Congregations asked freelance writer ‘Marlis McCollum to interview key leaders in American religion about their perspectives on how congregations make a difference and why they matter. In the first of a two-part serices, Thomas Tewell, Lowell Livezey, Bob Abernathy, and Robert Wuthnow respond to these questions with a focus on public life. In the May/June issue, we will feature interviews with Donald Miller, Isa Aron, Robert Edgar, and Mark Chaves.
Making a Difference
Community Partnership Brings New Life to the Congregation
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is located in the heart of midtown Manhattan, and one of the unique things about our church is its diversity. We are located on one of the most expensive blocks of real estate in the world in the richest congressional district in the country, but 36 stops north on subway number 6 is the country’s poorest congregational district. One of the main things that has enabled our church to make a difference has been the recognition that both the rich and the poor are part of our parish.
I came to New York after serving as pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, where we gave away a dollar for the needs of the world for every dollar we spent on ourselves. This experience taught me the importance of mission and ministry in the world. So, when I came to New York, I was already attuned to wanting to be involved in mission and ministry. I knew from my experience in Texas that there were people in the area who would understand the community’s needs and know how the church could help. I sought out other local clergy members for their insights about the city, its citizens, its problems, and its resources. My clerical colleagues cautioned me not to tackle too many issues at once, but to focus my efforts on one or two issues.
Building Homes—and Bridges
We chose homelessness and housing for the poor as our primary focuses, realizing that, in order to serve effectively, we needed to prepare ourselves to tackle these challenges. One of the things that I believe has made our ministry to the homeless strong in New York is that we took the time to understand these people and their plight. We made a study of it. We read the prophetic narratives of Isaiah and Amos and Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace, which showed us the many faces of homelessness. We talked to homeless people and got to know them.
Out of our recognition that we needed this preparation grew another ministry, the Center for Christian Studies, which offers courses in the Bible, theology, practical Christianity, arts and literature, and church history to support members in their faith and in their community outreach. We view the Center as a way to inhale God’s love so that we can exhale God’s love in ministry in the world. If we try to exhale without inhaling, we burn out. If we inhale but give nothing away, we suffocate. Both are essential.
Another factor that has made our ministry to the homeless so successful and meaningful is our partnership with other congregations and organizations in the city. Neighboring clergy helped us identify resources in the city. Members of the Midtown Clergy Association supported an effort I headed on the Faith Steering Committee for Habitat for Humanity to build 15 homes. Providing homes to people in need was a moving experience for all of the 2,000 volunteers who assisted in this project, but what was perhaps even more wonderful was that this experience involved faith communities throughout New York. Jews, Muslims, and Christians worked together on this project, alongside the people who would ultimately reside in these homes. This shared experience erased many stereotypes and built bridges between faith communities and between the poorer and wealthier members of our community.
What we have discovered in our ministry is that members of other congregations and organizations are not only willing to help, they are thrilled to be called upon. The clergy in midtown Manhattan have realized that although the problems we face are bigger than any of us can address alone, in partnership we can make a difference. Even faculty members from Columbia and New York Universities have become involved, with several teaching courses in our Center for Christian Studies. We didn’t realize so much help was available until we started asking, but when we did we found that people wanted to be in partnership with us, and it has helped our congregation come to life. We feel that we are making a difference not only in the lives of our members, but also in New York City, and it’s exciting!
Making a Difference
To congregations who want to make a difference in their communities, my advice is to look first at where God has placed you. Then find out about the community that exists within a one-mile radius of your church. What are the issues and needs of the people in that area? What can the church offer them?
Next, limit your focus. You can’t do multiple things well, so try to do a few things well, so try to do a few things with excellence. And don’t try to do them alone. When you explore your community to determine its problems, investigate its resources as well.
Finally, keep in mind that what has worked in one setting will not necessarily work in another. I believe that ministry is organic, that you have to grow it. That is what we have done at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Our worship attendance is booming, our programs are expanding, and our people are changing because there is organic spiritual growth at the center of all we do.
Rev. Dr. Thomas Tewell
Senior Pastor, The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York City
In Congregations, Internal Affairs and External Affairs
When we consider the public role of congregations, we typically think of political action and social service. These are indeed important and highly visible public roles, but many congregations also serve as models of good communities, and as training grounds for participation in the political process. The public impact of these “behind the scenes” activities is easy to overlook.
Teaching Public Participation
There is a tendency in our society for people to be individualistic and private. Churches are to some extent counter to that. Most congregations conduct themselves as small publics. They bring people together. In churches, people come out of their private domains and into interaction. They learn how to participate in public—how to work in communities, how make arguments, and how make decisions. This learning can then be transferred into greater and more effective participation elsewhere—in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, the PTA, the Republican or Democratic Party, or in progressive or conservative social movements. And participation in church decision-making processes increases the likelihood, not just the quality, of participation in the political process.
The structure and organization of a church affects its ability to encourage such learning and participation among its members. The more open and accessible a church is, the more it operates as a public. For example, a church that has few requirements for membership, that conducts its meetings openly, provides copies of meeting minutes to its members, and encourages dialogue on church matters provides a model of democratic community. Congregations with authoritarian pastors or secret processes, however, tend to teach people not to participate.
In our highly individualized society, if we are not encouraged and given opportunities to participate in community, there is a danger that we will become more balkanized, and less committed to the
good of the whole. If our society is to function well, there must be a social underpinning that brings people together. Historically, the church has functioned in that role, and it is important that it continue to do so.
Churches also perform educational and deliberative functions that contribute to the larger community. Many churches provide forums in which political issues can be discussed, but upon which the church does not take a position. Here, the role of the church is not to imply that the congregation should support a particular position, but to teach its members that, as Christians, they have a responsibility to be well-informed citizens and to act in accordance with their conscience in the political process. A big threat to our society is indifference. Churches have the power to contribute greatly to the betterment of society by supporting political awareness and participation.
Negotiating Cultural Identity
Many churches today are also faced with decisions concerning their own racial or ethnic identity, and these have far-reaching implications. How race or ethnicity is expressed in a church is one of the things churches make decisions about. Sometimes these decisions are imposed on a congregation by its pastor, sometimes they involve whole congregations, and sometimes they are largely the result of changes in the immediate neighborhood, which congregations address either directly or indirectly.
Even the decisions to welcome or not to welcome new people into a congregation are political decisions, with consequences both for the character of the congregation and for the wider community. While at one level these are choices about evangelism and church growth, they are also opportunities for a congregation to deliberate and act publicly for a more inclusive community.
Churches have a lot of choice in regard to whether they pay attention to the racial/ethnic mix of their congregations. They can ignore it or give it expression. A church may make the decision, for instance, to remain racially or ethnically homogeneous, and to make its ethnic/racial identity a source of collective pride. Afrocentric churches are a timely example. This racial or ethnic identity can be the glue that holds a congregation together even if the neighborhood is being pulled apart by other forces, and it can be a vehicle for bringing new members into the church.
Other churches may actively foster a multiracial and multicultural identity. Such churches do not necessarily ask their members to “melt” into a homogeneous whole, although that is often the case. They may rather explore and celebrate their diversity and incorporate its contrasting cultures into the worship services through the use of representative musical instruments, music, or other cultural forms of expression.
In either case, even if the church has withdrawn from political forms of action, it is public because its racial/ethnic identification affects its members’ sense of identity and how they see themselves in relation to people of other races. How ethnic and racial identities are expressed in a church is essentially a reconstitution of the public.
As the population of the United States grow more and more diverse, an awareness of the ways in which decisions concerning a church’s cultural identity are public decisions will become increasingly important. Congregations are not private clubs—even those that would like to be. Much of what they do internally, and the processes by which they decide to do it, have far-reaching consequences for their members, potential members, and the wider community.
Congregations deserve more recognition for their public contributions. But by the same token, they themselves need to recognize more fully—and thus take more responsibility for—the public consequences of what may seem like their internal affairs.
Lowell W. Livezey, Ph.D.
Director and Principal Investigator of the Religion and Urban America Program
University of Illinois at Chicago
The Importance of Being Church
Keeping the Focus on God
When we think about religion and public life, it is easy to concentrate on conspicuous controversies such as school prayer, vouchers, and other church-state disputes. But if we do that we miss, I think, the simple, familiar, and most important contribution congregations make to the larger society: being church.
I think of church people who are superb parents, and neighbors, and coworkers. I think of people of faith who feel called to do work that helps others. Remembering all those I have known whose lives made a difference for others. I conclude that the best way for congregations to influence the rest of America is to continue to do, and do well, exactly what they are doing now: helping their members be more centered on God, more worshipful, ore attentive to others, and more committed to helping children grow up to be caring and faithful adults. These public benefits of religious life are, I hasten to say, byproducts of the worship that is the church’s first mission. But they are wonderful byproducts, nevertheless.
Many people find they can express their faith best in organized social and political action. I thin, again, that this is a welcome consequence of the church’s primary task, not the top priority itself. I think it can be effective, especially over the long term, only if it is solidly grounded in spiritual life. But there is no denying the role people of faith have had in American reform. The civil rights movement had deep roots in congregations, and the environmental movement is strongly enriched by the same source.
Community service is another great adjunct of the life of some congregations—ministering to the hungry and addicted and sick. Again, it is important to keep the priorities in order, and not attempt to do so much in the world that what happens in the sanctuary suffers. But if the balance is kept, congregations can be part of effective social ministries, and such service can be not only expression of worship but also an inspiration to it. David Hilfiker of Washington’s Church of the Savior, who ministers to homeless men with AIDS, told us on our program that he had long struggled with his beliefs. All he knew for certain, he said, was that the place he saw God was in the eyes of the poor.
There is also a prophetic role for the Church and its spokespersons: reminding the country’s leaders of the demands of faith. Again, there are well-known dangers in this: well-meaning critics can become co-opted by those they would correct. But the prophetic role remains as important as it is ancient.
In national debate, in worldwide movements, in social service on the streets—in all of life—people of faith are making an incalculable contribution to the whole society. So are people in every family and neighborhood, and all for one primary reason: people serving others—on the national stage and, quietly and just as importantly, in their communities and at home—have been nurtured and guided, directly or indirectly, by the worship and teaching that takes place every day in every one of America’s 300,000 congregations.
That contribution is something no one in the larger society should underestimate or neglect.
Executive Editor and Host
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (PBS)
The Changing Face of Society
How Congregations Must Adapt to the Challenges Ahead
When we undertook the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism Project two years ago, it was an attempt to understand what has happened to mainline denominations since t
he late 1960s. We wanted to determine whether mainline churches where still playing a vital public role or whether their public role was in decline.
What we found is that mainline denominations are much more involved than evangelical or fundamentalist congregations in service to the wider community. This commitment to service is often expressed in networks with other community organizations either through individual membership in organizations like the Rotary Club, or through formal coalitions established between the congregation and other community organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, or interfaith coalitions.
Areas of Influence
According to our research, local congregations’ most effective efforts have been in caring for the needy, such as volunteering in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, setting up tutoring and job training programs, and participating in Special Olympics events and Habitat for Humanity projects. Promoting racial justice has been a high priority among mainline congregations over the last 30 years as well, but has reaped little success. The reason for this seems to be a lack of understanding on the part of largely white mainline congregations that they needed to work more closely in partnership with African American congregations to achieve their goals.
Congregations seem to be having some success, however, in opening a dialogue within their own memberships on gay and lesbian issues. Church discussions on this subject go beyond the civil and human rights issues that are typically discussed in the media and in secular organizations. In contrast, church members discuss gay and lesbian marriage, issues of family and children, the relationship between mind, spirit and body, incarnational theology, and gay and lesbian individuals’ rights to ordination and leadership positions. An impressive finding from the study was that many people felt that these discussions were vitally important and that congregations perform a valuable service by providing a public space in which to examine these important issues.
One of the challenges facing congregations today is the changing face of society. Mainline congregations often encourage attitudes of egalitarianism and respect for single parents, divorced parents, childless couples, and to some extent gay and lesbian unions. Yet, in reality, they are heavily oriented toward the nuclear two-parent family and provide more activities geared toward this population.
One trend that will affect congregations more and more is the increasing divorce rate, and the consequent increase in the numbers of single-parent and blended families in our communities. Mainline congregations’ center of gravity may therefore need to shift to an accommodation of these other family structures if they are to grow and remain vital. Research shows that divorced and separated parents attend church less frequently than married people. Even remarried people go to church less than people who have never been divorced. To encourage participation among these populations, churches may need to offer programs designed to meet their unique needs and concerns.
Another major change that congregations will have to acknowledge and address if they are to remain strong is the growing religious pluralism of our culture. Our communities include increasing numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, yet Christian congregations have not even begun to think of the implications of this shift, such as how to minister to mixed-religion families, or how to make a persuasive case for Christianity among these people.
Neighborhoods and people’s relationships with their neighbors are changing, too. Fewer people know their neighborhoods, and the research tells us that people who don’t know their neighbors don’t go to church as often as people who do. In addition, more people are commuting longer distances between home and church. These trends suggest that churches are going to have to adapt. One way of addressing these changes may be form larger churches, with congregations of perhaps 800 to 1,000 members, which can support a wide variety of programs, including programs designed to meet the needs of people with different work or family styles or backgrounds, thus drawing people form greater distances. It may also be that the niche church will become more important as well. Perhaps a smaller church that happens to have an elderly membership or an exceptionally good choir or youth program will attract members because of its special offerings. But these congregations will be more likely to have to interact and network with neighboring congregations to accomplish their community action goals.
What the Future Holds
Regardless of their size, congregations are increasingly going to form partnerships with or obtain the specialized help they need from outside organizations to cope with new challenges or to accomplish their goals. When congregations set out to meet a particular need in the community, they are likely to discover that there are community organizations already doing good work in the area of need, and that they can be most effective by partnering with those organizations. Congregations will also increasingly seek out the services of organizations like the Alban Institute, Leadership Network, and special offices within their own denominations that can link them with other congregations that have experienced similar challenges and may have insights on their concerns.
Individual congregations are also likely to find it necessary to work more closely with their national denominational organizations to effect the kinds of societal changes they would like to see. While we found that members of mainline congregations are active in neighborhood social service activities, they are relatively uninformed about what their national organizations are doing. This means that the Washington offices for these denominations are not able to tell members of Congress that they have an unbroken line of support back to hundreds of thousands of local parishioners for their policy efforts. Therefore legislators are less likely to respond to their concerns than they would be to those of organizations with a stronger grassroots backing. Denominations may need to select one or two major issues on which to focus their national efforts. National church leaders are frustrated that they are asked to keep many pots on the burner so that no constituency feels neglected, when it is becoming apparent that this may be an ineffective approach to achieving the desired changes.
The Role of Worship
Of the many roles that congregations play in local and national society, public worship is most distinctive, and the primary reason for their existence. While taking individual responsibility for our own worshiping experiences is important—making time for private prayer, worship and meditation—it is equally important to engage in worship in the presence of others. Social science research shows that the group experience include elements that individual experience does not. There is a collective contagion that occurs in groups. When people gather together in like purpose, they develop mutual trust, there is a sense of emotional engagement, and the individualism that so often pervades our lives is diminished.
Another finding is that the more people engage in group worship, the more likely they are to engage in private worship, and vice versa. Each activity supports the other, and each should be viewed as a vital part of devotional practice.
Robert Wuthnow, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion,