The Urban Church Imagined

Religion, Race, and Authenticity in the City

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Jessica M. Barron, Rhys H. Williams
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The first-century church in Antioch dared to imagine a multiethnic and multiracial church led by a diverse leadership team. Just as our nation's population grows more racially and ethnically diverse, increasing numbers of congregations are seeking to become relevant and more diverse. Many of these congregations move into center cities with competing histories of persistent racial residential segregation and gentrification while dreaming of integrated faith communities. In The Urban Church Imagined, Jessica M. Barron and Rhys H. Williams examine the "dueling imaginations" posited by Downtown Church’s [DC] suburban-based leaders and city-based congregants as their new congregation negotiates racial, class, and gender boundaries. The depth and accessibility of this book make it an excellentread for scholars, students, and religious leaders interested in the sociologyof religion, race theory, and/or the urban landscape. 

Barron and Williams mine the ethnographic research of one Chicago-based evangelical congregation. Over eighteen months, they amassed a treasure trove of data—thirty-five ethnographic interviews and twenty semi-structured interviews with church leaders, volunteers, members, and regular attendees as well as sermons, marketing materials, and web content. Barron’s racially ambiguous appearance seems to give her an advantage as she gathers additional data while participating in the Downtown Church's evening worship services, dinners, leadership meetings, and community building events. 

The rhetoric of the Downtown Church offers the hope of reconciling andtransformational faith encounters as they embody "trendy, affluent, and multiracial identities thought typical of a hip urban center" (47). Barron and Williams insightfully reveal a different reality. They make a significant contribution to the growing body of scholarship on multiracial churches by documenting how DC leadership practices "managed diversity" and "racial utility" to promote their public image and identity as a diverse, hip, young, urban, and consumer-driven demographic. These practices are in contrast to envisioning such diversity as a social process.

In the quest for an authentic urban experience, DC leaders and members bring to this urban experiment their own stories shaped by different racial identities, religious understandings, and contexts. They seek to accomplish God's work by reaching out to urban dwellers looking for an exciting exploration of faith or an unconventional path back to the sacred. Instead, the church leaders promote their brand of Anglo-conformity by regulating romantic relationships, appropriating black culture into sermons, representing color-blind ideals with hyper-exposure to black members in strategic positions as greeters and on their outreach teams, and redlining by limiting just how far black members can penetrate the culture of the institution. A consumptive versus an intimate orientation to diversity dominates the Downtown Church and interrupts the possibility for a genuinelyintegrated multiracial lifestyle and a beloved community. The Downtown Church primarily uses "managed diversity" and "racial utility" tools to facilitate racial integration in non-threatening ways and lend legitimacy to their mission as an alternative urban church. DC succeeds at distinguishingitself from other white evangelical churches in Chicago. Some of these practices undermine their relationships with the very urban-minded people DC leaders hope to recruit. The concert-like worship services featuring Hill Song music played by a racially diverse band falls short for those desiring music reflecting the aesthetic of various ethnic sounds. However, the same "racial utility" approach that gains local political power for the church bestows credibility and new opportunities to the black church members serving in the DC outreach ministry at a local school. Ultimately, the kind of authenticity and mutual exchanges city-congregants seek—real interracial relationships—never materialize under the contained diversity curated by the young suburban church leadership. 

This new multiracial congregation remains racialized and "reaffirms rather than challenges the racial norms in America" (11). Hence, it comes as no surprise that the racialized history of the city and the church, current racial tensions, and shifting racial demographics receive little mention by the church leaders (169). But what about this discussion by these authors? What other analysis mightbe possible by extending these discussions in this book? Can we learn more about religion, race, and the city through the theological lens presented in the DC sermons? The absence of a more robust exploration of these topics does not take away from the richness of this ethnography. I hope to hear more from Barron, Williams, and other scholars willing to seize the next opportunity to disrupt the ways we have been thinking about race, cities and religion in new forms of American religion

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Boddie is Assistant Professor of Church and Community Ministries at Baylor University's Diana R. School of Social Work, George W. Truett Theological Seminary and School of Education.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica M. Barron is researcher and consultant at Frontline Solutions, Inc.  Her research interest focus on race/ethnicity and racial segregation on attitudes and identities in the United States. Her publications include, Managed Diversity: Race, Place, and an Urban Church (2016) and Structures of Privilege and Oppression: Multiracial Americans and the U.S. Racial Hierarchy (w/ M. Campbell 2014).

Rhys H. Williams is professor of sociology and director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at Loyola University Chicago. His publications include Religion & Progressive Activism (New York University Press 2017; w/ T. N. Fuist and R. Braunstein), Cultural Wars in American Politics (Aldine 1997) and articles in the American Sociological Review, Social Problems, Sociological Theory, Theory & Society, and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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