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).

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.

More unusual conversions of buildings to housing in Chicago

Here are a few examples in Chicago of converting solid older structures into residences:

Developers have never shied away from turning the remnants of Chicago’s past into residences—see the omnipresent warehouse-turned-loft projects across the city. Conversion treatments are now being found where they are less expected: A former Jewish orphanage in Wicker Park is now a single-family home. The old Sears store on Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square? It’s likely to become a 40-unit apartment building. Most impressively, a landmarked church at 2900 West Shakespeare Avenue in Logan Square reemerged in November as a 10-unit condo building. Other similar projects are in the works.

The reason for repurposing instead of demolishing is simple: The quality of old construction often surpasses that of today’s standards. “Most of the brick structures that were built in the postfire era used high-quality materials such as Chicago brick,” says Greg Whelan, a Redfin real estate agent. “Intrinsically, these buildings have high value because they don’t make that brick anymore.” Plus, existing structures bypass height restrictions dictated by modern zoning laws and solve the issue of the lack of vacant land in the most desirable neighborhoods.

These projects fix problems for developers. And the quirks of unconventional buildings appeal to homeowners. In the former church, bell towers allow ceilings, supported by original steel trusses, to soar as high as 30 feet. Slate from the old roof was repurposed as tile in the lobby. (There are plenty of modern features, too, including floating vanities the bathrooms and quartz countertops in the kitchens.) The exterior looks much like it did when the church was built in 1908, with dramatic arched Gothic windows and regal stone detailing around newly built balconies. Three of the 10 units were still available at presstime for between $480,000 and $650,000.

Presumably there are some limits to which older buildings get converted. Although this article doesn’t mention it, I assume a big factor is money: will the conversion provide a sufficient return on investment for the developer? Also, cities won’t necessarily allow anything to be converted to residences. It likely helps if the structure is already in a residential location (common for churches) and is a building that the neighbors like (as opposed to an eyesore or mismatch that even a conversion can’t fix).

I’m still intrigued by the conversion of religious buildings into residences. The architecture of such buildings is often conducive to groups (which would be limited when converted into multiple units) and intended to provide a physica connection with the spiritual realm. How exactly does this architecture fit the tastes of homeowners? Can you easily reduce the spiritual architecture to its component pieces like large windows and high ceilings? See an earlier post about converting Chicago churches into residences.

What if churches considered geographic disparities and their local context?

An interview in the latest print issue of Christianity Today could provide insights for a lot of religious congregations: here is part of the lesson regarding geographic inequalities.

For me, geography is never passive. Why does a new freeway cut through a certain neighborhood? Who lives near that freeway, and why? Those are not just decisions of urban planners or politicians. There are a million little decisions that go into that process—public and private.

It’s impossible to live in a place, or move to a new one, without getting tangled up in the history of its particular structures—who they benefit and who they exclude. That’s a hard reality, because most of us didn’t pave the streets we live on. Yet someone designed those places, and that design will either encourage the flourishing of society or lead to patterns of exclusion…

So many churches, frankly, just don’t know their communities at all. Two or three days a week, a whole bunch of cars come in and then go somewhere else—and that’s the only relationship a church might have with its surrounding neighborhood. That’s more of a suburban reality, but it’s increasingly true of cities as well. The first step, for churches, is just asking, Who’s here? Who are the immediate neighbors that we serve? What populations are underserved? If churches begin to have that conversation more often, then they can look to their congregations and say, “Are we representing the people in this community, and why or why not?”…

The next step is asking, “How can our congregation use its resources—whether that’s a building, a program, or a professional with certain skills—for the sake of others?” Church buildings, for example, are notorious for inefficient usage. They’re filled up a couple times each week, but otherwise the heat is off and they’re just vacant. What a gift it would be for churches to think of their physical structures as resources not just for themselves but also for their surrounding communities. Especially in dense, gentrifying urban areas, where space is really at a premium.

Some related thoughts, many based on findings from the sociology of religion:

  1. A lot of religious congregations seem more interested in internal homophily – being with like people during church activities – rather than turning their attention to their actual neighbors.
  2. Many congregations do little in terms of local outreach – see Congregations in America and the ongoing data of the National Congregations Study. It is not as if they are doing misinformed outreach; little is being done in the first place so getting churches to care about their local community may be harder than it looks.
  3. I agree that urban design can certainly contribute to flourishing or exclusion but it is not necessarily a guarantee of either. Take the highway example given here (and famously illustrated by the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side of Chicago): it reinforced existing boundaries.
  4. Why can’t religious groups construct and maintain “cosmopolitan canopies” rather than leaving it to private commercial interests or the efforts of local governments?
  5. I assume there are some differences today in how different religious traditions and denominations approach the local community. This was certainly true in the past where Catholic churches did not disappear when the parishioners moved to the suburbs but rather transitioned to the newest waves of immigrants. Today, who takes their local context into account more and what could they teach others?