. 221, emphasis added).
American Christians seem to pour most, if not all, of their resources back into their existing congregations in a frantic attempt to create a womb-like subculture that is insulated from the ravages experienced in urban areas. Pouring energy and resources into people that exist outside of the Christian community simply does not appear to be an option in many ministries. Such ministries may devote a percentage of their tithes and offerings to missions and church planting. But these efforts, to the extent that any of this allotment is invested in the city, goes mainly toward creating “Christ-against-the-city” clone communities that then proceed to gather and isolate new groups of Christians within the safety of their freshly-built walls. At other times, the city may be engaged in a “hit-and-run” fashion whereby Christians run into the city in small groups to accomplish a specific ministry task, such as a homeless outreach, only to leave and return intermittently, if ever again.
Of the churches that do engage in the planting of new churches, these new ministries are, overwhelmingly, planted in areas similar to the originating church’s own suburban and rural environment. Rare is the conservative evangelical church that catches a vision to plant a vibrant, passionate, Christ-loving ministry in the city. Not only has the local church abandoned the city, but many within the church also refuse to lift a finger to invest in the lives and future of those who live in the city.
Church planter Tim Keller teaches that, throughout the ages, God’s people have been called to live in and love the city:
When Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, he brought thousands of Jewish exiles to live in the pagan mega-city of Babylon. At first the exiles refused to move into the wicked city, settling outside in their own enclave, but God spoke to them through Jeremiah and gave them a startling mandate. First, he spoke to them of their actions toward the city. He told them to move in, settle down, raise their families there, and invest in the economy of the city (Jer. 29:5-6). Second, he spoke to them of their attitude toward the city. He said, “Seek the shalom of the city” (v.7). The word ‘shalom’ meant full flourishing-economically, culturally, spiritually. And most amazing of all, God [in v. 7] said, “Pray to the Lord for it, for if it prospers, you prosper” (Keller, 2005, emphasis in original).
While God does not call all Christians to relocate to the city, it does seem clear that, given its great lack of the love, mercy, and compassion of God, more Christians should begin to sense the urgency of bringing the Gospel and love of Christ to these places of greatest need.
Impacting the Broader Culture Through City Renewal
Suburbolationist Christians  frequently decry the moral decay of our nation and culture. However, they refuse to go into the very places where they can have the greatest impact on our nation and culture: the city. “If the Christian church wants to really change the country and culture, it must go into the cities themselves, not just into the suburbs or even the exurbs” (Keller & Thompson, 2002, p. 46).
Many of today’s suburban church planters appear to have overlooked the fact that Paul’s ministry was carried out almost exclusively in urban areas. While many pious Christian leaders are overheard frequently decrying the pagan-ness of our society, it is interesting to note that the early church was urban, while the surrounding countryside was pagan. As a matter of fact, the word “pagan” is derived from paganus, which means “country-man” (Keller & Thompson, 2002, p. 46). Perhaps today’s Christian leaders and moralistic preachers should embrace the complete topographical reversal that has taken place since the early church and begin calling non-believers “urbans” instead of “pagans.” Certainly, this would be more etymologically appropriate and linguistically honest.
Keller and Thompson state, “While there are millions of born-again Christians, they seem to be having no impact on the culture. The reasons given are usually complex and unconvincing. Nobody notices that Evangelicals are totally non-urban…. This is a recipe for complete cultural irrelevance” (2002, p. 48). Elsewhere, Keller states, “The modern U.S. church is fast losing cultural and economic force because it avoids the city” (2005).
It appears clear that if Christians are serious about “reclaiming the culture for Christ,” they have to get serious about urban missions and renewal. Christians need to eschew the “privacy, safety, homogeneity, sentimentality, space, order and control” of their predominantly non-urban, middle class backgrounds (Keller, 2005) and begin to embrace the city with the love of Christ while it is still day, for the “night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
The Blessing of Urban Renewal
The crisis in urban America will never ultimately be solved by political or social programs, no matter how well intentioned such efforts may be. The problems in our cities, to a great extent fueled by the mass exodus of middle-class Christians, can only be properly addressed and solved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Church. May our Lord grant a burden for the city to the present and future generations of the Church in order that we may fulfill our Christian responsibility to love our neighbors from the same heart into which Christ first poured His own love by the Holy Spirit of God (Rom. 5:5).
In closing I would like to include a short poem by Sarah Brownsberger on the challenge and blessing of urban renewal:
It wasn’t where we wanted to live
but you have to put down roots to thrive.
Daily we bore the shock of forbearance –
our own and our neighbors’: the noise, the smell!
Be fruitful! We tried. Soil of lead arsenate,
cadmium. We added our detritus,
peel and core: redemption. And now
our mineral prison blooms in this,
the year of our departure: now at last
the berries fruit in blue abundance.
Which goes to show our acts are not our own;
what we make does not belong to us.
At best we fade softly as timothy,
and leave our harvest to the next people (2006, p. 8).
Brownsberger, S. M. (2006). Urban Renewal. Christian Century, 123, p. 8.
Byassee, J. (2008). The Church Downtown: Strategies for Urban Ministry. Christian Century, 125, p. 22-27, 29.
Henslin, J. M. (2008). Social Problems: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Boston: Pearson/Allyn-Bacon.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. (2006). Version 2.1. Accordance Bible Software, Version 8.2.3, 2009.
Keller, T. (2005). The City: Why We Are Here. The Gospel Coalition. Available: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/resources/a/The-City—Why-We-Are-Here [22 June 2009].
Keller, T. J. & Thompson, J. A. (2002). Church Planter Manual. New York: Redeemer Church Planting Center.
Knights, C. H. (2008). Urban Regeneration: A Theological Perspective from the West End of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Expository Times, 119, p. 217-225.
 I speak here of a “renewal” in the hearts of Christians living within the city and a “regeneration” of the hearts of unbelievers through the new birth.
 Cf. Matthew 13:33: “He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’” This speaks of transformation as a process that is not instantaneous, but rather orderly, organic, and dynamic in nature.
 It is only in the future that the Lord will work in an instantaneous way to “remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (Zech. 3:9, emphasis added).
 Docetism was a heresy of the early Church. Adherents believed that Christ’s body was not truly human, but a phantasm of some sort.
 “Suburbolationist Christians” are believers who are churched in the suburbs or exurbs, have created their own walled-off church subcultures, and take a militant, aggressive stance toward American culture. They basically ignore urban social concerns.