Excerpts from Living on the Streets: The Role of the Church in Urban Renewal

Established religious communities—churches, synagogues, mosques, and the like—are institutions with a critical role to play in urban life. This is not a plea to recover what once was, but to recognize what presently is.
October 14 th 2005

The Work Research Foundation (renamed Cardus in 2008) is committed to its community, including its home in the City of Hamilton. With that in view, WRF President Michael Van Pelt and Researcher Richard Greydanus developed a policy position paper in the summer of 2005 to draw attention to the role of Hamilton's churches in revitalizing Hamilton's oldest neighbourhoods and downtown core. Several of the Hamilton's 170 churches are centres of not just social services, but volunteerism and capital infrastructure development. Many of these churches' members are moving into the city core and restoring Hamilton's historical residential and commercial building stock. More importantly, they're working to enhance community life in the city core.

The Work Research Foundation aspires to do its part in this important task. Following are excerpts from this white paper, Living on the Streets: The Role of the Church in Urban Renewal. The paper may be read in its entirety at www.cardus.ca.

Once known as "Bad News Bibby," for a time University of Lethbridge sociologist of religion in Canada Reginald Biddy had nothing but depressing reports to offer on the state of religious observance in Canada. By all appearances, theories of secularization were right: religion was on its way out as a culture-shaper. In fact, the picture was so grim in the 1980s that Bibby himself considered switching his focus to a more exciting field of study to become a sociologist of sports. Organized religion was dying, and churches could do nothing to stop it.

But Bibby's 2002 study, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada, suggested that there are some questions about life's purpose and meaning that only the "gods" can answer. In the last decade , Bibby has pointed to a revitalization of religion which he traces in part to the reality that "the overwhelming majority of Canadians acknowledge that they do raise these so-called 'ultimate questions' in the course of living out their lives" (Bibby, 2002, 93).

In the words of the American sociologist Peter Berger, "I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. It wasn't a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it was basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular"(in Bibby, 2002, 61).

Even through the lean years of the late 20th century, established Canadian churches preserved a core of dedicated members—in Bibby's words "a significant following." Today, both inside and outside churches, evidence he has gathered indicates that the gods are restless. Organized forms of Christianity—churches—stand to gain the most. It should be noted that Bibby's study is not limited to churches. What might appear to be a sort of favouritism shown towards Christian churches in Canada is merely a historic reality. Among European immigrant groups coming to North America, Christianity in its various expressions dominated. In the current, religiously plural environment, those institutionalized expressions of religious faith are poised to make a comeback, precisely because their institutional expression lends them a measure of credibility.

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Churches are consolidating and strengthening their social resources, a far cry from what had been predicted. If Bibby is right, churches stand poised to take a significant place in the public square. Ultimately, this means city governments and business communities need new language to come to grips with the impact of the institutional church.

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Times are changing. Theories of secularization have been discredited in many academic circles as unable to account for the true complexity of human life. People are taking a renewed interest in the role played by religion, both in theoretical perspective and in personal commitment.

Who stands to gain in this changed environment? In the words of Bibby, "The surviving groups will be those that have been around a long time and continue to have a solid base of support . . ." (Bibby, 2002, 233). In other words, religious institutions, established communities of worship, stand to gain. Many of the different churches examined here show that this is exactly what they are doing: gaining. And the community of Hamilton is benefiting because of it.

Established religious communities—churches, synagogues, mosques, and the like—are institutions with a critical role to play in urban life. This is not a plea to recover what once was, but to recognize what presently is. Civil, business, and religious leaders need to change the language they employ to recognize and capitalize on the resource base represented by established religious communities for the economic development and renewal of cities.

As this report has shown, times are also changing for churches themselves. Not so long ago, three of the five churches examined—First Hamilton, Hughson Street Baptist, and Philpott Memorial Church—were seriously considering closing the doors of their downtown locations due to declining membership. Yet in the space of a decade, all have worked to redefine their identities and become true city churches to great effect. All three churches report that membership is growing and that they are actively looking for ways to connect more closely with their neighbourhoods.

Each of the interviewees echoed in their own language the words of Cathy Gazzola: "That is the way it should be done." Despite past failures to integrate with the wider community, there still remains an intuitive sense that there is a place and an important role for the church.

In Hamilton's VISION 2020, government and business, in addition to the citizenry of Hamilton itself, are listed as institutions critical to the long-term development of the city. Should not churches, or more broadly, established religious communities, be added to this list? At the very least, it is important to ask the question.

Should Hamilton's administrators take note? Further, should the city's business community be concerned? The intent of this report has been to investigate a possible connection between the health of churches and the socio-economic health of cities, and can only conclude with a word on the church's very great potential to contribute to a city's economy. No claim will be made whether in the church-city relationship the health of the former depends on the health of the later, or vice versa. But it is important to take note of the fact that as Hamilton's downtown suffered economically, so did the membership of downtown churches. It is not too strong a claim to suggest that the two have an interdependent relationship.

Presently the City of Hamilton is looking for ways to revitalize its city centre. An important step in this process will include identifying potential places of growth. If churches can

  1. grow community,
  2. promote community service,
  3. attract people to live downtown,
  4. draw private investment, and
  5. add beauty to the physical appearances of community

—five themes emerging consistently from our study—they represent enormous potential for the very kind of growth the City of Hamilton is interested in promoting.

Another word about this report's more general application to urban centres. Wherever active and growing churches can be found, there can also be found seeds of urban renewal and economic growth. In order to capture this reality, language must be developed that adequately expresses what, according to the evidence, is truly happening on the ground. The church must be recognized as an institution critical to the development of healthy and vibrant urban centres.

Topics: Cities
 

Michael Van Pelt, President and CEO of Cardus, a public policy think tank, has more than 20 years of experience in public life, including advocacy with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce and serving as a municipal Councillor. Since 2000, Michael has helped build Cardus into a full-fledged think tank, delivering research that is public, credible and Christian. He continues to consult widely and undertake advisory work, helping institutions strategically connect their beliefs with their behaviours.

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