Seeing changes in suburbs through the presence of religious congregations

Suburban diversity, such as through having more non-white residents and more less wealthy residents, can be seen through what religious congregations are present in a community (and which are not). Three quick examples of congregations near the college campus where I work. Example #1:

It’s a poignant time for Sublett, who grew up in the church and today runs its deacon ministry. His grandfather, Carl Lewis Sublett, was one of the workers on the old Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railway who helped start the church.

After meeting in the home of Charles Lucas, the church’s founders bought a $150 lot just south of the train tracks at 412 Crescent St. — today the location of St. Joseph’s Christian Orthodox — to build a church of their own.

It went up in an area referred to as “the Bottom,” a patch of lower ground along Crescent and Washington Streets. That, along with a neighborhood to the east of higher ground near Avery Avenue and Prospect Street called “the Hill,” were the two neighborhoods where it was acceptable at the time for African-Americans to live…

Eventually, the church outgrew the building, and on March 17, 1975, members dedicated the new, white-steepled church by walking about a mile east to where it stands at 1520 Avery Ave., according to church records. Sublett has pictures from that day and recalls the work church members put into erecting the church.

Example #2:

St. Joseph’s Orthodox Christian Church was established by a small group of faithful in March 1989. After meeting for five years in rented facilities, the present site was purchased from the DuPage AME Church. The present church was built in 1999. The community, which today serves well over 600 adults and children throughout the Chicago suburbs, is dedicated to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through worship, fellowship, stewardship, and discipleship.

Example #3:

In late August, the Islamic Center of Wheaton bought and moved into the 26,193-square-foot former First Assembly of God Church at 900 E. Geneva Road, at the southwest corner of Geneva Road and President Street. Records show that, through a bank trust, the Islamic Center of Wheaton paid $3.15 million for the church and its 7.08-acre property.

Mosque spokesman Abraham Antar said he and his fellow congregants are excited about their new home, which he said is Wheaton’s first Muslim community.

“Wheaton is a city of faith, and we’re very privileged to be able to establish an Islamic community for Wheaton and especially for the western suburbs,” he said. “There are a lot of Muslims in Wheaton and the surrounding towns. It’s unfortunate for the (First Assembly of God) church that they lost their opportunity to stay there.”

That these three congregations meet and worship in a community known for its wealth, political conservatism, and concentration of evangelical residents and organizations says something. And these changes in religious groups are happening across many American suburbs; religious groups that even a few decades ago would not have been present now have thriving congregations.

The best scholarly text I know on the subject is the 2015 book Religion and Community in the New Urban America. The authors draw upon decades of research in religious change in the Chicago region, examine patterns across different religious traditions in suburbs, and look at different ways new congregations engage with the communities in which they are located.

(At the same time, the presence of new religious groups does not necessarily guarantee significant other changes in communities. Indeed, attempts by new religious groups to construct, purchase, or renovate buildings can invite concern and backlash.)

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.

 

Just how many church-to-residences conversions are taking place?

If churches and other religious buildings present attractive opportunities for redevelopment in urban neighborhoods, how often does this happen?

I hope someone is tracking all of these switches from religious structures to residences. The impetus to collect this data could come from multiple sources. An organization might want to look at changes in a neighborhood or geographic area. An organization of developers or architects might see this as a business opportunity. A researcher could be interested in housing changes, particularly from an unusual source like unused religious buildings. Presumably, this kind of housing does not go for cheap and could exacerbate existing issues in urban areas. Communities themselves might want to know how many religious buildings are being converted. This could affect tax rolls – moving property from non-taxpaying religious groups to residents brings in more tax money – and nearby residents could be affected.

From what I can gather, these conversions are happening at a regular pace. Yet, it is hard to track the scale from the occasional article. My own research on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago area did not find many churches that became residences. Indeed, former churches could fill a range of uses: the most common was a religious buildings for another religious group but churches could also be reused as daycare facilities, community centers, and offices.

Based on this, I would guess there are not that many churches being turned into residences in terms of sheer numbers. At the same time, of the religious buildings that are sold, I would guess a good number are converted into residences when located in more desirable neighborhoods (though I am sure some buildings are also demolished to make way for new residential buildings).

Forces behind church-into-residences conversions

The conversion of religious buildings into residences continues in many American cities. This is the result of at least three larger forces:

  1. The decline of numerous religious groups which means religious buildings are no longer used for worship. This decline has been going on for decades in a number of denominations, freeing up numerous churches and other structures.
  2. The demand for housing in many urban neighborhoods. While the converted residences are not often cheap, they are often in desirable neighborhoods and locations. The same reasons religious groups chose particular locations also can make them attractive for residents. (The flip side is that religious buildings in less desirable neighborhoods can languish.)
  3. The unique architectural features a religious building can provide including tall vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and brick and stone work. These features can be incorporated into new dwellings and provide very different options compared to new construction.

For example, a recent Chicago Tribune piece about a former church in Logan Square highlights these issues:

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety…

All nine apartments in the converted church are one of a kind and configured with either two or three bedrooms. Three apartments are on the main level of the church, and three apartments are on the garden level. Three more are stacked within the former attached rectory behind the church. The first residents arrived in April…

“People can say it’s a really cool building, but if it doesn’t have closet space or if it doesn’t have a washer and dryer or room for their couch, it’s not going to work for them,” he said.

A recently closed church and sold building plus a desirable neighborhood plus interesting building details equals a redevelopment opportunity.

But, just how many of these conversions of religious buildings are taking place? This is the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Publication on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago region

I recently had an article published in Visual Studies titled “Still Standing After All These Years: The Presence and Internet Presentation of Religious Buildings in the Chicago Area, 1936-2016.”

Here is the abstract:

Scholars have examined the changes in religious architecture over time but few have focused on the ongoing presence of religious buildings in communities nor how long-standing congregations interact with their older building. This study utilises two Internet data sources – Google Street View and the websites of religious congregations – to examine the fate and online presentation of the buildings of four Protestant denominations in the Chicago region from 1936 to today: Disciples of Christ, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Presbyterian, and Seventh-day Adventist. The patterns found show the stability of many church buildings over eight decades and how they help anchor some religious groups – even though newer congregations use a number of these structures – yet congregations make unique choices about presenting their buildings through their website. These findings suggest religious buildings continue to influence their original religious congregations, newer groups using the building and neighbourhoods decades after they are constructed.

Addition to the abstract: we could use more research on how older religious buildings are used, celebrated, and renovated by their original religious congregations, new religious groups, and other organizations. Additionally, what do these long-standing buildings mean for their neighborhoods and communities, even if they are no longer utilized for religious purposes?

“Top Three Religious Traditions in Major Metropolitan Areas”

Data from the 2014 American Values Atlas compiled by PRRI shows the top three religious traditions in a number of large American metro areas:

Top-Three-Religions-by-City

Here are some of the takeaways according to PRRI:

 

  • Urban areas attract the unaffiliated; the religiously unaffiliated are among the top three religious groups in every metro area polled.
  • Catholics also love cities; Catholicism is among the top three religious groups for nearly every metro area—only Nashville, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Atlanta don’t have Catholics among the top three.
  • Atlanta is the only metro area that doesn’t have Catholics, the religiously unaffiliated, or white evangelical Protestants in the number one slot; that prize goes to black Protestants.
  • Nashville has the largest percentage of one singular religious group: nearly four in ten (38 percent) residents identify as white evangelical Protestant.

Related to these takeaways, two things stuck out most to me looking at this data:

  1. The relative evenness of major religious traditions (and unaffiliated) in major cities. Few large regions have one religious tradition that comprises of more than 33% of the population. This suggests a lot of pluralism at the metropolitan region level.
  2. The pattern does not hold in every case but the leading cities for having the percent of different religious traditions tend to fall into certain regions: Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest, unaffiliated in the West, white evangelical Protestant in the Bible Belt and Midwest.

Put these two factors together and it would be fascinating to consider how the experience of religiosity differs across metropolitan regions. For example, a comparison across traditions such as between Nashville (dominated by white evangelicals) and Portland (dominated by the unaffiliated) could be interesting as would regional differences within the same leading tradition such as between Miami and Milwaukee. If metropolitan regions could be considered fields of religious activity, how might they differ in significant ways?

 

Publication in Soc Quarterly: “Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”

The quote in the title for my newest article just published in The Sociological Quarterly comes from a comment made at a 2011 public hearing in the Chicago suburbs involving a proposal from a Muslim group to buy land. At face value, the claim is preposterous: what suburbanite living in a well-off suburb would want to live next to a trailer park?

My study titled ““Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Building”: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” looks at what factors lead to more opposition from neighbors and local leaders when religious groups look to buy land, construct a building, or renovate/use an existing building. Is it related to the size of proposed building, the setting for the building, or the group making the request (thinking of multiple cases of Muslim groups facing opposition in the Chicago suburbs – see examples here, here, here, and here)?

The abstract to the study:

To worship in the suburbs, religious congregations often have to apply to local  governments for zoning and building approval. Examining 40 proposals from religious groups in three Chicago suburbs between January 2010 and December 2014 shows that local governments approved the majority of requests. For the proposals that received more negative attention or “no” votes from government bodies, opposition was related to locations adjacent to residences, experiences with one local government, and requests from Muslim groups. These findings have implications for how suburbs address pluralism and new development as the application of zoning guidelines can make it more difficult for religious groups, particularly ones involving immigrants or racial/ethnic minorities, to find and establish a permanent presence in suburban communities.

In sum, religious groups in the United States can theoretically worship in many places – until a local government suggests otherwise, often due to zoning concerns. Religious groups can counter with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) but lawsuits require time and effort and can hinder positive community relations.