"The Suburban Christian" by Al Hsu
Reviewed by Connally Gilliam
The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty is part apologetic on behalf of believers living in the suburbs and part prophetic call to these same suburban believers to live differently. The book defends and challenges the same set of people with informed humility. In the course of its 10 chapters, author Albert Hsu communicates that the suburbs are more than the sum of their stereotypes. They are neither bastions of isolated, whirlwind, commuting consumers disconnected from God and others nor Leave it to Beaver promised lands free of relational pitfalls, hidden seductions, and spiritual dangers. Rather, the suburbs and ex-urbs are, first and foremost, where over half of all Americans (of many ethnic backgrounds) live. And where people are, God is in fact showing up, redeeming, and transforming.
Hsu lays out a historic overview of the suburbs—their promise and their delivery (for good and for ill). He assesses the relative merits and demerits of everything from the rise in prominence (and size) of the single-family home to the emergence of the auto-dependent community, from the effects of "branding" on the choices we make to the contextualization of the suburban church. And he offers plentiful and practical advice to individuals, groups of friends, and churches on how to navigate the suburban jungle with an eye to God's kingdom.
Hsu's navigation principles are lodged in practicing the spiritual disciplines while developing (individually and as a worshipping community) an increasingly clear sense of vocation or calling. The unbounded nature of the suburbs—lacking both geographic center and strong sense of communal identity, while emphasizing both personal autonomy and material expansion—must be countered by a mindfulness of God's presence and a clear sense of intentionality, says Hsu. Suburbanites must deliberately choose how they will live (practicing hospitality, learning interdependence, intentionally limiting consumption), because—to put it in the vernacular—the best defense is a good offense.
In short, I liked this book. I wish it addressed more fully how the suburbanite who is committed primarily to the community around her can also be meaningfully involved with the visibly absent poor (my struggle). But on the whole, the book is a well-written reminder that neither country life nor city life is necessarily nobler. Rather, the noblest thing is to seek the welfare of the neighbors, community, metropolitan region, and global church God has placed around you, even if your place is in the suburbs.
Connally Gilliam has lived in towns, big cities, and the suburbs. She is on staff with the Metro Mission of the U.S. Navigators and is the author of Revelations of a Single Woman: Loving the Life I Didn't Expect (Tyndale, 2006).