The Other Side of the Story
The Other Side of the Story

The Other Side of the Story

How churches contribute to the erosion of social architecture.
June 1 st 2014
Appears in Summer 2014

Cities seem to be back. Data indicates that some core cities have grown in recent years at a pace that eclipses that of their suburban counterparts. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have released reports noting a "demographic reversal" in which "cities thrive" and "suburbs sputter." New academic titles have also trumpeted the "great demographic inversion" wherein elites will continue to relocate to the urban core in favour over suburbia. Others claim that the city, because of assets such as density and innovation, will ultimately be triumphant over the same suburbs that have dominated the social gravity of North America for over five decades.

At this point, though, notions of a seismic population tilt back toward core cities remain mostly conjecture: could the recent trends simply be the residue of a housing market that collapsed in 2008 and is now, half a decade later, just starting to recover? Are we really on the precipice of a movement that erodes the half-century of suburban cultural, political, and economic domination? Will the twentieth century infatuation with the suburban lifestyle ultimately be understood as an aberration in human history? It's hard to answer conclusively at this point. Regardless of these demographic questions, however, it does seem reasonable to assert that cities have certainly captured the popular imagination. The affectionate satire of urban hipsters on Portlandia, volumes on the rise of the Creative Class, the affect of New Urbanism on planning, the growing interest in urban gardening, NPR features on the "right-sizing" of shrinking municipalities, intellectual discussions of walkable neighbourhoods, even the urban "ruin porn" of Detroit highlighted in documentaries and glossy magazines all function as significant nods to the burgeoning cultural cachet of cities. After five decades of suburban cultural dominance, cities in North America have recaptured the imagination.

Evangelicals and Re-Urbanization

It seems that even white evangelicals, long assumed to have fled cities for the suburbs and hinterlands, are getting in on the act of rediscovering the richness of cities. In the journal City and Society, James Bielo, an anthropologist at Miami University (Ohio), claims that movements as disparate as the Christian Community Development Association, the Community of Communities, and the Acts 29 Network—all evangelical in religious tradition and all demonstrating a mode of urban embrace—signal a "re-urbanization" of evangelicals. Perhaps most interestingly, Bielo claims that evangelicals are returning to cities for two reasons: cultural critique and reconciliation. That is, they see themselves as living repudiations of the insular, isolated, and homogeneous experience of modern suburbia. Furthermore, they see urban life as an opportunity to address the brokenness of racial and class-based alienation. Again, three disparate movements do not necessarily make for strong evidence that white evangelicals will flood back into core cities in the next decade. However, it does demonstrate a renewed interest in the idea of the city and justice.

In any case, it's clear that some churches are concerned about the changes that seem to be occurring within the urban-suburban dynamic of North America. Historically, churches have played significant roles in the lives of cities. Studies indicate that storefront churches, for instance, contribute significantly to neighbourhood stability. Sociologist Nancy Ammerman asserts that anyone interested in exploring social capital should spend his time not in bowling alleys, but in churches. It is within congregations, Ammerman claims, that bonds of community are brokered and provision of human and material resources are shared. Perhaps most concretely, a study of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, metro region estimates that congregations there generate between $95 million and $118 million annually in replacement value in social service programs. Congregations have been and continue to be vital contributors to the milieu of urban communities.

But there is another side to this story, too. More specifically, if we examine the role of faith traditions in the "white flight" of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, we see a more complex issue than initially assumed. Because of differing religious practices and understandings of the sacred, Catholics and Jews, for instance, tended to have highly differentiated responses to African American in-migration to their previously exclusively white ethnic neighbourhoods. With a parish sensibility that conflated church and neighbourhood identity, white Catholics tended to be more vociferous in maintaining their claim on the "old neighbourhood." The Catholics contested "their space" and typically remained in cities longer. Jews, in contrast, tended to simply move quickly when racial demographic change arrived. In terms of their sacred imagination, the neighbourhood itself held little import. For them, only the Torah was sacred. Moving from the core city to the suburbs cost little when it only meant the relocation of a scroll. According to historian Gerald Gamm, institutional rules explained the territorial attachment of Catholics compared to the mobility and portability of Jews. The Catholic ecclesiastical architecture of hierarchical authority and a parish-based monopoly of attenders contrasted with Jewish congregational autonomy and entirely voluntary institutional membership. In the end, the dissimilarity in practices and policies of faith communities mattered for urban neighbourhoods.

Polity Matters: How Church Government Affects the Common Good

Perhaps the variegated response from Catholics and Jews should not surprise us. It makes sense that such distinctive religious traditions might manifest in stronger and weaker attachments to urban places. Close examination, however, reveals different responses from congregations in denominations as closely linked as the Christian Reformed Church in North American (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Both share ethnic background (Dutch), doctrinal tradition (Calvinism as expressed in the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism), and, ostensibly, church polity (a Presbyterian church order). In fact, the denominations share so much commonality an outsider might have difficulty in distinguishing the two.

But a subtle distinction in these denominations' ecclesiastical structure was a significant factor in the role congregations played in their city. In CRC polity, congregations have largely unfettered control over their church edifice. In theory, a CRC congregation could build a new church in the lot next to an existing church from the denomination. In contrast, the RCA polity reserves such authority for the local classis— a regional collective of congregations. This might seem like a classic case of ecclesiastical minutiae and arcane church "politics"— until you consider the difference this made in how the churches responded to racial change.

In Chicago in the 1960s, this distinction in church polity led to nuanced differences in how congregations responded to the block-by-block advance of the so-called "Black Belt," a hyper-segregated area of contiguous neighbourhoods on Chicago's South Side that was almost exclusively African American. A "dual housing" market—one for whites only, the other for racial minorities—prohibited racial minorities from purchasing homes in large swaths of the city and perpetuated the Black Belt. As more and more of Chicago's South Side began to reflect this reality, congregations responded differently precisely because of their church polity. This subtle distinction in institutional rules played a role in the fact that RCA congregations remained in Chicago South Side neighbourhoods like Englewood and Roseland for years longer than their CRC counterparts.

With a more robust accountability structure built into the church polity, the RCA congregations had no ability to simply relocate in service of organizational maintenance. In the CRC, on the other hand, in spite of the fact that the denominational Synod offered strong rhetoric regarding racial injustice and segregation, there existed no apparatus for inhibiting the outmigration of congregations as they grew more uncomfortable. In the end, the polity of the denominations mattered for the level of attachment that congregations had for their respective neighbourhoods.

Sociologist Steve Warner has described the dominant mode of religious organizational structure in North America as "de facto congregationalism." That is, the bulk of church authority resides at the local congregational level. Though the CRC held to Presbyterian order in name, in reality they practiced Warner's de facto congregationalism. In the de facto congregational polity of the CRC, the denominational hierarchy, such as it was, had no recourse for ensuring that congregations remained committed and responsible to their places in the city. De facto congregationalism allows churches to pursue self-preservation at all costs with little to no apparatus for interrogation or inhibition of those ends. In other words, religious polity has played a crucial role in changing residential patterns of the city and the suburb as congregations sought to ensure their own success.

Congregational Ecology as a Lens of Interpretation

Within the sociology of religion, the lens of congregational ecology has been a useful metaphor for thinking about the lives of congregations and how they may or may not adapt to changes in their surroundings. That is, it might be constructive to think of congregations as organisms that need certain nutrients in order to survive and thrive. For congregations, of course, the most sustaining resource is that of attenders. People showing up for worship at the church typically translates into financial stability and a sense of legitimacy—that this congregation's interpretation of God and the world resonates. Of course, within the voluntary milieu of the North American religious scene, finding ways to attract and maintain these resources—attenders—has become (somewhat understandably) a significant preoccupation for churches.

Historically, when the neighbourhoods around churches changed demographically, congregations have felt desperate to continue to feed on traditional resources. In some cases, that simply meant following attenders to new locales. In others it meant highlighting an identity or niche that would attract mobile attenders from throughout the metropolitan region. In either case, institutional survival seems to be the prime catalyst in organizational decision-making. And a congregational ecology frame simply interprets that movement as a fairly rational process for any self-interested organization.

And this phenomenon has also extended to core-city congregations. Sociologist Omar McRoberts's ethnographic study of African American congregations in Boston found congregations that offered almost no effort to engage the local neighbourhoods. Any efforts or networks that existed among these congregations tended to find focus well outside the neighbourhood scale. Since attenders came from throughout the city, congregations saw little need to foster attachments to neighbourhood. McRoberts argued that such a diffuse strategy "served the survival and growth strategies of the congregations themselves." Of course, McRoberts also noted that we probably really should not expect much more from niche congregations that drew attenders from throughout the city. These churches tended to be places for affinity groups to nurture a highly internalized cohesion, not venues for fostering neighbourhood cohesion.

Subsequently, it seemed that churches betrayed a preoccupation with institutional maintenance over and against truth-telling and societal transformation. In that interpretation, the congregational ecology model illuminates certain congregational practices as an insidious form of cultural accommodation. Congregations were in the business of making attenders as comfortable as possible—especially in terms of how they inhabited cities and suburbs.

Congregations as a Player in Urban Political Economy

Within the interdisciplinary field of urban studies, a number of theories have been implemented in an effort to better understand the fluid nature of cities. In the North American tradition, the Chicago School, led by Robert Park, espoused an urban ecology model that interpreted urban flux as a natural process that typically sought an organic equilibrium. The differentiated places of urban space distributed populations in an orderly manner. In other words, spatial division and segregation should be seen as natural. The ecology framework held sway between the World Wars.

Urban ecology, however, had few resources for explaining the urban crises that exploded across North America in the 1960s and 1970s. If cities naturally self-sorted toward balance, why was there segregation, racial tension, rampant poverty, substandard housing, and rising crime rates? Why were so many resources leaving the cities proper for the suburbs? Moreover, why were cities like Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, literally burning in the midst of riots?

Because urban ecology could not explain the urban crises, a new theory, urban political economy, rose to the fore as the dominant frame for understanding the city. In a striking rebuke to the Chicago School, urban political economy explained the city as subject to machinations of those who held economic and political power. McRoberts refers to these power brokers as the unseen "wizards" who stitch the fabric of city into a tapestry that serves those with resources and mobility. In other words, powerful economic and political actors pull strings behind a curtain in an "urban Oz."

A most vivid example of this magic occurred with the siting of Interstate 94 and the Robert Taylor Homes (at the time the largest public housing project in U.S. history) in such close proximity. Under the guidance of Chicago's political leaders, the interstate acted as an artificial barrier to limit the access of the public housing project's residents to the rest of the city while providing a ribbon of concrete that delivered mobile suburbanites seamlessly through the Black Belt to deposit them for work and play in the Loop. Urban flux, then, remains best understood as a process through which people and institutions with capacity and resources shape the contours urban and suburban settings in manners that artificially advantage some while marginalizing others.

The institution frequently unmentioned in urban political economy is the church. This is a mistake. From the historical evidence related to both the widely divergent practices of Catholics and Jews to the deeply similar of the CRC and RCA, we see that church culture has resonance for the life of neighbourhoods and cities. While institutional rules foster deep attachment and engagement with the surrounding neighbourhood for some, other congregational cultures and practices predispose attenders toward insularity at the expense of the local. For instance, certain white ethnic congregations have been so successful at internal institutional-building that it actually led to a weakness in building crossracial relationships. That racial alienation contributed to the economic decline of numerous urban neighbourhoods.

The neighbourhoods that white ethnic congregations fled from in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s eventually became sites of extreme racial segregation and subsequent poverty. The complicity of churches is realized further when we apprehend that studies indicate property values in those neighbourhoods fell not because of the arrival of racial minorities but because of the manner in which whites left in panic. In that way white departure became a self-fulfilling prophecy and some churches both allowed and, in some cases, incited that alarm.

Contemporary Congregational Accommodation

Historically, de facto congregationalism allowed successful congregations to relocate when the local ecology became more challenging for survival. Today, some of the most thriving congregations in North America have been made from whole cloth in suburbia. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California functions as a case in point. In geographer Justin Wilford's estimation, Saddleback thrives because of the way it taps into the diffuse, fragmented lifestyle of suburban families. The weekend worship services, occurring in ten different venues that ape other suburban institutions in an effort to strike the eye as comfortingly familiar, are just the come-on. According to Wilford, the leaders of Saddleback see the real church being performed in over 1000 houses throughout the region in small group meetings. Just as the home and the nuclear family function as the centre of gravity for dis-integrated suburban life, the small groups serve as the central act of congregational life at Saddleback.

Of course, it could be argued that Saddleback's model works. It's a thriving congregation with national influence. It has poverty programs that reach into Africa. It has hosted U.S. presidential debates. This is all true. However, might it also be worthwhile to think about how accommodationist Saddleback might implicitly be? In terms of urban and suburban place, congregations have probably been most indictable when they simply followed the habits and practices of attenders. The Saddleback model represents a postmodern sanctioning of suburban disorientation and fragmentation.

The Convenient City

That is not to say that suburban megachurches have ignored city cores. Of course, as I noted earlier, cities do seem to be back. Even suburban churches have demonstrated a renewed interest. In another ethnography of suburban megachurches, anthropologist Omri Elisha notes a "particular fascination with the inner city." He attributes this emphasis on the part of megachurches as a method for the congregations to gain legitimacy as "missionaries." For them, the inner city neighbourhoods represented proximate cultural and racial otherness—"an image of localized otherness and disorder."

In their attempts to reach out to inner city populations, though, megachurches tended to err on the side of practices that remained familiar and comfortable. Even "partnerships" had to be conducted in patterns that privileged the protocols most acceptable to attenders of the suburban megachurch. In that way, the engagement in the city is done for the latent purposes of institutional preservation: the particular norms, discourses, and rituals of congregational life receive sanction. Elisha describes this as further institutionalization of the congregation's particular religiosity— a method for expanding their cultural influence.

Seeking the Welfare of the City (and Suburb)

In these instances, churches have interacted with places in a way that hardly seems consistent with seeking the welfare of the city. In fact, all tend to manifest as self-serving. Such is the nature of de facto congregationalism. Without structures and accountability, organizations (similar to organisms) prioritize self-survival. It seems accurate to say that congregations tended to either engage or disengage with cities and suburbs in a manner that best fit the preoccupations of attenders. When congregations fit their practices to match those of attenders, they lose their salience as prophetic voices of urban justice.

Close consideration reveals the role that the cultures and policies of churches played in shaping residential habits and patterns in cities. Social science evidence typically points to government policy, predatory lending, the erosion of manufacturing, and white animus as co-conspirators in degrading the social and economic vitality of so many urban neighbourhoods. However, certain congregational habits and practices also contributed to racial segregation and alienation. The failures of integration continue to haunt the urban landscape of North America. In some cases, churches have been complicit in institutionalizing and entrenching a residential segregation that directly connects to persistent social and economic inequality. The pressure toward organizational maintenance and solidarity had consequences—sometimes negative— for neighbourhoods.

The reason why all this matters is because cities and suburbs continue to have a dynamic relationship in which population flux remains the norm. Churches still play a role in the lives and routines of attenders. If we are indeed on the cusp of the great inversion, how will congregations prime their attenders to consider their geographical habits? Will contemporary congregations follow the path of history and abet residential choices without regard for neighbours or authorities? Terms like demographic inversion and re-urbanization might simply be benign code for gentrification. If that is indeed the case, how will congregations think about displacement? Moreover, social scientists have been tracking the movement of poverty from core cities into adjacent older, inner ring suburbs. These places have been described as dry tinder: when poverty hits, they have neither the quality housing stock nor the amenities that have catalyzed our present urban renaissance. They have a dearth of resources to extinguish the flames. Will these sites of post-World War II tract housing have enough cachet to attract the attention of churches?

In the end, communities of faith have played a role in modern urban inequality. Historically, some congregations have followed attenders to perceived greener pastures. More recently, suburban churches have engaged urban and suburban places in manners that frequently indulge attenders with a wholly new technique of accommodation. The relative successes of congregations as institutions has, at times counter-intuitively, led to negative outcomes for city neighbourhoods. The antecedents of racial alienation and economic disparity are myriad and complex. The role of congregations, though, should not be overlooked in the deaths and lives of cities and suburbs.

Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder

Dr. Mark Mulder, professor of sociology, teaches classes ranging from Church and Society to Urban Sociology to Diversity and Inequality and is director of the urban studies minor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Shades of White Flight (Rutgers University Press) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield). His research finds focus at the intersection of cities and congregations.


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