What the Weird Cities movement is showing the suburban church

In my last blog I explored some of the signs that suburbia is dying and warned the church against identifying itself so strongly with suburban culture. There’s a cultural shift happening and some cities are catching on quicker than others.

In 2000, Austin, Texas, adopted the expression “Keep Austin Weird” as its city slogan. Generated as a grassroots expression of place attachment and anti-commercialization, Keep Austin Weird became a rallying cry for local business, a sense of neighborhood and a zone for creative resistance. The slogan has since been appropriated by Santa Cruz, Portland, and a bunch of other cities across the US.

The “Keep [insert city name] Weird” tagline was interrogated by Joshua Long in his 2010 book, Weird City. He defined the weird city doctrine as a combination of the following elements:

  • attachment to a sense of place;
  • more socially and environmentally responsible consumption patterns;
  • sustainable development;
  • and urban politics.

The weird city doctrine values such things as the beautification of the built environment, resistance to irresponsible gentrification, the promotion of boutique local industries, being a refuge for alternative lifestyles, addressing homelessness in more meaningful ways, and generally defying the cultural trends that make many other American cities so much the same.

Of course, the most obvious question to ask is what are they keeping Austin weird from? What was trying to unweird the city? In his book, Long lists a set of weird values the residents of Austin were eager to hold on to:

  • Keep Austin music non-corporate, creative, and independent;
  • Keep Austin laid back, anti-materialistic, and not worried about the rat race of everyday life;
  • Keep Austin non-conformist, unique, tolerant, and supportive of cultural and artistic expression;
  • Keep Austin neighborhoods unique, community oriented, and connected;
  • Keep Austin from overdeveloping and becoming homogenized;
  • Keep Austin environmentally friendly and aware;
  • Keep Austin different and opposed to conservative, red-state, bucolic Texas;
  • Keep Austin locally-owned, independent, and community-oriented;
  • Keep Austin unique, with iconic and quirky landmarks, buildings, traditions, and festivals.

You can see that the enemies of weirdness are materialism, conformity, homogeneity, environmental unsustainability, political conservatism, and corporate America, particular housing developers. In other words, it can be seen as a direct reaction to the values of suburbia.


Of course, over the years the weird city reputation has been lampooned as a blend of drum circles, kooky politics, surfing Santas and the guy in Portland who rides a unicycle while playing a flaming bagpipe. But at its best weird city thinking is a resistance to the Generica of big box stores, identical strip malls and color-coordinated housing developments.

And young people are streaming to weird cities like Austin, Portland, and Santa Cruz, as well as towns embracing their emerging weirdness like Asheville, NC, Boulder, CO, and Ithaca, NY.  Similar cities like Forth Worth, Kansas City, and Denver are also seeing a renaissance.

I think our culture is telling us something about the values of the so-called millennials. They want their church to be weird in many of the same ways Austin or Santa Cruz or Portland are weird, because many of those ways mirror biblical values. For them, a weird form of Christianity would include the following elements:

Connection to Place

They don’t want to attend a church that has no connection to its immediate place; that isn’t engaged in the life of the city that hosts it; that doesn’t support local businesses; that isn’t concerned with artistic expression and experimentation. There’s a desire for a more indigenous, rooted, authentic community of faith to spring up in the soil in which it’s planted.

Too many suburban churches are hermetically sealed boxes, air-conditioned 24-7, with massive parking lots that encourage members to drive from long distances away to attend services. Some of them come equipped with bookstores, coffee shops and fitness centers. I visited one that had a beauty salon off the foyer. To the generation that loves the Weird Cities doctrine, these kinds of churches are like the religious version of the strip mall or the faux town square.

Alan Roxburgh bemoans that such churches seem to be attempting to “act like vacuum cleaners, sucking people out of their neighborhoods into a sort of Christian supermarket.”   He continues, urging us to see the importance of locally focused, incarnational missional communities:

“Our culture doesn’t need any more churches run like corporations; it needs local communities empowered by the gospel vision of a transforming Christ who addresses the needs of the context and changes the polis into a place of hope and wholeness. The corporation churches we are cloning across the land cannot birth this transformational vision, because they have no investment in context or place; they are centers of expressive individualism with a truncated gospel of personal salvation and little else.”

Environmental Sustainability

Many suburban churches have little interest in environmental sustainability. Personally, I’ve attended too many events in suburban churches where I’ve been served coffee in plastic cups and meals in styrofoam boxes (with the sandwich, the muffin and the chips all separately sealed in plastic). The trashcans can’t contain the amount of non-biodegradable packaging that gets thrown out at the end of the event.

The generation that is done with Generica is also done with unsustainable practices in the church. At the very least they’re looking for churches that are sustaining (or are working towards) energy efficiency in their properties and places of worship. They expect their church leaders to teach and encourage them to adopt environmentally sustainable lifestyles as a dimension of their spiritual practice. And they see no reason why churches shouldn’t be willing to collaborate with the broader community to create a healthy environment for all.

And yet a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll, canvassing views on climate change among the major religious traditions in the US, found that only 34% of “white evangelical Protestants” accepted that there is solid evidence that global warming is real and that it is attributable to humans.  And, no surprise, the same study revealed that there is a yawning gap between the views of younger and older Christians on the cause of global warming. The folks at Pew concluded “more than half of people under age 30 (54%) believe that the earth is warming mostly because of human activity compared with only 37% of those ages 65 and older.”

Doesn’t look like the kids are going to have much luck banning high-wattage incandescent light bulbs or getting “no idling” signs installed around the church parking lot. And they can forget about the church buying its energy from green energy sources or providing eco-friendly biocompostable paper products at all their events.

Open to the Views of All, Especially the Marginalized

There’s less interest among emerging generations of a form of Christianity in which a handful of people have all the say and the vast majority get to say nothing. Especially when those with all the say are exclusively white men. Emerging generations have been raised on interactive learning methods and social media. They expect to be able to voice their opinion and hear the opinions of others. they especially want to hear the voices of those who’ve got nothing to lose by holding those opinions – the outcast, the marginalized, and especially, women’s voices.

Moreover, they don’t want to join churches that don’t encourage questions, that can’t cope with doubt, or that blanch when the “wrong” thing is said, no matter how tentatively.

Ethnically Diverse

Scot McKnight has declared, “The church God wants is one brimming with difference.” That’s the church emerging generations want too. In his book, A Fellowship of Differents, McKnight continues,

“… we’ve made the church into the American dream for our own ethnic group with the same set of convictions about next to everything. No one else feels welcome. What Jesus and the apostles taught was that you were welcomed because the church welcomed all to the table.”

It’s been nearly ten years since Soong-Chan Rah released The Next Evangelicalism, calling for the church to break free from limiting and exclusive paradigms and fully embrace the dramatic cultural diversity that is rapidly defining the 21st Century in the United States. Sadly, the suburban church continues to reinforce Martin Luther King’s scathing assessment that that 11.00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the American week.

The weird cities movement hasn’t created completely safe, perfectly harmonious urban communities. Not by a long shot. But they are working to maintain many values that young Christians hunger for and are not finding in their churches.


It’s time for those churches to listen.


[Main image: A detail from the cover of Joshua Long’s 2010 book, Weird City]


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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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1 thought on “What the Weird Cities movement is showing the suburban church

  1. Great post.

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