Thursday, November 4, 2010

Suburban Paranoia

My life is, for better or for worse, pretty stock standard suburban.  I live in a modest rambler.  I have two kids and a dog and a minivan.  My weekday life involves a daily pattern of activities that tend to include errands and laundry...and the requisite "activities."  Monday is School of Rock.  Tuesday is Swimming.  Wednesday is Hebrew School.  Thursday is Swimming Again.  Friday we catch our breath on Shabbas. 

Though I'm a suburban denizen, there's one aspect of suburbia I try not to internalize.  It's the...well...paranoia.  Suburbia is an easily frightened place.

When I'm doing the activity-shuttle thing, I sit and listen to the parents around me, who've been thrown together at semi-random based on the schedules they've inflicted on their children and themselves.  As I listen, I hear that there are schedules out there that make mine look like a cakewalk.  Families have color coded charts that lay out the variety of different activities.  Kids leave school, and cram in their homework on the way to karate, which is followed by guitar lessons, after which they snarf down fast food on the way to tutoring.

That endless churning takes a toll on our ability to develop connections where we live...because even though we have a home, we don't really live there.  We live scurrying around in our crossovers.  For some reason, that reminds me of a scripture.  Then again, most things do. 

Earlier this week, I listened to a Mom and a Dad talking about Halloween.  They were lamenting how sad and necessary it was that their kids needed to be driven to go trick or treating at the mall this year.  "It's just so dangerous out there now," said the Mom.  "So many crazy people."  The Dad nodded.  "It's just not safe out there any more.  Not like when we were kids." So more and more kids don't go door to door with their parents.  You don't get to know your neighbors. Communities don't bond and connect, because the world is scaaaary.

This is, of course, materially false.  Statistically, crime rates are lower than they were when I was a kid back in the 1980s and 1970s.  But stressed out, over-scheduled, struggling American parents don't have the focus to realize this.  As they fret about every little minute detail of their kid's lives, they hear from their attitude of fear.  They don't know their neighbors, because they are too busy working and juggling schedules and shimmering with stress.  What little information filters in from our profit-driven media is "Fear! Terror all around! More after these messages!" 

The Big-Parking-Lot churches they attend affirm this fear, filling the world outside of their sprawling campuses with a motley cast of unbelievers and the dangerously unsaved.  Get out into the community?  Work with others?  No chance.  "Keep your kids safe in the hermetically sealed programming of our sprawling Jesus Campus!  Fear!  Terror all around!  Make sure to tithe!"

It's a strange, dark, and fearful place we find ourselves.


  1. The speculation on the cause of this paranoia is unfounded. There are plenty of other people 'out there' creating paranoia, and most of them are unrelated to the churches that are apparently despised. Start with the public schools. Also, the government agencies charged with public safety. And the charities who want to push their causes, including abortion - which is often credited with suppressing the crime rates.

    If one wants to bring charges against the churches, evidence would be good. Further, one might start with the little, fragmented, 'mainstream' communities that are dead and dying - and always seem to propagate those silly public service announcements very faithfully.

  2. @ Anonymous: So the problem is public schools/charities/and serving others? So telling people to connect to their communities and participate and care for others causes social isolation? Why in the Blessed Name of Jesus would you think such a thing?

    The cause of the paranoia is our insane lives, and a cycle of fear sustained by our media and exacerbated by our fundamentally adversarial political culture.

    Bring charges? Goodness no. AmeriChrist, Inc. isn't responsible for this. It's just along for the ride. It gives people what they want. Big, full service Jesus malls, nice and safe and easy to fit into your busy schedule.

  3. No, the problem isn't _serving_ others. The problem is all these institutions whose budgets depend on _scaring_ people into following their edicts. 1 egg in 20,000 is contaminated with salmonella and a normal immune system can handle it. But every menu must warn the customer in prominent type about the hazards posed by a soft-boiled egg. The list goes on, and on; strangers with candy, pill-popping pharm parties, Halloween candy filled with razor blades - these are all things that are mostly myth but inflated by the schools, the government and the media into major monsters. Then there are issues like starving homeless people. I've spoken to many people who have tried to feed the homeless. Hungry homeless are hard to find. They have other needs (shelter, dignity, safety), but food isn't on the top of that list.
    This is what I'm saying: we are being ruled by misdirection that is self-serving.

    Meanwhile, I don't know what churches you have attended, or how involved you have been, but I've heard plenty at small churches about how the 'big' churches don't serve, don't accept people, etc. It sounds like a great narrative, except it doesn't appear to be accurate. I've attended megachurches and mini-megachurches that focus on the disabled, that provide worship space for Iranian Americans and Afghani Christians, that are completely racially integrated, etc. So, as in Job, the burden of proof really rests on Satan, the accuser.

  4. @ Anonymous: Just checking....Mark? I mean, you know, just to know who I'm talking to. Best to stand up, eh? And surely you know the rule: the first Christian in a discussion to invoke Satan owes the other one a Coke. I prefer Coke Zero, myself. ;)

    Schools and government do not propagate those urban myths. That is materially incorrect. Media...well..sure. Fear sells. But the ones you describe are stock standard fundy scare tactics. My kids attend public schools. They don't get that [stuff] there.

    Megas can do good work. But megas, in my direct experience and observation, function like corporations. The brand is the thing. External partnerships are rejected. Connection with others? Connection with the community? Only if it contributes to growth of the brand.

    We are, my friend, in an era when the danger is not that the Church will be betrayed by fusing with the State. The threat to our integrity as the First this culture, right that our values are becoming one with Mammon.

    Noting that...and being open about other ways we fail to fulfill our not being Satanic. It's caring deeply for the essential integrity of the Gospel.

  5. I will agree about mega churches not being connected for the most part. I like having a presbytery to keep an eye on me and my congregation. Like you said, there are megas that do good work. Willow Creek does a lot of work with the poor in Chicago.

  6. No, not Mark; just logging in temporarily from public terms and don't want cookies.

    If we meet, you get a coke.

    We each have our own experiences and apparently neither have statistics. Perhaps public schools have changed but they propagated all those sorts of urban legends when I was attending. So did the local churches; very insular and denominational.

    I have heard some of what Saddle Back does for Africa; seen what McLean does for DC; seen what Highrock does for Arlington MA; seen what Park St does for Boston; what Redeemer does for NY; I've heard about Willow Creek and Covenent Life, but don't have so much exposure. I have never been to the megachurches in LA, Texas, etc; often considered their natural homes.

  7. @ Ben: Just checkin'. Anonymity is so hard to read sometimes.

    My sense of it is that is less the schools, and more the parents.

    And yes, I've seen what the big guys can do, both outside of this area and right here. Some of it is quite impressive.

    But I've also heard from folks who work in, say, Habitat for Humanity, a fine example of an organization that provides both a roof and some of the dignity that comes from sweat equity...who try to partner with the big guys, and get nowhere.

    Again, they prefer to keep it in house. MBC is a great example of that ethic.

  8. Well, since dialog is such a valued thing and not so common, I won't abandon it too readily. If you had started by saying you thought that big churches didn't partner enough with other charitable organizations, that this was your beef, I probably wouldn't have seen a point in disagreeing. It's probably a fair observation. I'd love to see more unity in the church, at least.

    Not that MBC, for example, doesn't partner - the turkey thing alone involves 50 or more partner organizations in DC. Just sayin'.

    Is it bad that a church doesn't want to partner with an organization that may not support its values? I'm not sure what Habitat for Humanity does besides build houses; but neither does it necessarily proclaim the kingdom.

    Once we get into a discussion of material and felt needs, the role of the church, the boundaries of the church, etc, I'm sure we would find more areas of discussion. It's generally difficult terrain on which to find consensus.

  9. @ Ben: I think, ultimately, that the primary and central role of the church is to to teach the Gospel. Period. That's roots rock, and honestly, that's where the fading oldline churches have lost their way.

    When it comes to partnering, I tend to think church should 1) teach; 2) leave the social stuff to nonprofits and 3) show up to be the boots on the ground and the hands that serve when the community needs help, because we can hardly profess to follow the Most Excellent Way if we don't.

  10. It's an interesting position, attractive in that it minimizes conflict with certain people who want to dominate secular society, but one that ultimately creates problems with Acts 2, 3, ... the church was definitely called to admit the poor, the widowed, etc, and to care for those persons within the universal church - as well as to discipline them, teach them, etc.
    It seems to me that many Christians confuse this call to take care of each other with the command to give everyone a 'taste' of the rightness and justice the King will restore upon His return, which is prefigured in the Church by all the members taking care of each other in love and gratitude (contingent on good behavior).

    What do you think?

  11. @ Ben: I think, having re-read my last comment, that I don't really agree with myself. Let me take another swing at it.

    While the first and primary responsibility of the church is teaching the Gospel, you can't be authentically Christian unless those teachings are bearing fruit in your relationship with God and your relationship with others. As we interact with the world, our attitude towards all needs to be defined by the grace and mercy we know in Christ. Period.

    That means taking care of others, either by participating in organizations that help get it done, or...if such organizations don't exist...doing it ourselves. Yes, our primary interest is furtherance of the Kingdom. If we lose sight of that, then we become just another social service agency. That's one of the primary struggles facing many oldline churches.

    But healing brokenness is a central part of what we are called to do as Christians.

    So if there are hungry folk, we feed 'em. If there are nekked folk, we clothe 'em. Contigent, frankly, on nothing. If we're called to pour out God's love on even our enemies, then that's the way we need to be.

    There was an Onion article a few years back that seems apropos:,1915/

  12. You would think that Jesus might have interacted with the world in a way defined by the 'grace and mercy we know in Christ. Period.' But He didn't. He also interacted with the world in a way defined by the hatred of sin we know in Christ.

    This is, then, one of the places where I break with the idea of participating fully in the so-called good works of many so-called charities; I could more readily call them social-service, or better yet, social-engineering, organizations. Just as any Christian charity must point to Christ and through Him to the totality of the Trinity (but through a mirror dimly, because of the fallen nature of those participating in the work and the world in which the work is done), a non-Christian social engineering group points to something else (though in so much as there is some good underlying it, it will not be able, entirely, to avoid pointing to God). Sometimes what it points to is the glory of the donors, or the managers, or the false glory of fallen humanity (communal or individual), or an idolatry of nature. Whatever it is, the Church and individual Christians can perhaps carefully support and participate, but there will be reservations.

    So, yes, healing brokenness is key. But is a lack of food the main brokenness? Illness?

    Yes; I understand that this is a balance... but we as believers are not called to be thought 'nice.' Not by some anti-Christian standard.

  13. Have you read David Platt's book, "Radical"? It's a great read and while it's not anything really new, per se, it does alot to help do away with this either/or distinction that's made light of in your Onion article pick.


    It doesnt need to be either we feed the hungry or proclaim the Gospel to them. It truly is both. That's what Christ asks of us. Most of us, however, are not willing to sacrifice much it seems. Myself included. I should never have read that book. ;o)

  14. @ Jonathan: I've had it recommended a couple of times...might have to make the reading list. And absolutely's not an either/or. It's a both/and, in the same way that the Great Commandment is a both/and.