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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The End of the Suburbs?

Well known pastor-author Eugene Peterson writes about starting a Presbyterian church in the midst of cornfields outside Baltimore. Eventually those cornfields became suburbia and the church grew to about 300 souls.

Twenty or so years ago a group of United Methodist Churches in Elkhart banded together, closing their doors in the city, to build a new church in the suburbs at County Road 17 and US Route 20. At the time a group of Mennonite churches in Elkhart reaffirmed their commitment to the city, and their resolve not to abandon it for the suburbs. I remember feeling proud to be a Mennonite at the time: we weren't going to leave the city for the dreary suburbs. In retrospect, I remember those days with a sense of shame.

Whatever we think about it, for more than half a century most Americans have lived in suburbia. It has been our missional context, and for whatever reason, with few exceptions, we have chosen not to be missionaries to our own country's dominant culture, even as we sent missionaries all over the world. Tragically, we Mennonites missed an opportunity for mission. We had something to offer suburban souls.

Leigh Gallagher observes in her recent book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, signs that the age of suburbia is coming to an end. Most Americans still live in suburbs, but the cultural trends are moving the other direction. Here are some of Gallagher's observations. In 2011, for the first time in 100 years, urban population growth outpaced suburban growth. We can no longer afford low density suburbs, which require a disproportionate amount of government spending for infrastructure. We can no longer afford the time and energy of longer commutes. Members of the millenial generation hate the suburbs, and this group is bigger than the baby boom generation. Seventy-seven percent of them prefer to live in urban areas. The suburban lifestyle is automobile oriented (heavily subsidized by public funds for highways), milleniels prefer to walk. In 1980, 66 percent of 17 year-olds had a drivers license, twenty years later it was down 47 percent. Gallagher's introduction is worth the read if you can get a hold of a library copy.

The upshot is millenials want higher density walkable neighborhoods like downtown Goshen and nearby neighborhoods. They want smaller houses closer to shopping, coffee shops and restaurants. Communities like Goshen with our vibrant, revitalized downtown, are precisely the sorts of places studies show millenials like. When they move into their own homes en masse, housing arrangements locally and nationally are likely to change.

This strikes me as a call to mission for the church. Now that the end of the suburbs may be upon us, I'm excited about what comes next, and the opportunities it holds for the church.


Nina B Lanctot said...

Phil, I thought you were going to refer to the award winning film, "The End of Suburbia." Have you seen it? It documents changing times due to the end of cheap oil. Here is the link: http://endofsuburbia.com/