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Suburbianity: Can we find our way back to Christianity?

Interesting little book called, "Suburbianity", I might read today. This is from the Intro:

"I want to make it clear from the beginning that I do not think America or its ideals are the problem with American Christians. Whether I live in the city or the suburbs is irrelevant in the greater scope of the gospel. The gospel transcends both. Besides, Christianity does not remove individuals from their particular contexts. Rather, it redeems people in those contexts and redeploys them as missionaries. From here the citizens-turned-missionaries are able to navigate the cultural nuances and speak truth into the contexts in which they live.

This is not a rant against organized religion or American capitalism. The American dream has proved a legitimate pursuit for innumerable hardworking American Christians. I do not begrudge them. They are not wrong in their pursuit of happiness. Many have been able to maintain a sincerity of faith while flying American flags on their porches. Nothing is inherently wrong with being wealthy or successful. Wealth and success do present challenges to a life of faith, but to assume that rejecting capitalism will remedy the problems in America is superficial at best. I’m not the least bit ashamed that I personally benefit from the many blessings this country provides. (I’m not giving up my iPhone.)

Rather, the problem with being Christians in America is that we tend to confuse one for the other. When we cannot differentiate between that which is of Christ and that which is of Uncle Sam, we have no way of knowing which we are worshipping. I expect that most suburban Christians are like me, struggling to tell the difference between what is generally American and what is actually Christian. Or what is vaguely spiritual and what is actually biblical. Or what is merely moral and what is specifically godly. This confusion is a central concern in this book. Making sense of it all is not as easy as you think. Consider the following statements:

The Bible is not a spiritual handbook.

Morality is not a Christian worldview. Family values are not synonymous with Christianity. Christianity is spiritual, but spirituality is not necessarily Christian. Humanitarianism is not the chief aim of the church. Christianity is not about being happy but does result in joy. You cannot find God’s will for your life (in the popular sense) in the Bible.

Being a Christian is not about being a good person.

You will not have your best life in this existence.

God may not want you to be rich. He may want you to be poor.

Wealth is not a sign of God’s favor.

The church does not grow as a result of strategic planning.

Most contemporary Christian music isn’t.

Many Christian books aren’t. You don’t need Jesus to be happy.

Struggling with sin is a normal part of the Christian life. Moral or affluent people need the gospel just as much as immoral or poor people. America has never been a Christian nation. The rich young ruler would not have been saved if he had sold everything. Suffering is a normal part of life and not something to be escaped. Preaching from the Bible doesn’t ensure faithfulness to the Bible’s message. Austere living is not a sign of spiritual devotion. The gospel is not about escaping hell or getting to heaven. Culturally relevant messages are often disconnected from the actual point of the Bible. God did not save you because you have intrinsic value. Preaching about a need for biblical preaching is not biblical preaching. There is no essential difference between local and world missions. Vegetables can’t sing. You are not a better person for having become a Christian. You should not pattern your life after Joseph, David, Daniel, or any other biblical character. Jabez only wanted some land. Church is not where you go to escape the influence of the world. God does not love you more if you read your Bible and pray. Sinners (even the worst you can imagine) are not your enemies. Church attendance is not a sign of faithfulness to Christ. A Christian president will not save our country or the world. “Having devotions” is not an indicator of spiritual discipline. A moral majority threatens the heart of Christianity. The best thing you can do for morally upright people is assume they are lost. Finding your purpose in life is not the most important thing you can do. Placing your faith in your parents’ religion is damning. Schooling choices are not signs of spirituality or good parenting. Freedom of religion may not be good for Christianity. “Christian movies” has become a punch line. Atheists can be good people too. The gospel and Christ are left out of many church services. Principles for living taken from the Bible are often distortions of the Bible. Legislating morality is not helpful. Knowing the gospel is not evidence of believing it. No one has been a Christian his entire life. Abortion is not what’s wrong with America. Jesus would be confused in many of our church services. Christ is hard to find in most Christian bookstores.

I realize several items on this list appear sacrilegious to many conservative Americans and many suburban Christians. The impulse to debate them or question my orthodoxy for formulating such a list is to be expected. (Just so you know, I am not politically, socially, or religiously liberal or progressive. I am a poster child for conservative evangelicalism.)

As others have said, fish have no idea what water is unless they have been on a dock, in a boat, or washed up on a shore. Once you’re forced out of your element, you realize what you’ve been swimming in. The gospel grabs suburbanites and drops them on the dock of objective truth. Then it tosses them back in the water. Through it they come to realize what they’ve been swimming in.

This list can also have that kind of effect. Obviously, my statements challenge closely held and passionately defended values of innumerable suburban Americans. Many of the items I included are essential to polite society. But they become problematic when they are mistaken as Christian. Truth be told, they are not. They are simply American. The point of the list is obvious. Distinguishing between moral conservatism and biblical Christianity is nearly impossible for many who claim the name of Christ.

As counterintuitive as my restatements may seem to many Christians, they are biblically accurate. That is, they can be defended from the Bible and are relatively easy to prove as true. You only need to open your Bible and start reading. I’ll expand on a few of them in order to prove my point. The Bible is not a spiritual handbook. The Bible is not a loosely connected set of stories and principles that serve as the primary resource for spiritually minded people. Obviously, the Bible is a spiritual book and powerfully facilitates change, but it is not the guide for Christian spiritualists. You should not be turning to your Bible merely for a spiritual boost at the beginning of your day. To approach it primarily as a spiritual-life handbook is to nearly miss its point altogether. As Jesus explained to His followers, the Bible is the account of Him. The Bible is primarily the record and explanation of God’s promise, fulfilled in Christ. “Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24: 27). Morality is not a Christian worldview. Innumerable religions and secular worldviews promote and establish morality in their followers. Morality is not an exclusively Christian viewpoint. Christianity may lead to morality, but it does not begin with it. According to Jesus, morality as a goal of religion is as damning as immorality. Jesus came confronting the blinding effects of moralism on his culture, not encouraging them. To confuse morality with Christianity ultimately distorts Christianity.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6: 1). Family values are not synonymous with Christianity. Christianity certainly promotes the institution of the family, but a commitment to the defense and establishment of family values indicates nothing about one’s position in Christ. Christians are not the only ones who value family. Furthermore, Jesus made clear that a devotion to family and devotion to Him can be at odds. “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14: 26). Christianity is spiritual, but spirituality is not necessarily Christian. Being a spiritual person does not make one a Christian. Nor does pursuing spiritual things under the banner of the Christian church. Human beings in general— even the unsaved— are spiritual because God created them that way. Spirituality is certainly a part of Christianity, but a commitment to spirituality (or spiritual formation, or spiritual growth) indicates nothing about one’s trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. We cannot immediately assume “spiritual” equals “Christian.”

God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4: 24). Humanitarianism is not the chief aim of the church. Currently, a new generation is pushing back against the former isolationist strategies of the suburban church. They point out the lack of compassion we have exhibited over the past 50 years. As a result, much is being made— and rightly so— about the need for humanitarianism and compassion in the church. However, humanitarianism is not the goal of the church. It is a means to the exaltation of the name of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel— which is the aim of the church. God the Father could have easily remedied hunger around the world without putting His Son to death. Jesus himself noted the central purpose of His incarnation and contrasted it with the same misunderstanding about humanitarianism in His own culture. “ Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled” (John 6: 26). Christianity is not about being happy but does result in joy. To reduce the Christian life to the attainment of personal happiness and domestic tranquility is to distort Christianity beyond recognition. In so doing, we blatantly read American ambitions into the Christian faith. This ignores reality. The suffering of this present existence touches everyone. Pain is an undeniable effect of the Fall. The Bible acknowledges suffering as a common human experience, but that conflicts with our naive interpretations of the Christian life. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1: 2-3). You cannot find God’s will for your life (in the popular sense) in the Bible. The popular idea that a specific zone of existence is out there for each Christian and may be discovered through a series of principles extracted from loosely interpreted Bible passages is patently misleading. It is also purely American. It is true, given God’s sovereignty over all things, that God is in control of our lives and specific contexts. But to assume that the aim of the Christian life is to find one’s place of impact by reading Bible verses as if they were tea leaves is the product of raw American narcissism. “I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12: 1-2). Being a Christian is not about being a good person. You do not need Jesus to be a good person. There are plenty of good people in our communities who have nothing at all to do with Christ. In reality, Christianity is about repenting of our confidence in our own goodness and fleeing to the righteous life of Christ. "There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one" (Romans 3: 10-12). You will not have your best life in this existence. This too is a common suburban Christian theme that has no real basis in Scripture. Given the presence of sin and its impartial effects, this goal is an impossibility for many faithful believers. Murder, cancer, crime, tragedy, and the like are all evidence of the earth’s desperate need for redemption. This trite Americanized message ignores the tragic contexts of many around the globe. The best still awaits those who love and long for Christ. "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 12: 7-8).

Well, that’s enough for introduction, you get the picture, and I need to get to reading, hopefully get some work done this morning, and have a Bible study with my wife and daughter (an yes, hopefully by God’s grace it will be a spiritual discipline and not just a checking off of the list).

If the things in the introduction seem like something you struggle with, and you want help un-tangling your gospel thinking from all the clutter that seems to cloud it, possibly this Pastor (Byron Forrest Yawn) from the suburbs of Nashville, TN and his book ‘Suburbianity' might be some help. I hear it is only like $4 at Amazon. Must not have been a best seller.

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