By Jerry Harris
I’m a product of the suburbs. I grew up on the west side of Indianapolis in the early 1960s, part of a post-World War II migration from urban areas to planned neighborhoods that sprang up from what were formerly farm fields surrounding big cities.
There were a number of reasons for this great migration. Ex-servicemen had access to loans to pursue the American dream, so they moved out of apartments in the city and purchased their own homes on their own land in burgeoning suburbs. The availability of automobiles and creation of the interstate highway system encouraged people to drive to work instead of walking or riding a city bus.
Ninety percent of these planned communities had restrictive covenants that kept them racially segregated, while practices such as redlining (refusing a loan, insurance, or other service to someone because they live in an area that is deemed to be a poor financial risk) and mortgage discrimination (the practice of lending institutions denying loans on the basis of race or other criteria) kept races apart, feeding an already prevalent racism. City schools felt the effect of the migration and began to decline. Social programming such as integration and forced busing pushed more people to leave the city. Root economic, educational, and social issues contributed to crime, gang violence, and family breakdown.
From our home in Speedway, Indiana, I could see the city skyline of Indianapolis, but in every other way, I was as removed as I could be. We had our own schools, our own shopping, our own library, police force, fire department, town board, parks, restaurants . . . everything. We needed to venture out only occasionally in the light of day, keeping our car doors locked and our windows rolled up with the air conditioning on.
The suburban phenomenon created a third strata of living: not rural, not urban, but with the comforts of both and the perceived drawbacks of neither. Over the years, urban sprawl began to overtake these near suburbs as they were replaced by newer suburbs farther from the city. The children and grandchildren of the original migration moved farther out into larger homes on bigger tracts of land. Conversely, gentrification (the process of renovating a house or district so it conforms to middle-class tastes) began in city centers, as established racial communities were pushed out and certain parts of the city became upscale. Indianapolis is but one example of this familiar story in many cities across the nation.
Even more interesting—and possibly more disturbing—is what was happening in independent Christian churches in this context. An explosion of suburban churches connected to our movement took place during this same time period. The church growth movement coupled with this suburban migration became a force in Indianapolis. Today, huge megachurches encircle the city. Some have relocated over the years to avoid the urban sprawl to stay in touch with these old dynamics. Recently, through the catalyst of multisite, some of them are venturing back into the city, being the church once again in neighborhoods and communities long abandoned by our movement.
It’s hard, even painful, for us to see ourselves through this lens. Why are so many of our churches, particularly our largest and most successful churches, more than 90 percent white? Why are we inclined toward world missions and yet so far removed and blind to the mission field right next to us?
Those of us who benefited from these social injustices have a responsibility to invest ourselves back into the places where wrongs can be righted. What proactive steps might we take to wrap our arms around these incredible opportunities to let Jesus shine?