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Project on Religion and Urban Culture

The Project on Religion and Urban Culture is a multi-year, multi-disciplinary, effort to understand religion’s role in shaping the culture of Indianapolis. Housed in The Polis Center on the campus of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), the project emphasizes Public Expression and Public Teaching in addition to the Public Inquiry conducted by its research arm. The Project has spawned an annual civic festival around religion and the arts, produced a collection of photographs and essays about religious culture in the city, and underwritten a performance on the subject by the American Cabaret Theatre. The Project also publishes several different newsletters aimed at specific public audiences. It sponsors scores of local conversations about religion’s role in various facets of civic life. It has created one video series about religious practice in Indianapolis, focusing on Sacred Space, Sacred Time, and Sacred Memory. A second video series, about religion’s role in public life, will be available around late 2002.

The Public Inquiry sector of the project has been driven by the related questions: how is Indianapolis shaped by the religion practiced there and how has religion been shaped by the prevailing culture of Indianapolis? The issue of "community", related to recent discussions of social capital, has always been foremost in our minds. Does religion engender a spirit of community? How do religious organizations fit into the infrastructure of community? Do some neighborhoods exhibit greater social capital than others, and, if so, is religion an important factor?

To answer these questions we have conducted extensive historical and sociological research. This research includes data collection on 400 congregations located in 18 Indianapolis neighborhoods. The information, ranging from statistical facts to interviews to observation of congregational life and other community activity, is housed in a database currently being analyzed using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Beyond congregations, the project also studied several dozen religious organizations related to issues such as social welfare, race, and local and metropolitan development. For each organization and its leadership, we collected demographic, financial, program, and partnership data in quantitative "census" forms. We collected qualitative data that help interpret each of these categories as well. In addition, we recently finished two city/county-wide surveys of residents, a general population survey (N=806) and a survey of clergy (N=261).

The data are stored in a combined text and numeric format but separable for analysis as needed. The 18 neighborhoods were selected to be representative of the geographic, class, and racial make-up of the city. They were also selected to represent stages of growth in the city's development. We are able to generalize to the population of approximately 1200 congregations across Indianapolis. Simultaneously, we've been able to do interpretative analysis, using our qualitative data on these same organizations. Our experience has highlighted the usefulness of combining survey and ethnographic approaches.

Initial findings:

1. On multiracial congregations:

Both black and white congregations express some anxiety about their ability to achieve multiracial membership. Most congregations are caught, on the one hand, between the need to provide space for intimate relationships to flourish, where members can rely on the social and cultural cues of "likeness" and "belongingness" to support their ability to worship and open themselves to others, and on the other hand, with the reality that mono-racial worshiping groups have been associated with the sin of racism. These issues are particularly significant for black congregations who may welcome worshiping together with whites but, nonetheless, fear the loss of the only form of "safe space" for black culture and identity they have been able to depend on.

Despite widespread segregation on Sunday mornings, the RUC census data reveal that about 13% of Indianapolis congregations are diverse at the 10% level and about 5% at the 20% level. That is, at least 10% and 20%, respectively, of the members of these congregations are people of a different race or ethnicity from the majority. Through the field data, we identified three ways these congregations created diversity:

By adapting to a change in the surrounding social context. However, not all churches that refuse to adapt to a changing environment die or move. There are many all white churches in predominately black neighborhoods, for example.

By making a vigorous effort to bring the neighborhood diversity into their membership, despite internal tensions and resistance. These churches express their stance toward diversity as a moral commitment.

By acknowledging that their church has been historically homogeneous, existing within a homogeneous environment, and reaching out to those different from themselves. They also explain their actions as arising from a moral imperative.

2. In what ways do congregations affect the neighborhoods around them?

The RUC project is stimulated by questions about the quality of community life and the ability of residents to create the kind of community they want. Congregations are often seen as making functionally positive contributions to neighborhood life. But do they? When we asked residents of Indianapolis who contributes the most to "making Indianapolis a better place," business leaders came out on top and clergy on the bottom. Congregations actually came out in the middle.

According to the RUC census and confirmed by the qualitative accounts, in Indianapolis only a minority of congregations pursues a "neighborhood" orientation, offering services that residents need and use and mostly social services for the poor. Even fewer carry out activities that interest non-poor residents who are not also members.

Much common wisdom admonishes congregations to act metropolitanly or globally rather than parochially. But most congregations think neither expansively nor parochially. Congregations are most often inward looking, attending to the needs of members only and connecting with denominational activities and with other congregations that share their denominational or theological traditions. The social capital of their members is high, but is not useful for achieving a sense of generalized trust within the local geographic area.

Interestingly, it is becoming more evident to scholars that Catholics are increasingly less parochial, less tied to their geographic parish, while some Protestant churches are naming the space around their buildings as their responsibility and the residents as the people they intend to serve, whether members or not.

Yet, we know that strong social ties undergird what we mean by the "quality of community life." These ties are supported at least in part by face-to-face relationships that may not be at all neighborhood-based and therefore contradict the notion that local neighborhood strength is created by local institutions.

3. Where is the countercultural voice?

We reviewed almost 100 black congregations in Indianapolis and found an absence of the "prophetic voice" -- one type of critical stance against the mainstream culture. While the data on predominantly white congregations has not yet been inspected, we expect a similar absence of congregations that pursue the goal of social justice by addressing economic and political inequalities at a systemic level.

Most congregations that are civically engaged have become "accommodationist" meaning that they form pragmatic partnerships with public and private agencies to deliver social welfare services of various kinds rather than challenge the system and status quo.

4. As individual leaders, how much influence do clergy have in civic affairs?

In the general population survey we found that about 10% of residents felt that clergy have a lot of influence and about 40% felt they have a moderate amount. About 30% of residents felt that clergy should have a lot or a moderate amount (almost 50%) of influence. These latter figures are especially surprising in that most research has acknowledged that individual clergy can speak out, but they cannot represent their congregations nor do they represent the institution of religion generally, except among a limited number of conservative Christian leaders. The political activity of the Christian right is a form of counter cultural activity, but in moral terms rather than social structural ones.

Other articles of interest:

"Hues in the Pews", by John Dart, news editor for The Christian Century

Multiracial congregations in America: Looking for “a more realistic picture of what the world looks like”
By Elfriede Wedam, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago 




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