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Finding Holy in the Suburbs, an Interview with Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales holds a PhD in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s a writer, speaker, the wife to a church planter in the southern California suburbs and mother to four. Ashley offers insights on embodying the gospel in our given places in her first book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much (IVP).

Ashley Hales breathes life into a place often decried as lukewarm, vilified as selfish, or entirely ignored: the American suburbs. In her first book, Finding Holy in the Suburbs, Ashley provides much-needed teaching on learning to embody the gospel in all of our given places, even the suburbs.

Ashley first learned to live the Christian life in the context of big cities and even overseas. Her idea of Christian living was challenged when her husband accepted a call to plant a church in an Orange County suburb of Southern California. Finding herself in an unfamiliar place that seemed to obsess over square footage and kitchen backsplashes, Ashley took comfort in her local Target.

“A shopping trip to Target held out the adrenaline rush of a good deal, the mingling of caffeine with the dopamine hit when we buy something, the pleasure of comfort, and the hope of transformation (at least regarding new footwear),” Ashley writes in her book.

Suburban Target runs, Ashley realized, were triggered by something deeper: the desire for something new and exciting in life. Ashley then began meditating on the idols of suburbia from a biblical perspective and how to remedy their effects.

Here are Ashley’s four idols of suburbia taken from Finding Holy in the Suburbs:

1. Consumerism. The idea of consumerism is that we try to buy happiness. As she describes it, “When we try to feed ourselves with the shiny packaging of our things, we go hungry every time. We’re left malnourished and empty and longing for the next thing to scratch an internal itch.” Consumerism is a tricky idol to kick because we’re constantly bombarded with the message that our things are markers of belonging and contentment. As someone who’s equally tempted by the message of consumerism, Ashley tries to counter it with acts of generosity.

2. Individualism. Traditionally, the American dream is equated to home ownership. But owning a home is increasingly less attainable and more exclusionary. Ashley writes that our egos expand to fill our spaces, so bigger homes produce bigger selves. We counter the temptations of our oversized spaces with hospitality, inviting others into our spaces. The more we practice the discipline of serving others, the more we practice the gospel and move the focus from ourselves.

3. Busyness. The default suburban mode tends to be busyness. It’s easier to stay busy than deal with weightier matters like shame, sin, or human pain. Our busyness becomes the measuring rod of our worth and value as productivity machines. Everyone longs for meaning and purpose, but few are willing to slow down enough to connect with God and allow for healing. Ashley resists busyness by physically slowing down the movement of her body: she walks. She walks her kids to school, she walks to church, and she walks while she prays.

4. Safety. Because of our good desires to create successful and thriving communities, we can easily worship safety in the suburbs. Ashley highlights how parents especially can overemphasize safety for their kids. “We’re creating a generation of children who have everything handed to them. But they don’t develop appropriate gauges of risk because they’re not allowed to fail—they’re scooped up.” It’s important to live like we’re a part of God’s bigger story, believing that He is our ultimate safety even in hard times.

Seth Haines, in his review of Finding Holy in the Suburbs, wrote of Ashley, “She only cuts where she can bring healing.” For every idol, Ashley provides a positive and practical counter message of biblical practices. While the first half of her book focuses on the idols of suburbia, the second half covers their antidotes: hospitality, generosity, vulnerability, and shalom.

As a pastor’s wife with her own career and four kids, Ashley is encouraged by the initiative headed by PCA Retirement & Benefits: Cherish. The Cherish campaign, the 2018 Love Gift recipient, is a ministry of care and nurture for pastors’ wives by providing them with confidential and professional counseling.

Ashley said of Cherish, “I hope that as pastors’ wives read my book they feel allowed to be themselves. I desire for them to be vulnerable about their struggles and to reach out for counseling. Pastors’ wives need support systems that help remind us we’re more than what we do. We’re just normal people who God loves. It’s time to stop putting undue pressure on ourselves to be superhuman.”

For further learning, please find her book available for purchase online. In addition, book Ashley to help lead you through the material in person for a speaking engagement at your church, congregation, retreat, or conference. For all other inquiries, connect with Ashley on her website.

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