The Dangers of Suburban Contextualized Theology for the Urban Christian

Ameen Hudson

I’m just going to say it. I believe one of the things that has hurt the economic and vocational future of young urban Christians is the misapplication of contextualized suburban theology. Let me explain.

My statement isn’t a castigation of suburban theologians. I’m simply making an observation from my own personal experience and the experiences of other urban brothers and sisters in Christ who I know. There has undoubtedly been an uprising of young, black and Latino urbanites who have come to know and love the truths of Reformed theology. This has led to a gravitation toward many Christ-centered, suburban theologians who champion a high view of God and his sovereignty. Many of these leaders’ sermons and academic resources have become a treasure to us, including written works on Christian living. But this is where I think the injuries have begun.

Contextualizing Books
There are plenty of great books on practical living written by godly men. Many of those books have helped me tremendously in my spiritual walk, and I’m forever grateful to God for them. However, books written by mostly white leaders with a suburban church context in mind can sometimes lack holistic teaching which urbanites need in order to live effectively in their context. Furthermore, because of their conflicting context, urbanites can easily misapply these books.

Urbanites in their early twenties may pick up Dr. John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life and leave feeling convicted to make Christ the most important person in their lives. They may see that they shouldn’t waste their lives pursuing trivial things like money, education, status, and comfort over Jesus. And this is absolutely correct!

But Don’t Waste Your Life wasn’t written to an audience of urban minorities with minimal opportunities. So many of us translated Dr. Piper’s teaching to mean not valuing education and economic stability at all. We gained a great desire for missional sacrifice, but at the expense of an apathetic attitude toward responsibilities like our education and vocation. This in turn produced a bunch of men and women in their late twenties and early thirties who can tell you all about theology, but can’t pay their bills or rid themselves of debt. Don’t Waste Your Life to them meant demonizing their education and economic future. Books like this without proper contextualization for the urban community perpetuated the same behavior that has plagued us for centuries, but we felt it was okay because this time it was for Christ.

We may pick up a book like David Platt’s Radical and feel convicted to leave everything of value behind and become “radical” missionaries for Christ. We leave thinking, “Life is bigger than your school and your career! We’re sitting here in our comfortable American homes, while people overseas are perishing because they have never heard the gospel. What are you doing about it?! Be radical. Be sacrificial. Be missional. Leave everything and become a missionary!”

Praise God for missionaries going to unreached people groups! But young urbanites may read this book and feel like what they’re doing in school or at work doesn’t really matter in the advancement of the kingdom. This leads to men and women who go on missions trips in their early twenties only to be met with disappointment in their late twenties as they find themselves trying to finish degrees and rediscover a vocational calling that they lost years ago because a career wasn’t really a “calling” in God’s eyes…so they thought.

The Gospel and the American Dream
This is not to say these books are evil or cause all believers in the urban context to harm themselves. But contextualization is important. We must consider the implications of what we teach and how it will be understood by people from different backgrounds. Books should challenge us to not value anything in our lives above Christ; but the application of this command will look different among varying backgrounds.

It is important for urbanites from impoverished areas to learn the implications of the gospel as it relates to their economic, educational, vocational, and familial empowerment. These arenas of life must be impacted by the gospel in order for us to develop and grow as biblical men and women in society. Failing to see gospel implications in our manhood/womanhood, the mission of the family, and holistic human redemption will prove especially detrimental for those in the urban context.

For many middle to upper class suburbanites, a college education, lucrative career, home ownership, and family development are a given. Achieving these things is expected and common; it’s something you simply do. In this context, the “American Dream” is more of a reality. But because it is so typical, it can become ultimate. And this is what suburbanites must guard against. When you come from a family with a long history of success and stability, the “American Dream” may not seem like something you should strive for, but rather something you should avoid lest it become a stumbling block to your affection for Christ. When flourishing in society is commonplace for you, it makes sense for you to think this way.

But for urban minorities, these achievements are milestones. We come from a long history of oppression, lack of resources and opportunity, and failure. Therefore, progressing in our education, vocation, economics, and family relations is important. It means long-lasting cycles of hardship, lack of educational and economic opportunity, and crushed dreams being restored all because of the glorious gospel of God’s grace. This gospel doesn’t just save our souls for eternity, but it restores our dignity, empowering us to be society contributors and not mere beneficiaries.

In its call for Christians to forsake “making it” in order to know Christ, contextualized suburban theology does not account for struggling minorities who are asking, “Can the gospel not only redeem my soul, but also my dignity and lack of opportunity? Can the gospel empower me to contribute to society?” It’s easy to tell a person on their way to success to be careful to not pursue success above Christ, but what about the person who has no vision of success at all? Can Christ grant him success in human flourishing here and now? Can Jesus restore the years which the locusts of oppression, miseducation, and lack of resources ate away?

Lackluster Legacies
What if Don’t Waste Your Life for urban minorities, who are constantly told they will be failures, read: now that Christ, the God of the universe, has redeemed your soul and is for you, you can now go out and be something! You can finish school. You can get a degree. You can obtain a career. You can provide for your family and break the cycles of financial illiteracy, debt, and government assistance. And you can inspire others to do the same in the name of Christ.

What if being “radical” meant succeeding in a career in order to better fund missions? What if it meant starting a business and hiring others who lack opportunities, providing jobs for people to capitalize and have more? What if it meant being a lawyer specializing in the area of civil rights and education to help a population that is largely trampled upon and forgotten about, all in the name of Christ?

It would be tragic if a legacy is left of urban adults who are theologically astute, but lackluster in economic stability. Young adults who can thrive in the theological library should also thrive in the economy. Human flourishing is both spiritual and physical, because humans are both spiritual and physical. Economic astuteness is not the antithesis to knowing Christ; it is actually a byproduct.

Don’t Waste Your Radical Life
To be clear, the gospel is not mainly about empowering people economically. The gospel mainly concerns the redemption of one’s soul. But Christ’s redemption reaches more than the soul; it reaches the whole man, the whole of his life. Urban evangelicals aren’t always taught this by their suburban leaders, and they unnecessarily suffer as a result.

Human flourishing to God’s glory has been God’s goal since the garden. Adam was told to obey God, take dominion, subdue, and cultivate. All of this implies provision and culture-creating. Unfortunately, sin has damaged this mission, and urbanites know this full well. But Christ has reconciled all things to himself. Contextualized suburban theology can often leave the impression that advancing the kingdom of God can only be achieved via Bible college and overseas missions. There are many other ways to glorify Christ and prove him to be the all-satisfying treasure of your soul. We don’t have to downplay the importance of pursuing economic/vocational stability. We can and should use it to the glory of Christ.

Young urban believer, don’t waste your life believing that your educational/vocational calling and desire for a financially stable future has no place in the mission of God and his people. You can be radical by breaking generational cycles of sin, providing for your family, your community, and your church, all the while pointing those who are lost to redemption in Christ alone.

15 thoughts on “The Dangers of Suburban Contextualized Theology for the Urban Christian

  1. Danielle

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m that person who is in their late 20’s who can tell you all about giving your life to missions but is swimming in debt and is needing to “leave the mission field”. I was crying reading this whole thing like it was a mirror in front of me. My eyes are total open and I have hope that God wants to restore me and my family financially. This just brought a ton of confirmation to me. THANK YOU.

  2. Nathan

    Great article. Thank you, brother. I think every thing you said was on point. However, it is unfair to say Dr. Piper’s church/ministry focus is suburban. Bethlehem Baptist has always been in the heart of the twin cities. Nonetheless I think your point is very helpful and needed.

  3. CHM


  4. Angela

    Wonderful article….

  5. Calvin Chen

    Fantastic and important points. I’d add that many of your points could also be applied to those from other backgrounds of less privilege (rural poverty, broken and abusive families, refugee background, etc) but your point about specific urban minority-contextualized quality Gospel teaching is very important.

    Very small suggestion and thought: I might just be quibbling with your wording in “now you can be something” – and you already point toward grace with “now That God has…” However I think even with regard to career and attaining socio-economic empowerment for urban minority youth (a good thing), we can and should be grace-oriented and also loving toward those for whom educational and career attainment may be out of reach… in the sense of “you ARE something regardless of whether you attain these” and we can help instill pride in faith lived out in a variety of settings and vocations.

  6. Peter

    The dangers listed may be more serious for urbanites, but people from all walks of life have suffered from the radical Christian mindset that leads to poor/irresponsible choice making.

  7. Jesse Nenrot Dan-Yusuf

    Hey Ameen,

    Loved this. I’m from Nigeria and I live in Nigeria. Funny thing is CHH introduced me to Dr. Piper and made inquire more about theology. After reading his Desiring God, it made me have a heart for missions but I never for once thought of abandoning education. Anyways, loved this article.

  8. Craig Carlton


    I appreciate your comments. I’m also grateful for the way that you attempted to be balanced in your response to the article. However, I think you may have missed a portion of Ameen’s overall gist. I am also a huge fan of both Dr. Piper and Dr. Platt. I have benefitted from their ministries immensely over the years. But Ameen makes an excellent and salient point when he states that with regard to their view of missions, the assumption is that most American Christians are fat with the all of the prosperity, high life, resources and benefits that Western culture has to offer. This can be misleading and is simply not true for many of our brothers and sisters who live and labor essentially in obscurity within indigenous urban contexts.

    If you think Ameen’s view on how these great men see missions is understated, I would encourage you to avail yourself to their larger bodies of work, particularly Dr. Piper’s book “Let The Nations Be Glad” as well as a number of sermons by Dr. Platt where he is open and candid about how he believes the American Christian should approach missionary work. I would also—as another commenter mentioned in the meta—commend to you the conversation between Dr. Platt and Pastor Kevin Deyoung about his book “Radical”. That conversation can be found at the link below.

    I commend both of these men for being prophetic voices in this day and age for the supremacy of God in all things, including missions. At the same time, I think it is necessary to give loving, helpful and necessary critique when there are areas in which the teaching may be deficient. In my honest opinion, Ameen has done that beautifully in this article.

    Grace and Peace,


  9. Pastor Ben Soto

    Thanks my brother for this amazing article, right on point. I read David Platt’s book Radical and realized that what he calls “radical” has always been a normal part of the churches and ministries I have been apart of. Reformed Urban minorities have to be the best contextual theologians in our North American context. The majority of Christian resources are from a white middle class perspective, we have to work extra to contextualize and apply everything to our context. There’s a Missiologist you may enjoy. Orlando Costas (deseased), he has written works on mission both from an American minority perspective and from a Latin American perspective looking at the US as an outsider.

  10. Dan

    This is great insight! But I feel when you interpret a book’s message. I don’t think Piper or Platt would disagree with what you said, but saying it applied to just missions or radical is just not a good way of justifying what they wrote. It’s like reading the Book of Romans and saying why didn’t Moses Just tell the people of Israel that Jesus could save them.
    I mean, the book of Romans wasn’t written to those people and can’t be applied in that way.
    Neither Piper nor Platt in their books wanted people to believe THAT by reading their books people would “think they waste their lives if they believe that your educational/vocational calling and desire for a financially stable future has no place in the mission of God and his people.”
    I mean, how can you say “Contextualized suburban theology can often leave the impression that advancing the kingdom of God can only be achieved via Bible college and overseas missions.” As if that’s what either authors in their book emphasize. I just don’t see how you come up to this conclusions, Unless you go into reading those books with that idea already…. Unless you already don’t have an understanding of the doctrine of Creation AND THAT THE BIBLE BEGINS IN GEN 1 not GEN 3. Thats the only way I see you coming out with such conclusions. To say that those books are suggesting that the ONLY way to truly worship christ is when you don’t have Economic and Career Balance is just not fair!!!
    You’re simply accusing an orange for not being an apple. or a square for not being a rectangle.
    Appreciate the thoughts though

  11. Simeon

    Ameen, brother, let me just tell you that you did that. Agreed. Well said and graciously presented. Thank you for this.

  12. Roosevelt Leggett

    This is huge!

  13. Rachel Stanton

    This is an excellent article! Very thought provoking!

  14. WB

    I’m a suburban white guy, but I saw that problem from the get-go. This approach is potential problematic enough among suburbanites (white or otherwise, and Kevin DeYoung offered some wise, gentle pushback to Platt several years back) but I can see it being very damaging to those in an poor urban (or rural!) context if not weighed against some wise spiritual counsel. Good piece – many thanks.

  15. Mark Mollenkof

    As a white Christian who grew up in suburbia with all that comes with that I never considered the perspective that Mr. Hudson so powerfully expresses in this article. I now live in a more urban setting and through the years of attending a multi-ethnic church have become aware of some of the issues the author raises. I want to commend him on a job well done in pointing out that urban Christians from oppressed backgrounds need to look at their lives and see how their love for Christ should compel them to impact their communities. There is no waste in serving Christ by earning an education, being successful and giving all the glory to God so that others might see Him.

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