White Flight, Church Polity, and the Institutional Dynamics of Race
White Flight, Church Polity, and the Institutional Dynamics of Race

White Flight, Church Polity, and the Institutional Dynamics of Race

Understanding why churches fled and the tools that helped them return.
January 28 th 2016
Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure
Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departureby Mark T. Mulder. Rutgers University Press, 2015. 198pp.

White evangelicals seem just as guilty as their white neighbours when it comes to white flight. Why is this? In Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure, Mark Mulder offers nuanced answers to this question through a case study: the rapid departure of whites to Chicago suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s following the movement of the Black Belt to the South Side of Chicago. While racism, ethnocentrism, and other race-associated factors may have played significant roles in the process of white flight, Mulder argues that these factors in and of themselves are not enough to understand the causes of white flight. To understand white flight among evangelicals, argues Mulder, we have to pay attention to the institutional structures that abetted, or restrained, that flight.

Mulder's book seeks to demonstrate how church polity, the institutional and organizational structure of denominations, affects race relations in the United States. For Mulder, the internal political structure of a church matters for how that church engages with its neighbourhood, and with the broader public. Here Mulder builds on a previous study by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith, which shows that white evangelicalism has contributed to the perpetuation of a racialized society because of its "limited cultural tool kit." This tool kit overemphasizes the role of the individual and obscures or misunderstands the structural aspects of racial issues in America.

Shades of White Flight is "less about the people involved than it is about the organizational and institutional forces that continue to shape cities."

Shades of White Flight is "less about the people involved than it is about the organizational and institutional forces that continue to shape cities." This forces the reader to ask: Does evangelical theology and polity necessarily mean that evangelicals will respond to changing neighbourhoods by fleeing? Or are there resources for evangelical Christians seeking to break this cycle?

A Tale of Two Denominations

Mulder compares the exodus of seven Christian Reformed Church (CRC) congregations to the later exodus of six Reformed Church in America (RCA) congregations from the Roseland and Englewood neighbourhoods of Chicago. While the two denominations seem largely indistinguishable to outsiders, Mulder notes two subtle differences in practice and polity that resulted in different responses to their changing environment.

The first difference is in education: the CRC emphasizes Christian education in parent-governed schools, while the RCA encourages education within the state-run public school system. The second difference is something even theologians often deem too banal to discuss: church polity. A CRC church can sell its building and relocate with relative ease, as opposed to the RCA's need for permission from the denomination to make the same move.

Mulder attributes the decade-earlier departure of CRC congregations (in relation to their RCA counterparts) to these differences in practice and polity, and he argues that the CRC communities had few resources and little desire to respond or adapt.

The case study of Roseland and Englewood seems to highlight the lack of resources within all of the white churches in these neighbourhoods to adapt and respond to changing racial demographics.

As Mulder points out, though, the RCA's longer presence in the neighbourhood ought not be confused with the church's ability to successfully adapt to neighbourhood change. In 1987, around fifteen years after all CRC congregations had left Roseland, a divinity student conducting a study on Emmanuel Reformed Church offered a "withering critique of the church." Mulder recounts his study as follows: "The church's failure to properly respond to many transitional factors [in the neighbourhood] is really the fault. A church cannot afford to be static while the rest of the community is shifting and changing." At the time of this study, Sunday-morning worship attendance at Emmanuel Reformed was around twenty-five people.

Mulder argues that this polity difference "permitted the CRC congregations to depart more easily and more quickly, demonstrating that the responses of these CRC and RCA congregations cannot simply be explained by changing ecology." He picks up on the significant and nuanced differences between the two denominations, asking important questions about the implications of these differences. The importance of these questions must be underscored. However, despite differences in timetable, in church polity, and in the denominations' approach to education, all of the initial RCA and CRC congregations in Roseland and Englewood eventually left.. In the end, the case study of Roseland and Englewood seems to highlight the lack of resources within all of the white churches in these neighbourhoods to adapt and respond to changing racial demographics.

Like evangelical Christians generally, then, Mulder argues that the CRC has a limited cultural tool kit for understanding and engaging in the institutional character of race problems in America. In the face of continued urban change, persistent racial segregation, economic disparity, and the decline of many urban neighbourhoods, are evangelicals doomed to repeat the cycle shown in the CRC's flight from Roseland and Englewood? Or might there be resources for evangelical Christians seeking to break the cycle of white flight that, rather than perpetuating a racialized system, actively work against it? Might some of those resources be found within the Reformed tradition?

If we look at the makeup of the Roseland neighbourhood past the bounds of Mulder's study, we see an indication that, in fact, the Reformed tradition does have those resources in its tool kit.

Mulder himself hints at the capacity of the CRC to address structural racism when he notes that "in order to more effectively combat insidious structural racism within the denomination, the Synod directed the Home Missions Board to create a Race Commission" (116). This denominational call for racial reconciliation in the midst of white flight was embodied, in some ways, by an initiative in the Roseland neighbourhood itself. In 1987, Roseland Christian Reformed Church was established, later accompanied by Roseland Christian School and preceded by Roseland Christian Ministry Center.

Roseland Christian Reformed Church functions in the ways one typically thinks of a church: weekly services where songs are sung, Scripture is read, the sermon is preached, the sacraments are administered, an offering is taken, and prayer meetings, choir rehearsals, youth group, and others meet regularly. But the church also functions in a reciprocal relationship with Roseland Christian Ministry Center. This center provides important resources to the neighbourhood, empowering the people in the neighbourhood, congregants and neighbours alike, to serve the community. The various services of the center are intimately linked to the systemic needs of the community. This center embodies the type of institution that Jonathan Chaplin discusses in his essay "Loving Faithful Institutions," both critiquing and addressing some of the systematic ills of society. In their own words, "Roseland Christian Reformed Church, the worshipping body born out of [Roseland Christian Ministries], partners with [Roseland Christian Ministries], to carry out the mission that God has given us to display his love to the community we are called to serve."

The existence of a CRC congregation in the Roseland neighbourhood currently shows that there are theological "tools" within the Reformed tradition for combating structural racism.

The existence of a CRC congregation in the Roseland neighbourhood currently shows that there are theological "tools" within the Reformed tradition for combating structural racism and white flight. Practically, the joint work of the current Roseland Christian Reformed Church and Roseland Christian Ministries can function instructively, highlighting specific ways that churches can better integrate and adapt to changing neighbourhoods. While there are many "tools" we could pull from the Reformed theological tool kit, the Roseland experience highlights one theological distinction in particular: the distinction between church as institute and organism. These two separate roles of the church function as one of the means by which the existing church in Roseland both addresses the needs of the community and maintains its unique identity as a worshipping community. The reciprocity between the church and its ministry centre highlights one of the important "tools" in the Reformed theological tool kit.

Yeast and Pearls

Affirming the church in both of these roles gives theological impetus for engaging broader society and affirming the unique identity of the worshipping community of the church. Herman Bavinck articulates the relationship between these two—the proclamation of the gospel and its transforming effects in society—using the helpful metaphors of "pearl" and "leaven." These two metaphors are Bavinck's way of understanding two tasks given to humanity: to preserve and preach the good news of Christ and to take the world that has been given to us and make something of it. Rather than understanding these two tasks as distinct and perhaps even antithetical, his joint metaphors of pearl and leaven help us to understand how these two tasks function together. The spiritual reality of the kingdom of God is of infinite value to us, a pearl of great price. What Christ inaugurated on earth, the kingdom of heaven, must be understood as a heavenly treasure; God's gift of righteousness, salvation, and eternal life, obtained by faith, has unspeakable value. Certainly the church must uniquely proclaim this message. However, the metaphor does not stop there. If it did, it might seem like the church had reason to function as a closed community: it has the pearl of great price, a promise of eternal life—it need not go out and do something in the world. But the gospel also influences the rest of society, acting as a leavening agent throughout the world. The gospel, as a leaven, has culture-making, culture-swaying, and culture-transforming power. This means the church does have something to say to the outside world; in fact, it has the responsibility to change society for the better. The church as leaven ought to shape the city in a positive way.

This leavening, the influencing power of the gospel throughout the world, does not operate on its own. It comes from the core of the gospel, the pearl of great price. Thus the church that gathers around Word and sacrament in corporate worship has a vital function! But the church also ought to consist of the communal life of believers being sent out of that worshipping community into the broader society, into its neighbourhood. Christians can and should have a positive influence in society, through work in the government, on school boards, in various community organizations, and more. We serve the needs of our neighbourhood because of the gospel.

This helps us to situate another part of the narrative of the CRC: the synodical will to combat structural racism and the commissioning of a new church in a neighbourhood once abandoned by the CRC. Mulder draws attention to the need for evangelicals to take seriously the organizational and institutional forces that continue to shape cities. Understanding the church as a necessary leavening agent in society, particularly in light of systemic issues such as racial segregation and injustice, undergirds the positive contribution the church can have in and through the institutions that shape cities. Broadly construed, evangelicalism understands the church as pearl quite well. Reformed theology specifically brings the role of the church as leaven into the conversation, as the current Roseland CRC embodies. The gospel as both pearl and leaven drives us—CRC, broadly evangelical, and beyond—to develop important and transformative connections in our neighbourhoods as we, responding to the call of God, seek the empowerment and betterment of the communities facing tremendous issues.

Jessica Driesenga
Jessica Driesenga

Jessica Driesenga is a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary, studying Christian ethics.


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