The Darkness behind the White Picket Fence
Editor’s Note: Wednesday’s, I’ll write whatever I want…
Since the inception of the American Dream as we now know it, there has been a single unified symbol of having made it. The White Picket Fence. Ever since the industrialization of America and our shift away from being an agrarian nation, Americans have been looking for that perfect home not too close to the city, but close enough. A two story house with a porch and a yard. And most importantly, a white picket fence. Even as the suburbs have grown and planned neighborhoods and tract homes have come into vogue, the symbol remains. The vast majority of Americans live in the suburbs.
It has become incredibly popular in the past few years to specialize the ministries of a particular church to a certain segment of the population who is in need. Whether or not that segment matches the demographic of the church, it becomes an expression of mission to start a preschool in that trailer park or to create an after school program in that apartment complex over there. And this has grown out of good intentions. The church has been so unconcerned with the community around it for decades that this backlash is predictable. Add to the mix the strong voices coming out of cities like New York (Keller), D.C. (Dever), and Seattle (Driscol) that push the idea of engagement and you have a potent mix of mission and motivation.
There is just one problem with all of this. In churches that have picked up the ball from missional leaders like the ones mentioned above, many see it as strategy for growth and not a result of simple Gospel living. To put it another way, there is an incredible arrogance in seeing people in different living situations as gospel targets while seeing your neighbors as pretty much ok. This subtle attitude is rampant in churches, especially well educated, middle-class and higher churches.
Now before we go any further, let me be clear, I am a part of this problem. I am a young, graduate school educated Pastor with a good job and a tract house in the suburbs. I am typing this on an iPad in a Starbucks. I am that guy. I know I am that guy. And maybe that is why I am so concerned for the suburbs. My vinyl siding hides lingering anger and blatant selfishness. The are skeletons in the closet of my 3/2 house. And my guess is that I am not alone.
The difficulty is that my sins are either acceptable or easy to hide. Everyone looks at my gluttony and shrugs, chalk it up to stress eating. I am able hide my private addictions behind layers of technology and isolation. I have generous parents who provide a safety net when my greed and covetousness max my credit cards out.
I’m not like those other people who spend their money on lottery tickets and malt liquor. They are sinners. I just have some peccadilloes. I am not like those guys who frequent strip clubs and those women who spend their pay checks on psychics over the phone. I am better. Why? Because I have learned to hide my sin? Because I have traded my naughty sins for ones more acceptable? Because my addiction to fried foods is completely different than someone’s addiction to heroine?
See, those white picket fences do nothing but give us a false sense of purity. Call it what you want, when Julia Roberts cleaned up in Pretty Women, she was still a prostitute. Our fences and expensive blinds do nothing but mask our idols of control, power, and money. It is no surprise that some of the most critically acclaimed movies and TV shows of the past few years have been the ones the pulled back the curtain on suburbia.
Weeds is about a “soccer-mom” who turns to selling marijuana after her husbands death to keep their family in private schools. Big Love is all about suburban polygamy. Mad Men, goes all the way back to the origins of the American dream and shows the rotting bones beneath the shiny facade.
So why then the rant? Why this essay? There is an incredibly toxic mistake in churches across the country who look for ministry “over-there” and fail to see the hidden and acceptable sins “in-here”.
Underneath the fresh paint on that white picket fence is death. Spiritual death that needs the gospel as much as the ghetto or the trailer park. In fact at least in those places they know how badly they are in need of help. In the Suburbs, We don’t even realize how badly we are broken.