Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Counting the number of churches in the US

Determining how many churches are in the United States is not a simple task:

According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998. A key reason: growth in nondenominational churches.

Using the National Congregations Study (NCS) conducted in 2006 and 2012, he estimates the number of congregations in the US increased from 336,000 in 1998 to a peak of 414,000 in 2006, but then leveled off at 384,000 in 2012.

Brauer’s estimate is more reliable—statistically speaking—than previous estimates that used other methodology; however, his model “relies on samples of individuals and not the organizations themselves,” so there is still a range of variation around the “best bets,” he told CT. Thus, the loss of 30,000 churches is not statistically significant (as it falls within the model’s confidence interval of 95%)…

Brauer’s study corroborates an earlier finding from a team of sociologists led by Shawna Anderson at Duke University, who estimated the average annual death rate of congregations between 1998 and 2005 to be only 1 percent, among the lowest of any type of organization.

Organizations come and organizations go but the number of churches remains large.

The National Congregations Study made a breakthrough in studying congregations by sampling individuals about their congregations and finding that this was a reliable measure of religious organizations. In contrast, trying to find every church can be very difficult. For the 2011 book The Place of Religion in Chicago, the researchers spent years driving all over Cook County to find all the religious congregations and discovered over 4,000. Other researchers have used public sources like websites and white pages/yellow pages to uncover all the churches (though such sources may miss congregations that don’t last long as well as small ethnic congregations).

Pastor: “The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom”

A pastor from South Africa describes what ministry in the suburbs should entail and then concludes this way:

The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom. A place of peace and security here on earth. As such, it is a noble endeavor, but it does it through exclusion and not through the power of God’s grace and truth.

It strikes me that this critique from a conservative Protestant may not be that different from the standard critique of suburbs since at least the early 1920s. This standard critique goes something like this: suburbia tries to make everything look pleasant – from being able to purchase a home, keeping the lawn neat and green, and having a wholesome life centered around your family – but underneath this surface are human beings striving to break free from conformity, dullness, and consumerism. Conservative Christians who critique the suburbs make a similar case that the comfortable suburban life dulls people’s senses to their need for spiritual renewal. Of course, the two groups have very different outcomes in mind: the first critique often hopes for a return to diverse and exciting cities while the conservative Christians place less emphasis on where one lives in the end and care more about their spiritual state wherever they may be.

Evangelicals and sociology: possibilities

The last two posts have explored the patterns in how evangelicals approach sociology and the problems with those patterns. In the third post of the series, here are some ways that evangelicals can begin to solve the problems they have with sociology:

  1. Encourage more conservative Protestants to study, read, and apply sociology. If evangelicals are serious about engaging society, a better understanding of social groups and interactions could prove very helpful. For example, ministry work is more than just theological knowledge and often involves much interaction with people. Couldn’t a required sociology course help prepare Christians going into all fields to better love their neighbors?
  2. Don’t just cherry-pick sociological findings that confirm an evangelical perspective. This is difficult for any group or individual to do as we tend to seek out information that supports our view of the world. However, interacting with sociological work beyond what immediately seems useful would be a good thing.
  3. In recent decades, there have been a number of respected Christians doing sociology whose work is well regarded in the discipline. At the same time, I don’t think sociology as a field has had a transformative figure for conservative Protestants like a James Dobson in psychology. I don’t know the full history of psychology but the field became safe for evangelicals because one of their own helped them see it differently. (Psychology might be unique in other ways; since it is less interested than sociology in groups and societies, psychology might fit better with an individualistic approach favored by evangelicals.)
  4. Develop a stronger idea of what Christian engagement with sociology would be. The approach should be developed further than Christians simply doing sociology or Christians doing work that supports Christian perspectives.
  5. Strive to see the world from a structural perspective. While this may be unusual for many American conservative Protestants, one way to do this would be to try to read the Bible the way those who originally read it would read it. Western modern notions of individuality were not really in play for the original recipients of the sacred texts. Another option to combat the individualistic perspective would be to listen more to Christians around the world who share theological beliefs but interpret scripture through a more structural lens.

In sum, the divide between sociology and conservative Protestantism is not an unbridgeable one even as the two groups often have different purposes and see the world from different perspectives (structural vs. individual, politically liberal vs. politically conservative).

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

 

Evangelicals and sociology: problems

Yesterday, I discussed five patterns I’ve observed in how evangelicals interact with sociology. Here are some problems with these patterns:

  1. The patterns ignore significant areas of research that affect the lives of evangelicals and their organizations on a daily basis. This ranges from research on organizations (why do so many churches and organizations try to reinvent the wheel?) to social problems that evangelicals hope to address (such as development, poverty, health issues, etc.).
  2. Sociology could help evangelicals address certain blind spots. For example, numerous academics as well as evangelicals have written about the group’s problem with race and how an individualistic approach fails to appropriately grapple with structural realities. Sociology written by Christians and non-Christians could help evangelicals move forward in this area.
  3. Sociologists are also interested in the improvement of society. Thus, casting them as enemies may create unnecessary with people who could be helpful to evangelical causes. Evangelicals, more so than fundamentalists, want to engage society. In recent decades in the United States, this has involved taking more public roles and pushing for certain policies and behaviors (at a variety of levels from the federal government to non-profit organizations). Sociologists may have some different end goals than evangelicals but both want to engage society and not succumb to societal apathy and withdrawal. Are there areas in which sociologists and evangelicals could partner (outside of the typical culture war or conservative issues to which evangelicals devote much attention)?
  4. The suspicion of sociology tells evangelicals that is an area unworthy of study. This is odd given the group’s claims that God can work through everything (including non-Christians), there are concepts like common grace, and all truth is God’s truth.
  5. Conservative Protestants sometimes have a limited interest in seeing society as complex and difficult to understand. They can often be reductionistic about social ills, attributing the issues to sin (even as the various forms of sin as well as the consequences can be multifaceted) or bad individuals.

Tomorrow: possible solutions to these problems.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

Evangelicals and sociology: patterns

Based on my experiences with conservative Protestants, discussions of sociologists or sociological research tends to follow several patterns. (A typical caveat applies: these are not true in all circumstances.) Here are some ways this plays out:

  1. Sociological work on religion tends to be cited more than the work of other subfields. This makes sense for people of faith yet fails to acknowledge the place of sociology of religion within the discipline of sociology (it is a low priority and not very influential) and ignores a lot of useful work in other areas.
  2. Sociologists who are known conservative Protestants or Christians receive a lot of attention. This includes people like James Davison Hunter, Christian Smith, Mark Regnerus, and Peter Berger. It is as if their status as Christians makes their work (a) safer – they are not secular researchers – and/or (b) more valid – they are insiders who understand what it is to be a person of faith and the threats evangelicals face.
  3. Sociological research that supports evangelical perspectives is championed. The work of James Hunter on the culture wars is a good example: as a religious group that wishes to engage society, Hunter helped evangelicals make sense of the broader American cultural landscape and the forces they perceived as pushing against them. Another example is Christian Smith’s work on moral therapeutic deism: Smith’s suggestion that many American emerging adults have a vague and self-serving religiosity fits with the evangelical view that many Americans need a stronger and more exclusive faith. A third example involves research that could be used to support nuclear families and abstinence outside of marriage such as research undertaken by Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox.
  4. Sociological research can be useful for pragmatic purposes including bringing people to faith and growing the church. Pastors, in particular, are often interested in wanting to interpret societal trends for their congregation and sociologists can help identify these trends (though this is often restricted to #2 and #3). Outside of particular evangelical aims, sociological research may have little use.
  5. Outside of the way sociology is used as identified in the four patterns above, sociology is often perceived as a field full of liberals, secularists , and postmodernists who if are not actively hostile to conservative Christianity are to be at least held at arm’s length.

On the whole, these patterns appear to serve one purpose: to further the perspectives already held by conservative Protestants. Sociology is a tool that can be used to support the aims and beliefs of people of faith. But, a conservative Protestant must choose wisely which aspects of sociology to apply.

Tomorrow: the problems with these patterns.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

Facebook as a replacement for the community formerly found in church and Little League

In a recent speech in Chicago, Zuckerberg explained his vision for Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook groups to play an important role that community groups like churches and Little League teams used to perform: Bringing communities together…

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users who’ve built large community-support groups on the site. “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”

He added, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”…

“A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

One of the best things about the Internet and social media is that it allows people with specific interests to find each other in ways that can be difficult offline. Yet, it is less clear that these online groups can be full substitutes for offline social groups. A few specific questions about this based on what Zuckerberg said:

  1. It can be interesting to ask about the purpose of religious groups: how much are they about religious activities versus social activities? The answer might depend on whether one is a person of faith or not or an insider or outsider to such groups.
  2. Religious groups are unique in that they are often focused on a transcendent being. Other social groups often have an external focus but not quite the same kind. Is a Facebook group focusing on the same kind of thing as a religious group?
  3. Zuckerberg is hinting at the need humans have for social and spiritual connection. Can such spiritual connection be filled in an online setting in the ways that it occurs offline?
  4. Zuckerberg is right about the decline in civic membership but can this trend be easily reversed? For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone points to a whole host of factors (from suburbanization to television watching) that led to this. If people are willing to join online communities in large numbers, is this because these communities offer different requirements than civic groups?

A reminder: this is not a new development. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been clear from early on about his goals to use the platform to bring people together. See an earlier post about this here.