by David L Goetz. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN-13-978-0-06-075670-3 Hb., 214 pp., $23.95.
The inspiration behind this new book is fascinating. Author David L. Goetz asks whether or not life in the suburbs is harmful to a living faith. As an answer, he claims it can be, but with the deliberate method he delineates in this book it does not have to be.
We recognize the concerns he raises: that showiness and barrenness are the suburbia stereotype. In the lovely bedroom communities of America, it can appear that the inhabitants are more worried about orderly landscaping than they are the landscape of the soul. Such a message is intriguing to me and would be to many clergy. If you serve a congregation in which a large number of your members are suburbanites, the question is there, even if unasked: In the hectic pace and everyday diversions of the suburbs, is it possible for people to discern, to have a word with and have a word from the Living God?
The issues and concerns that stir the suburbs may not stir the deepest recesses of the human heart, but they may prompt people to seek the transcendent reality that they sense may be missing. Suburban congregations have a genuine obligation to help people stop, reflect, pay attention, center themselves and reconnect with one another and with the God who is everywhere. Goetz suggests that suburbanites can mature spiritually when they address a set of eight suburban assumptions, using eight corresponding remedies that are biblically sound. Most of the assumptions are part of the atmosphere in any suburban gathering, including the congregation (thoughts such as “I am what I own.”). What may not be obvious is that most of the remedies are also already present in a church, when that church is centered on God, rather than on the “self”.
As an example, Goetz calls suburban congregations to move toward more opportunities for silence–a move away from the obsessive need to control. While most congregations do offer some places and spaces of silence, there are good suggestions here for how to offer members more. Church leaders may want to look at these, whether they are in charge of the church facilities or Sunday morning worship. They could benefit from reading this book and then asking themselves whether they agree or disagree with Goetz. Having answered those questions, they might wish to modify existing congregational objectives, to provide a better spiritual shelter in their slice of the suburbs.
Goetz, who is past-editor of the periodical for pastors Leadership Journal, writes about his own Chicago suburb as the example suburb, which is a useful device; but then again, not all suburbs are Wheaton, Illinois. Every suburb shares similarities, but each one is distinctive. The issues that engage one suburban neighborhood may not be blips on the radar of another. Some of the assumptions Goetz makes, such as “everyone in the suburbs goes to church,” are open to sincere dispute. Every pastor wishes it were true–but is it? Having served suburban congregations in four different states, my experience is that each suburb has its own unique personality. This book could serve as a useful discussion starter, but that would be only the beginning, not the last word.
John A. Dalles is pastor of Wekiva Church in Longwood, Fla.