The Death of Suburbia and the Suburban Church

Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next. ~ William Ralph Inge

 

Most Americans grow up in suburbs. Forty-four million people live in America’s 51 major metropolitan areas, while nearly 122 million live in their suburbs. And suburbia isn’t exclusively a white domain as it’s often depicted. One-third of suburbanites across the country are racial or ethnic minorities, up from 19 percent in 1990. Students in suburban public schools are 20 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American and 6 percent Asian American. For better or worse, the suburbs have reflected American society.

In fact, suburbia has been so popular that, according to the American Farmland Trust, the US loses more than 1.4 million acres of farmland, forest and wetlands to suburban sprawl each year. Between 1982 and 2007, suburbia devoured an area the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined.

But like Truman Burbank from The Truman Show, there are thousands of kids who grew up in the suburbs and want out. Like Truman they want to be explorers. Or visit Fiji. Only their Fiji isn’t in the middle of the Pacific. It could be just across country in one of the increasing number of cities that are eschewing the master-planned generic nature of American suburbia.

The movement of young adults out of the suburbs is now contributing to what economists and urban planners are calling the early stages of the death of suburbia. And the symptoms of its demise are pretty obvious.

 

They include the following economic indicators:

No one wants a McMansion anymore

In August 2016, Bloomberg quoted the real-estate site Trulia saying that sales of huge (between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet), cheaply constructed, off-the-plan mansions have dropped dramatically in 85 of the country’s 100 biggest cities. You can find the Trulia information here. In one cited example, in Fort Lauderdale, the extra money that buyers were expected to be willing to pay to own a McMansion fell by 84% from 2012 to 2016. A Business Insider article recently stated that the “youngest generations of homebuyers tend to value efficiency more than ever before and feel that McMansions are impractical and wasteful”.

Malls have become ghost towns

Maybe you’ve visited a suburban mall recently and wondered where all the people are. Or where all the stores are. Empty shop-fronts aren’t just bad for mall ambience, they signal a shift in where younger people like to shop.

And it’s not just the closure of small retailers that mall owners have to worry about. Stores like Macy’s, Sears, and JCPenney are referred to in commercial-speak as “anchor stores”. It’s always been believed if a mall has a couple of anchor stores it can’t fail. But all of those aforementioned department stores are currently closing hundreds of locations. Real-estate firm CoStar estimates that “nearly a quarter of malls in the US, or roughly 310 of the nation’s 1,300 shopping malls, are at high risk of losing an anchor store”.

 

Millennials have discovered their kitchens

While boomers loved eating out and remained intensely loyal to their favorite casual dining chains, millennials want to prepare healthier food at home.

As a result, the casual dining industry is in freefall. In 2017, Ruby Tuesday sold 95 restaurants. Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Grill are in big trouble. Buffalo Wild Wings is seeing sales plummet. And if shopping malls keep failing we can say goodbye to food-court mainstays like Sbarro, Cinnabon, Jamba Juice, and Panda Express.

All the while, most of my favorite podcasts are being sponsored by businesses like Blue Apron. Maybe you’ve heard your favorite podcasters reading their commercials about how they’ll design your menu and send you “perfectly portioned ingredients and step-by-step recipes” so you can “cook healthy food, sustainably sourced and at a better price”.

Blue Apron might be the best-known meal delivery service, but right behind them is recent start-ups like Plated, Hello Fresh and a bunch of others, who know that millennials don’t want to eat regularly at Cheesecake Factory or Red Lobster. And so the suburban restaurant chains keep closing.

Country Clubs are closing down

No one’s taking up golf anymore. That standard pastime of suburban life is under real stress, with over 800 golf courses shutting down across the country in the past decade. People between the ages of 18 and 30 just aren’t interested, which means suburban residential golf estates are in trouble too. Selling houses based on the availability of a practice putting green or lessons with the resident golf pro are less and less successful.

Corporations want a city address

“In the past several years, a handful of America’s largest corporations have joined a mass exodus from their suburban headquarters to new home bases in the city, and millennials seem to be the driving force,” wrote Business Insider’s Chris Weller.

He lists McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, General Electric, and ConAgra Foods as all leaving suburbia in order to headquarter downtown. Swiss bank UBS recently established a New York City headquarters, abandoning Stamford, Connecticut, after 15 years. The reason according to Chris Weller? “UBS realized much of its top talent lived or wanted to live 35 miles south, in Manhattan.”

Oil invented suburbia and oil is killing it

Suburbia was only ever able to exist because oil was cheaper than drinking water. The motor car and the highway allowed workers to live longer distances from their employment, and developers created the housing estate to accommodate them. Millennials don’t just want to live in Manhattan because it’s cool (well, that’s one reason). They want to live near where they work because oil is becoming prohibitively expensive. People will find ways to live nearer to work not only for lifestyle reasons but out of sheer necessity.

The suburban church should be worried

The problem is that baby boomers have so connected church culture to the culture of American suburbia that as suburbia dies, churches are dying with it.

Along with the local shopping mall, Outback Steakhouse and the golf club, we are now routinely talking about the demise of the suburban church. Ed Stetzer reports that 80–85 percent of American churches are on the downside of their life cycle, thirty-five hundred to four thousand churches close each year, and the number of unchurched has almost doubled from 1990 to 2004.

The church growth model that undergirds so much church life in the West today is predicated on the contours of suburban living. The stellar examples of that model were forged in suburban communities like Willow Creek and Saddleback, neighborhoods accessible by freeways, and full of highly mobile people who love golfing and eating out in the faux town squares of the local shopping mall.

But the ground is shifting beneath the suburban church. The children and grandchildren of the boomers, who grew up in planned suburbs, hanging out at malls, want to live in places that are real. They want community-oriented neighborhoods. They want to live in diverse, connected, creative, energizing places. They want to shop in local stores, owned and managed by locals, selling locally (or close to locally) produced goods. They want environmentally friendly neighborhoods that connect them to the geography around them.

The church it will need to disengage from suburban culture and rediscover many of the biblical values millennials are craving. What could that look like? More on that next blog.

 

Main photo credit: Kevin Lu  

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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12 thoughts on “The Death of Suburbia and the Suburban Church

  1. For a few years I have advocated the idea that “suburban theology” dominates our churches; particularly when dealing with churches going overseas to do “mission work” or local simple church planting. People are completely unable to detached themselves from suburban life. The tendency is to interprete “third world” needs, the gospel, people groups, ethnicity and other subjects through their suburban lenses and theology: go to a nice church, sing pop-culture music, listen to an elocuente motivator, meet with others who look and sound like you (if you have a chance) and have a great week!

  2. Great blog on market forces at work but I don’t think “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is that complex. Take an institution like Hillsong (Australia) for example, it is a church that is extremely relevant to millennials and people of all generations because it’s draw card are the benefits for oneself the lifestyle it proposes offers – it’s all about self. It is the perfect attractional model albeit with a busy back door. I have 3 sons who are millennials and at least 2 out of 3 are craving deliverance in one way or another. Is Hillsong the place where they can find that deliverance? More focus on satiating self? I suggest what my sons, millennials in general, and any generation for that matter craves is true fulfillment which is only ever found in the Kingdom model of others-centredness
    The church model, as we know it is dying because it is self absorbed, its like a person that is too selfish to birth children because they don’t want give of themselves in the ways birthing and rearing require, hence no subsequent generation.
    We the church needs to meet people wherever they are and serve them, lay our lives down for them, make our lives about them, and walk with them like a family, deep relationship, long term – this will inevitably lead to us introducing Jesus to them who will heal them, deliver them, and teach them how to live a fulfilling life.
    Geographical location isn’t the church’s challenge – self is.

    1. I had to stop at your line, “I don’t think ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is that complex”. I think it’s enormously complex. But to your point about selflessness, I think you’re right. I think the baby boomers who built suburbia were a very self-focused generation, so the churches that grew in suburban soil were shaped by that culture. Many millennials (not all, of course) do desire justice, equity, environmentalism, racial reconciliation, etc. These things require the other-centredness you mention.

  3. Always enjoy your blogs Mike.
    You say “But the ground is shifting beneath the suburban church. The children and grandchildren of the boomers, who grew up in planned suburbs, hanging out at malls, want to live in places that are real. They want community-oriented neighborhoods. They want to live in diverse, connected, creative, energizing places”.
    The sad news is what they long for is “real” and it is “community” . . . the ground is shifting because we have not inspired nor provided anything concrete for the generations coming through. .. our passive aggressive approach to a whole list of things has been judged by the Millennials and it is found wanting.
    You say “The church it will need to disengage from suburban culture and rediscover many of the biblical values millennials are craving” disengage ? all we need to do is engage properly in the first instance. Jesus is alive and well in the Qld suburbs.

    1. By ‘disengage’ I meant become freed from captivity to the suburban values of materialism, privacy, individualism etc. Of course we need to engage with suburban people. And of course suburbs are still alive and well in many places. What economists are identifying is only the beginning of their demise.

  4. One key element that is left out for the shrinking of suburbia is the family size has radically been changed. People are no longer having lots of children. We’ve gone from family sizes of 4-7 or more in the 50s and 60s to 3-5 from the 70s to 80s to 1-2 in the 90s and 2000s to 0-1 now. Obviously, living in an McMansion house wouldn’t make sense. The church used to grow by families. When people aren’t having kids, growth will slow. I could be wrong but this is what I’ve noticed after 60 years of life.

    1. Good point. Thanks.

    2. Your reply is right on. Our early (1900) suburban town has 25% less people than in 1980 yet every house is occupied and we now have a senior high rise and a New over 55. Post WWII Cape Cods that used to house a family of five or six now are home to singles or childless couples. Even the big Victorians in our town are often home to only two people. This is true in the city of Philadelphia too. Less people per house equals too many churches!!

  5. I think the suburban church has offered good teaching 41 minutes a week. For the most part it been a pulpit centered haven for people who want to dabble in some “God Stuff”. Read but not obey. Serve if it’s only a few hours a week and I get a few photos of me posted somewhere at church. The suburban church is clean and packaged so that no-one has to clean-up. There are very few exceptions to this in each area. Suburbia is full of the “Young/Middle Aged/Old Rich Ruler” (Young Rich Ruler) that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels. You know the story. Everyone of us has to ask the question, “Who today is the young rich ruler?” I say, If you have food stored away in your kitchen shelves that could last 2 weeks or more, have a car, can call 911 anytime, go to emergency anytime, and so on.

    The Millennial’s are not any different as people than us, they just are paying attention to the 40 year old church model and they know they don’t want that. They see the 65 year old suburban model and see the isolation models and don’t want that. But the millennial’s will create something just as unbiblical in the way of living out one’s life. That is what should be arresting the millinnial’s attention. How far does a person want to go into “Sell all you own, and give the money to the poor and come follow me.” way of life? The millenial’s look like adventurous people but are they? Because we all know deep down, that reading God’s Word and obeying it is the great adventure. Very high costs and the greatest rewards.
    — James S. 15 Year Member at Imago Dei Community Portland, OR

  6. Read “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” from the 1950’s

  7. I find cities are more isolated then ever. There is no community there. I’ve lived in apartments for 6 years now. I’ve never met my neighbours. Everybody is too transient. At least in suburbia you had a yard to play in and a neighbour to talk too. Our culture is so disconnected and I don’t know how to fix it. I’m also concerned about how our world is going to the crapper. Plastics, pollution, preservatives, poisons. Who really cares about church if we are all living in a toxic dump? Also going to a mega church is a very lonely experience. I’m in my 6th connect group in 6 years. They constantly keep closing because everyone keeps moving overseas.

  8. Suburban volunteer fire departments and rescue squads have been experiencing this phenomenon for some time. When trying to recruit millenials into the fold the first questions you get are “Why would I do that for free?” and “What will I get for volunteering?” Community Spirit is ending.

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