The Gospel By Postcode

The problem I have with Tim Foster’s book, The Suburban Captivity of Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, is that it feels like I have read it before.  Why so? Because it is like too many of the other books I have read about how much the church needs to change.

Foster’s book was shortlisted for Australian Christian Book of the Year this year, and although it didn’t win, it has made something of a stir.

The feeling of having read it before emerges from the manner in which the book’s raison d’etre is established.  A veritable plethora of books on how church needs to change have a common theme.  And it is the self-discovery salvation theme of the once-suburban once-conservative-evangelical pastor.

The voyage to rekindling their enthusiasm for the church seems to include two things:

  1. Moving away from the suburbs to an urban setting (and in the process seeing how blind and self-focussed the suburbs actually are).
  2. Moving away from a so-called “reductionist” gospel that the person has been preaching, that is caricatured by an over-emphasis on atonement and personal salvation, and a neglect of human flourishing in the bigger new creation picture.

And that’s what we get – again – in Tim Foster’s book. It’s pretty much a salvation story: “I once was lost (in the ‘burbs and atonement theology) BUT NOW am found (in the city and new creation theology).

Now there are reviews of this book here and here, which are more substantial than mine, one quite positive and the other a pretty excoriating dismantling of Tim’s theological framework. However my primary beef here is how reductionistic this book is when dealing with its primary selling point – the suburbs. I don’t know if Tim Foster likes Westerns, but my guess he’s more of a High Noon guy than an Unforgiven guy, because white hats and black hats abound.  His short survey of the suburban framework – from its beginnings through to the present day – simply lacks nuance or perspective.  And therein he is simply reflecting a long sociological, and not particularly theological, suspicion of the suburbs that has been voiced by artists, artisans and poets for many a decade, a suspicion that threatens to become scorn.

Tim has his own version of this. Take this for example:

Given that the self is so central to the suburban ethos, it is surprising that children have pride of place within the suburban narrative….the joy received following a child’s success goes well beyond pride.  As the extension of the self, the child’s achievements become less and less about the child and more and more about the success, significance and glory the child bestows on the parent.

And that’s a suburban problem is it?  From my experience it’s exactly the inner urban predicament in Australia.  Out here in the suburban wastelands – where households have two cheaper cars because they don’t live within coo-ee of a train station – children are far more relaxed and way less over-scheduled than the wealthier inner urban settings.  Out here it’s maybe dance one night a week for the girls and footy on the weekend for the lads, but in the city?  In the rings of streets around the CBD? That’s where over-scheduling really starts to crank up.  Out here parents work hard to save up enough to send their kids to a medium priced non-government school because so many of the local public ones have all the hallmarks of season four of The Wire. 

And this:

Another aspect of the suburban dream is the capacity to control one’s environment. When a person is in control, they are master of their own destiny and can be assured of their dreams.

That again is a sweeping statement. Has Tim Foster actually stood outside the school classroom waiting for the bell to ring for years on end and talked with suburban parents?  It’s the sheer lack of control that becomes clear.  The sheer level of “I can’t hold all of this together.”  And it’s a big jump to make anyway.  What about a suburban person makes them more likely to wish to control their environment and be master of their own destiny, or assured of their dreams, than any other person in any other setting?  It’s way too simplistic.

Or this:

“There is a strong sense of entitlement in the suburban vision.  The opportunities afforded to suburban people and the level of control they possess means that hard work is usually rewarded. (bold italics added by me for emphasis).

A strong sense of entitlement in the suburbs only?  One of which the inner urban area is free?  I don’t know which suburbs he is describing, but from where I sit, everyday four-by-two suburban life has become struggle street as people battle to meet repayments, fuel up their cars, and spend two to three hours a day in peak hour traffic.

Of course you can avoid peak hour traffic on one morning of the week – Sundays.  That’s because the teeming hordes of suburbanites are not going to the churches that the book declares have been so captivated by the American/Australian dream.  The average suburban church in my city, Perth, is smallish, struggling, and completely overwhelmed by suburban indifference.  And maybe that’s the problem.  If I close my eyes and try to imagine somewhere this might be happening in Australia, it’s probably a sliver of the North Shore of Sydney – nowhere else (and probably fading even there – fast!).  Perhaps this should have been nominated Sydney Christian Book of The Year.  It may well have won.

This mention of Sundays means I must raise the issue of theology.  Tim contrasts the punitive gospel of the suburbs, wherein its all about atonement theology, with the much more nuanced “telic” human flourishing gospel he realised in the urban setting.

Yet at the same time he claims that suburban churches are full of sermons entitled ‘Families: Making Them Work’ or ‘Habits of Happiness’.   I’ve heard enough of those types of sermons over the years to know they don’t simply lack atonement theology, they lack theology.  They are donut sermons, hollow at the centre.  Ironically whenever I have preached in settings where such sermons abound, and where I actually preach the atonement, guess what?  People come up and say how refreshing it is!  How it challenges them to change their perspective and goals in life, that is, it transforms their telic hopes and perspectives!  To hear a suburbanite enamoured by Christ’s love for them on the cross and singing out “Who is a pardoning God like Thee and who has grace so rich and free?”? Now that’s special!

Now once again, maybe there is something specifically “Sydney” going on here (aka Sydney Evangelical Anglican), but I can’t be sure.  Whatever it is I am pretty sure that in Perth yesterday atonement theology wasn’t in the top ten of sermons preached from Mandurah to Mindarie.

If I could give Tim Foster some encouragement here is that his excoriating diagnosis of selfish suburbanites doesn’t spread into enough postcodes.  He is actually highlighting the problem of humanity – not simply one cross-section of it.

And I do also appreciate some of the insights he provides about how to thematically connect the gospel with suburban people.  One of the things that sets his view of the suburbs apart from the artisans and poets is that he provides some solutions for bringing the gospel to bear on the suburbs, rather than calling everyone to the barricades for a revolution.  I guess we should be grateful for that.

Overall though, Tim’s suburban diagnosis is the book’s downfall. Life is just not as delineated as he claims.  I have door-knocked hundreds of houses in my “battlers” district, some houses with no doors at all, and found a depressingly similar disinterest in the gospel here as in the wealthier suburbs of Perth, and indeed the inner urban areas.  No matter where people are they still don’t see that they’d be better off with Jesus.  As Bishop Ryle said “One thief was saved, so that no sinner might despair, but only one so that we might not presume.”

I want to re-read the second and third sections on urbanites and battlers, because to be honest I skimmed them and some of the material seems pretty helpful.  Now that may be cheating a little, but when the selling point of your book -indeed your title – is the suburban captivity of the church – then your major thesis better be particularly strong, and it isn’t.

It seems that even when the urban setting is being discussed, it is getting a hall pass the suburbs are not afforded, as the following shows when discussing urbanites:

…In particular they eschew the domestic vision and gender roles of suburbia, its indifference to environmental and other social issues, and the suburban affinity for evangelical Christianity.

Indifference to environmental and other social issues?  Really?  Then you haven’t seen the classroom walls and heard the school speeches at nearly every suburban government school, in which environmentalism and social equality are pretty much the religion du jour!

And it’s that last sub-clause in particular that I find problematic: “the suburban affinity for evangelical Christianity.”   I have lived in Perth since the early 1970s, and suburban Perth has never, ever, not once had an affinity for evangelical Christianity.  Ever.  Tiny outcrops perhaps, in the midst of a sea of indifference, and the indifference of the sea, sand and sun culture that Perth suburbanites are – and always have been – worshipping.  There’s nothing “post-Christian” about the suburbs in most of Australia because, by and large,  there’s been nothing Christian about them in the first place.

And that last observation of mine, funnily enough, strangely comforts me, because as any builder will know it’s much harder to conduct major renovations on an existing house, than build a new one from the ground up.  Perth – and I suspect other major Australian cities may be cities made up of suburbs (another discussion entirely), but as far as the gospel is concerned, they’ve been barren wastelands for many decades.  The suburbs haven’t captured the atonement gospel, they simply haven’t been captivated by it yet.

7 Comments

  1. Although I haven’t read the book (& probably won’t) I do have to agree with you. My experience of pastoring in suburban, urban & rural settings is one of utter indifference in the community towards the Christian faith/church & Jesus in particular. This indifference is the one thing that the different cultural/socio-economic settings all have in common. I remember discussing the Aussie cultural setting with a UK pastor who said he found it refreshing to minister in a country & not face rank hostility such as he experienced in the UK. I was a bit staggered & told him that I would prefer hostility any day as I would at least know that SOMETHING was stirring the pot & possibly the conscience. Instead, my great difficulty in ministry is getting past the rank indifference of Australians (generalisation of course) to spiritual issues, & in particular Christ & Christianity. (I think he thought I was a bit doolally at this point!) Unfortunately, IMHO these types of “new alternative” church/gospel/theology type ideas (& corresponding highly marketed books) are endemic in the Western church & indicative of the rather facile & shallow state of evangelical thinking (another generalisation of course). Just to correct you also, Tim Foster is Vice-Principal of Ridley college in Melbourne. Consequently, he should know better – Leon Morris would turn in his grave if he knew how Foster relegates atonement theology in ministry to a subsidiary issue!! The reality is that we have seen all of this before anyway. As you said, there is nothing new here. Its the same “be all you can be”, “reach your full potential”, “new world order”, “Jesus is Red Bull”, “let’s make heaven on earth”, “power of positive thinking”, “we’re all really Christians anyway” type thinking/leadership that has led us down this path since the 60s. Oh for the rise of the true evangelical Gospel again when it can once more be the power of God to all who believe – instead of this poor imitation of Good News. Here endeth my rant!

  2. Mate…spot-on! I have long had a sense that so much cultural analysis from ‘Christian authors/missiologists’ describes a reality barely recognisable to anyone ‘in the real world’ (an awfully pragmatic, anit-intellecutal statement, I know… but accurate nonetheless 😉 When cultural sociology drives theological reflection (and not the other way around), then this is typically what happens.

    Once again with bold honesty you – an accomplished author, writer and thinker yourself – have given a voice to those who read the books, relate daily to those people that the books are being written about, and are baffled/frustrated by the gaping gulf between the two. So many more of our theorists and academics on issues of practical mission need to be as engaged and fair-minded as you are. Many claim to be, but…

    I remember when Simon Holt from Whitely College in Melbourne gave a great little snippet on ‘mission in the burbs’ at a Morling College Annual Lecture some years ago: “A mortgage, a mower and a mission.” It was a reduced version of his book ‘God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood’, and it was a sell-out crowd (had to move lecture rooms to fit everyone in). What you’ve raised in this blog was clearly demonstrated when a particular missiologist (who shall remain nameless) opened the lecture by expressing his ‘complete shock’ at ‘how popular’ this topic had turned out to be!
    I sat there staggered, and managed to speak to him after the lecture: ‘Really? You’re surprised that so many would flock to hear their everyday missional experiences finally being validated by someone from ‘the academy’, without all the hip, chick, wine-sipping, cheese-nibbling, too-cool-for-church, inner-city-focused missional berating we usually get?
    (It was a rare moment of vitriolic superiority that felt strangely good at the time 😉

    Anyway, I really appreciated this post, and I suspect you’ve saved me reading yet another ‘one of those books’.

  3. Has anyone done a detailed longitudinal study of Australian Churches? It’d be interesting to plot evangelical theology and income by postcode over time.

    Given that we don’t have a lot of data to go on I took Tim’s observations about the suburban shape of evangelical ministry with a grain of salt. I was more concerned by the missing element in his ‘battlefield atonement metaphor’, the odd opposition of this metaphor with the legal ‘city-gate metaphor’ and (it seems ironic to say this given Tim’s focus on the Resurrection for the time before we die) the downplaying of the Resurrection itself. Being excited about, planning for and imagining the “new creation” on the other side of death is one of Reformed theology’s greatest gifts.

    1. Hi Luke, now THAT is a PhD for someone/anyone. I do think that Tim’s thinking on the Resurrection takes a little too much from recent emergent “kingdom” theology (itself a derivative of earlier liberal theology), that seems to suggest when the age-to-come finally arrives it will be less seismic/cataclysmic than Scripture suggests.

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