Religion and Community in the New Urban America

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Paul D. Numrich, Elfriede Wedam
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Religion and Community in the New Urban America, Paul Numrich and Elfriede Wedam assess the power of religious congregations in the contemporary American city by focusing on metropolitan Chicago. Their research is rooted in the Religion in Urban American Program, initially housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The program began in the early 1990s by studying over one hundred congregations in greater Chicago. Numrich and Wedam’s study is based on a detailed ethnographic examination of fifteen congregations representing Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity. 

Numrich and Wedam conclude that religion plays a significant role in building community. They argue that scholars in urban studies often overlook religion’s impact and need to attend to it. Yet they simultaneously claim that religion scholars “tend to think religion is more important than it is” (277). The authors aim to offer a realistic assessment of religion’s place in the modern metropolis. They conclude that religion has been one way in which place-based communities, such as ethnic neighborhoods, have resisted centrifugal forces and developed ways to sustain themselves. Additionally, religion has been a way for communities to create links to transnational networks and movements. Numrich and Wedham conclude, however, that congregations make their most profound impact not in doing the same things as secular non-profits, but in their “explicitly ‘religious’ work” (278), which they say includes building community, providing moral bearings, and giving people a sense of significance in life.

In this study, congregations are grouped into three spatial types: neighborhood congregations, area congregations, and metropolitan congregations. In neighborhood congregations, a majority of constituents live within one mile of the congregation’s location. Most of the constituents in area congregations live in a mid-sized region that is larger than a neighborhood, but smaller than the metropolis as a whole. Congregations with widely dispersed constituents are classified as metropolitan. Numrich and Wedman hypothesized that the more focused nature of neighborhood congregations would provide a stronger urban impact. They concluded, however, that urban impact did not always correlate in this way. While no neighborhood congregations were among those with the weakest impact, many area and metropolitan congregations played a significant role in shaping the metropolis.

To assess urban impact, Numrich and Wedman define a number of community traits and actions. The ten traits include common beliefs, internal norms, social ties, and external boundaries. For congregational actions, they look at six characteristics: territorial claims, jurisdictional claims (“temporary and contingent demands on space” [55]), public policy advocacy, programs or positions that challenge inequality, racial/ethnic composition, and mission activities. They are surprised to find that the “most salient action indicator” for strong urban impact proved to be challenging inequality through programs or positions (275). All eight congregations at the upper end of their urban impact spectrum exhibited this characteristic. This included congregations with high urban impact that do not engage in public policy advocacy, such as Fourth Presbyterian Church and the Moody Church (an evangelical Protestant congregation on the Near North Side, founded by the 19th-century evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody, which sustains numerous educational and social programs to help its low-income neighbors). Interestingly, Numrich and Wedman suggest that the early stage of their study in the 1990s was partially responsible for the church’s development of these programs. Now, the programs are now firmly connected to the congregation’s identity (244).

Much of the richness of this book rests in the case studies of different religious communities, including those stemming from late 20th-century immigration to the United States. In discussing the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, the authors probe the similarities between seeker megachurches and “megatemples.” Neither, they conclude, provides gemeinshaftlich relationships for the majority of their clientele, but both provide smaller groups that create cultural communities near expressway interchanges.

In all the case studies, Numrich and Wedman are careful to consider neighborhood history from initial settlement by Europeans to the present. With this they show how congregations have developed in a dynamic relationship with their environment. For example, the Muslim Community Center sought to select a site with ample affordable housing and job opportunities in order create a distinctly Muslim neighborhood. Yet, constituents settled across a broader area and the congregation’s urban impact changed accordingly. Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville began at the turn of the 20th century as a farm church. It grew to be a suburban church and at the end of the century moved to a new site in order to minister to a booming suburban community.

The detailed congregational studies in this book help chart the way to a broader sense of the many ways religion builds community in contemporary urban America. A persistent theme is how the details of each congregation’s life—its location, mission, and nature—shape its urban impact. For example, a pastor committed to resisting the temptation of urban migration catalyzed a multi-ethnic congregation at First Christian Church. The persistence of racism has enabled strong internal norms to combine with significant institutional impact on the surrounding community at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. The urban impact of Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville is limited by its highly transient membership, many of whom leave town to spend religious holidays at their “home synagogue.” This diversity of congregational stories highlights the many factors shaping religion’s urban impact. This book is a helpful companion for all those studying religion in the contemporary city.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David R. Bains is Professor of Religion at Samford University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul D. Numrich is a professor at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and an affiliate research associate with the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at Loyola University Chicago. He researches the social, civic, and theological implications of America's increasing religious diversity.

Elfriede Wedam is lecturer in the department of sociology and research associate with the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at Loyola University Chicago. She has written on urban religion, community, the moral culture of the prolife movement and Catholic parishes in an international context.


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