This past year, my wife and I moved from the city—Louisville, KY—back to the suburbs of New Jersey. I went from being a member of a church in a poorer part of the city to being a pastor of a fairly affluent, suburban church. So with great enthusiasm I cracked open Albert Hsu’s book, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty.
It was a mixed bag. I guess what took me off guard the most was the amount of space Hsu devoted to diving into the history and development of the suburbs. Not that this was bad per se, but it was a more technical discussion than I expected.
Where Hsu really shined was providing Christian ways to think about commuting, consuming, and community. Suburban culture promotes a fast-paced, drive-everywhere mindset. Probably the most visible aspect of suburbia is the sprawling shopping malls and the emphasis on consumption. Suburbia also encourages individualism. Hsu shows that God calls Christians to a different way of living. Christians can embrace contentment and community, instead of consumerism and individualism.
The biggest strength of Hsu’s book is the practical ideas he gives for challenging the idols of suburbia. For example, he suggests to fast from driving (p. 73). Would this be considered ludicrous in a suburban setting? Absolutely. But being less dependent on the car would force people to be more dependent on God and people.
Unfortunately, the book contained less gospel assurance than I would have liked. Hsu spends a lot of time pointing out the pitfalls of suburban culture. And he even offers a lot of suggestions of things to do to live more faithfully in the suburbs. But I fail. A lot. I am already stuck in a lot of the pitfalls he points out. And reading all of his suggestions breeds a certain level of anxiety in me, because I know that I will never live up to fulfilling those things.
The good news is that even though I will fail, Jesus perfectly triumphed. I am often faithless, but Jesus is always faithful. And He forgives all of our suburban sins. And He sends the Holy Spirit so that we can begin walking in newness of life, even in the suburbs.
The Suburban Christian is good for suburban pastors to read and think through. The book could have a wider impact if a pastor distilled the practical ideas for how to live in the suburbs and then presented them to the church. But if I were a normal congregant I would probably borrow this book, not buy it.