Building Faith, COVID-19, and staying away from religious buildings

When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:

One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.

All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.

Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.

The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within

Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.

Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.

 

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:

TheGlassChurchP4

As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

Publication online in Journal of Urban History: “From “God Will Begin a Healing in this City” to “Jungles of Terror”: Billy Graham and Evangelicals on Cities and Suburbs”

Yesterday, the Journal of Urban History published online an article I had worked on for a few years:

BillyGrahamArticleJul20Online

This project began when I became aware of an online archive of Billy Graham’s messages through the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Given Graham’s popularity and influence while thinking as a sociologist about how religion and place are connected, I wanted to see how he addressed the substantial social change brought about by suburbanization during his post-World War II evangelistic career. Here is a summary of the findings from the abstract:

Graham discussed numerous urban problems and suggested solutions should begin with individual spiritual renewal. Graham proclaimed heaven as the ultimate city and did not encourage listeners to stay in cities or challenge white flight. As a respected pastor and leader, Graham’s messages highlight how evangelicals could consider cities in need of spiritual renewal but not require structural responses or living in cities as well as the limited power evangelical religious leaders have regarding contentious social issues.

The anti-urbanism common among white evangelicals has numerous roots. Graham exemplified several of these: a focus on individual action and salvation, consistent reminders of urban problems (meant to help prompt a spiritual response), and a focus on heaven. At the same time, his evangelistic efforts required holding events in major cities and meeting and talking with numerous influential leaders found in cities. I hope this study can help contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation about the mixing of religion and place and its consequences for American society.

Divided By Faith, race, and religion

When I teach Introduction to Sociology, one of the texts I use is Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2000 book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Here are parts of Chapter Four (“Color Blind: Evangelicals Speak on the “Race Problem””) that seem very pertinent:

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences). (76)

But, these perspectives are not just tied to race:

Unlike progressives, for them individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have freewill, and are individually accountable for their own actions. This view is directed rooted in theological understanding… (76-77)

A summary later in the chapter:

On careful reflection, we can see that it is a necessity for evangelicals to interpret the problem at the individual level. To do otherwise would challenge the very basis of their world, both their faith and the American way of life. They accept and support individualism, relationalism, and anti-structuralism. Suggesting social causes of the race problem challenges the cultural elements with which they construct their lives. This is the radical limitation of the white evangelical tool kit. This is why anyone, any group, or any program that challenges their accountable freewill individualist perspectives comes itself to be seen as a cause of the race problem. (89)

And back to race:

But white evangelicals’ cultural tools and racial isolation curtail their ability to fully assess why people of different races do not get along, the lack of equal opportunity, and the extent to which race matters in America. Although honest and well intentioned, their perspective is a powerful means to reproduce contemporary racialization…

This perspective misses the racialized patterns that transcend and encompass individuals, and are therefore often institutional and systemic. It misses that whites can move to most any neighborhood, eat at most any restaurant, walk down most any street, or shop at most any store without having to worry or find out that they are not wanted, whereas African Americans often cannot. This perspective misses that white Americans can be almost certain that when stopped by the police it has nothing to do with race, whereas African Americans cannot… (89-90)

The book is twenty years old and has led to productive listening, conversations, action, and scholarship. Yet, the intersection of race and religion, the deeply embedded assumptions in faith and other spheres of life, still matters today.

(See this 2016 post titled “How white evangelicals define themselves – and what is missing” for an earlier discussion involving Divided By Faith.)

Addressing race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois

In late 2015, Solidarity Cabinet at Wheaton College asked me to give an evening talk alongside one of my colleagues, David Malone, then Associate Professor of Library Science and head of Special Collections at Wheaton College (and now Dean of University & Seminary Library at Calvin College). We gave talks about the history of race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois. Afterward, we discussed how even though these had been independent projects, the data and patterns we had uncovered across the two communities appeared to overlap.

In late 2019, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society published our article titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.”

RaceTownandGown2019FirstPage

The synopsis from the journal’s website:

Our final article traces the trajectory of racial attitudes and policies in an affluent Chicago suburb. In “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race,” Brian J. Miller and David B. Malone summarize the evolution of Wheaton College and the larger community of Wheaton, Illinois on matters of race. Before the Civil War both college and town were well-known for abolitionism and relatively enlightened racial views. By the late nineteenth century, however, that earlier openness to African American uplift was waning fast. At the college, the reform ferment of the antebellum era gave way to evangelical fundamentalism, steering the college in more conservative directions. Meanwhile, as the town of Wheaton suburbanized after World War II, the new affluence it residents enjoyed corresponded with a more conservative approach to racial integration at the heart of the postwar Civil Rights Movement. The history of racial tolerance that had defined both college and town at their founding, while remaining a point of pride to be remembered, seemed only that, a distant memory. Miller and Malone, however, point to this history to make an important point–that structural economic and social change, coupled with new ideas, profoundly influence institutional and cultural change over time. Wheaton College and the larger suburb of which it is a part can, and no doubt will, continue to evolve, perhaps in surprising directions.

In certain ways, these communities exemplify broader trends in American society: how white evangelicals and white and wealthy suburbs address race. What is more unique in these two particular cases is that at certain points in their history, they were welcoming toward Blacks and minorities, particularly compared to some of their counterparts. Then, a combination of internal decisions and larger societal pressures which then shaped subsequent actions and experiences led to them being less welcoming. The character of places and communities is malleable even as a certain inertia takes hold over time. As as we note (and the editor notes in the paragraph above), communities and institutions can change again.

 

Publication in Soc of Religion: “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region,1992-2017”

Sociology of Religion today published online my article referenced in the title to the post:

ReligiousFreedomandLocalConflictWeb

I came to this article through wanting to analyze the connection between religion and place. Having seen at least a few stories of religious zoning conflict in the Chicago area (see an earlier study here), I wondered whether these patterns held across different metropolitan regions (and all the variations that could exist there), a longer time period, and within different communities within metropolitan regions. As the abstract suggests, there are some similarities – for example, locations near residences or requests from Muslim groups receive more attention – and differences – including what religious groups are in each region (with a larger population of Orthodox Jewish residents in the New York City region).
More broadly, zoning is a powerful tool communities have. As they set their land use guidelines, they are making decisions about what they envision their community looking like. This applies both to the physical structure or spaces as well as who might reside or work in the community. Americans tend to like local government, in part because it exercises control over what might locate near their homes or residences. But, this impulse to protect homes and property values can come up against other interests a community might have, such as affordable housing or medical facilities.

Depicting heaven, hell, and in between through mid-century modern, the 1980s, and the Getty Center

The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)

As for heaven itself:

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:

Getty2

Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.

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).