Monday, May 13, 2013

Church Wars Over City Limits

And BAM!

Just like that, a new controversy is born.

We evangelical Christians have honed controversy into an art form.  From the Reformation on through to seeker-sensitive "worship," God's people have managed to hold grudges, bicker, complain, and squabble as well as any heathen unbeliever.  Regardless of how worthy the subject over which we've pitched our battlements.

Hey - I should know.  I've done my share of it.  Most of us have.

But I have to admit it:  this latest one has caught me off-guard.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York.  That's about as urban as America gets.  When I was still an infant, my parents moved to a rural hamlet on the north shore of Oneida Lake, in central New York State.  Then we moved to Arlington, Texas, in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth.  After college, I moved back to New York City, where we still had family, for three years.  So I've lived in three of the four major types of living environments in the United States:  urban, suburban, and rural.  The fourth type is exurban, and oddly enough, right now, my brother and family are in the process of selling their suburban home and moving into exurban Detroit, which is placing them almost closer to Lansing than Motor City's downtown.

So... what does any of this have to do with evangelicalism's latest controversy?

Backlash Against Urban Redemption

Our latest battle is between none other than new urbanism and what some see as the failed experiment of suburbanism.  It's a reversal of the fight that waged mightily across America following the Second World War, when members of urban congregations fled their inner city neighborhoods to the brand-new suburbs.  In this unprecedented - and uniquely American - social upheaval, evangelicals either dragged their church's incorporation papers with them to their new communities, or abandoned their churches outright, letting increasingly necessary social services wither away among the disenfranchised from whom whites were fleeing, and grand old buildings - for which their own impoverished ancestors had labored sacrificially - fall into disrepair.

During the past couple of decades, however, new generations of young adults who were raised in the sanitized and regimented suburbs have rediscovered the edgy cities their parents and grandparents had left behind.  Once-dated architecture with its hand-crafted embellishments and quirks came to be seen in a new, appreciative light.  Obsolete warehouses and factories oozed an industrial aesthetic that a postmodern, nihilistic generation found oddly attractive.  New creative types found a kindred spirit among the longsuffering pockets of artists who'd never been able to afford to leave the urban core, although the new creative class would quickly begin to out-price more hard-core artists in their push for gentrification.

Of course, this is a crass over-simplification of the dynamics facing both cities and suburbs as social, economic, political, and geographic trends continue shifting.  Shifting not just on a national level, but within evangelical Christianity as well.  Unfortunately, however, instead of being salt and light to our society, we evangelicals tend to mimic it more than anything.  With a few notable exceptions, such as Calvary Baptist in New York City, and Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, many evangelicals moved to the suburbs along with most other whites, willingly deferring the problems of the inner city to mainline congregations and liberal ethnic churches, both of which convincingly argued that ever-increasing government funds were needed to help meet perceived social welfare needs.

Granted, suburbanization wasn't all about racism, or even poverty; in fact, several factors contributed to its desirability, such as the massive popularity of passenger vehicles, President Eisenhower's Cold-War-inspired interstate highway system, the invention of the mass-produced subdivision, and legitimate issues with corruption, crime, and pollution in aging urbanized cores.  One didn't have to be a bigot to compare cramped, noisy, dangerous city blocks against spacious, new, and modern cul-de-sacs to determine which one your family would be happier in.  Suburbia quickly became such a dominant pattern, it was soon the understood destination of anybody - black or white - who wanted the "best" for their family.

These days, however, what's "best" has become more a matter of individual preference.  For some families, including blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who can afford it, exurbia is the new Utopia, even further out from a city's core than ever before.  It's what I call "ecru flight," since it mirrors the white flight of the past sixty years, only this time with economic class as its impetus, rather than race predominantly.

For other people, however - mostly singles, young adults of any marital status, and even empty nesters - the trend of new urbanism is the hip, happening option.  Whereas exurbia is simply more of the same suburban formula, only with even bigger homes, lot sizes, and commutes, new urbanism has the neon, the steel, the high-rise vistas people only a generation ago considered dated and derelict.  What's old is indeed new again.  And what was new is now old.

Indeed, many of the first suburbs are now falling apart.  They were built quickly, and it shows.  Considering how sought-after old buildings are in the inner city by new urbanists, one would think that aging suburbs now would hold plenty of the dated construction hipsters say they value.  But no, trends don't work that way.  It has to be a certain age of old, with a certain patina, blistering of lead paint, and faded brickwork.  All the appliances have to be low-E, however, and all the countertops granite or composite.

After all, just because we like the look and feel of old doesn't mean we want to actually live like those people did back then.  Which, if you read between the lines, is what has sparked this new battle between suburban evangelicals and urban ones.

Do We Place Too Much Emphasis On Trends?

There is a distinct air of elitism and urbane snobbery emanating from some corners of Christianity's new urbanism that makes believers back in the 'burbs feeling like they're now the second-class citizens of Christ's Kingdom.  It's not lost on suburbanites that many of the new urbanists are also high-income-earners, or at least people who know how to parlay a mediocre income into a lifestyle that exudes privilege.  Here in the Dallas area, we call them "thirty-thousand-dollar millionaires," since it seems every 25-year-old with an entry-level salary drives either a BMW or an Audi and lives - ensconced in leather furniture and a panoply of high-tech entertainment gadgetry - in the most gentrified lofts in town.

But it's not just the money.  It's the imperiousness that pervades their urban ministries, based on an attitude that conveys contempt at suburbanites whose pampered, cloistered lifestyle has helped allow our urban cores to decay.

The problem, ultimately, is that it's all true.  The racism, the contempt of poor people, the desire for new things, the obedient following of trends, the narcissism, the snobbery, the gritty urban reality, the aging suburbs, and even the suburban poverty:  they're all driving wedges everywhere you look in North America's modern evangelicalism.

Instead, perhaps we should admit that, yes, evangelicals practically abandoned the inner city.  But at least we're going back in.

Yes, today's hipsters are being obnoxious with their new urbanism playbook.  But suburbanites were likely as obnoxious for the past six decades.

Yes, poverty has invaded suburbia, and wealth - however feigned - is uprooting the native poor in our inner cities, thanks to relentless gentrification.

Then, too, racism isn't the caustic element it was fifty years ago.  It remains to be seen how effective middle-income blacks and Hispanics can be at re-integrating into the ghettos and barrios of America's hardened urban slums; will the locals view them with as much suspicion and skepticism as they do whites?  After all, classism is quietly replacing racism in the United States, but that means that if you're poor and minority, or rich and white, the stereotypes simply get reinforced.

Neither Suburbs Nor Cities Are Going Away

Personally, I'm glad to see suburban whites rediscovering the inner city.  When I left New York twenty years ago, I was seeing the influx, particularly among evangelical whites, although I didn't think it would last this long and be this popular.  It's almost as though some suburban evangelicals now see this trend towards cities becoming entrenched, and they're fearful that this entrenched focus of Christianity's popular people will somehow deprive them of legitimacy - or funds (which, to many Christians, are one in the same).

Lost in all of this is the fact that more people still live in suburbia than in urban cores.  It doesn't look that way, because hipsters have a way of attracting all the attention.  In addition, most of the young adults leaving suburbia for the big city may still, even though statistics prove they're delaying it, start a family at some point.  And unless they're both making a ton of money, they may inevitably return to the less-expensive suburbs to raise their families.  In New York and other prime metropolitan areas, the number of upwardly mobile whites staying in the urban core to raise their families is trending upwards, but those numbers still represent a small segment of America's overall population.

Still, perception is everything in our country, and right now, the perception is that suburbia is dead and that cities have regained their mojo.  But I suspect that this is true in reality only for those people whose reality is dependant on whatever it takes to be cool, hip, and "relevant."

Meanwhile, our cities aren't exactly empty of people.  Except maybe Detroit, which has lost over half its population, and East St. Louis, and Trenton.  Other cities can't possibly re-admit the population numbers being sustained in suburbia.  Elites may move downtown from the 'burbs and further displace more poor people into the suburbs, but that is the trend that should alarm us; not that cities are once again considered desirable.  What we need to be doing, instead of creating the gentrification that prices out indigenous people groups, is creating communities where living standards are raised to adequate levels, but not to exclusive levels.  The problem with new urbanism is that it wants a 1900s vibe with all the creature comforts of today, but that is a frightfully expensive proposition for people who've been getting by with precious little while America's money has been off for the past two generations playing in the 'burbs.

And ministry?

Frankly, whatever happened to "bloom where you're planted" as an ethos for ministry?  If God is calling you to the urban core, go to the urban core.  If God has called you to suburbia, stay in suburbia, or go there, if you're someplace else.  And if you think God is calling you to exurbia or rural America, then go bloom there.

Following trends has never really benefited the Church before.  Why should we let this latest trend be fodder for discontent, or a superiority complex?  Instead, following God to whatever environment He leads us will benefit us all.

The way things are going, old suburbia will one day be trendy.  That's where I live now - an early subdivision in an aging suburb in the Sun Belt.  Nobody who lives here is hip.

Not yet, anyway!

Could this be trendy again someday?

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