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Congregation-Based Community Organizing and the Challenge of Urban Religious Diversity

Omar McRoberts

Department of Sociology, Harvard University
William James Hall
Cambridge, MA 02138

Table of Contents


Theological Conservatives and EUMs

Balancing Spiritual and Worldly Activism

Growing a Congregation: Organizational Incentives for EUM Membership




In recent years, the sheer doggedness of inner city poverty, coupled with popular concern about the deterioration of society's moral fabric, has prompted renewed calls for aggressive urban ministry in inner city neighborhoods. With the help of private foundations and national organizing networks, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ecumenical urban ministries (EUMs), are attempting to answer the call. EUMs are "social movement organizations which seek to increase local church involvement in social concerns, especially the causes and consequences of poverty. They do so by promoting social concerns programs within local congregations, and conducting social concerns programs on their behalf"(Davidson 1985: ix). In the early 1960's hundreds of EUMs were formed in cities throughout the country. This sudden proliferation was probably a grassroots response to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The EOA, with its community-based social service programs and "maximum feasible participation" rhetoric, became the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. In this national policy environment, all sorts of inner-city organizations, including churches, undoubtedly viewed neighborhood initiative as the most legitimate way to address urban problems (Castells 1983; Fisher 1994; Halpern 1994).

In responding to the most recent calls for urban ministry, EUMs face numerous obstacles. Scholars and activists have already discussed many of these obstacles; they include lack of consistent funding, racial, ethnic, and class divisions, and congregations' internal organizational failings. Few, however, have considered the challenges posed by the diversity of religious life in urban neighborhoods.

Most of the neighborhoods that EUMs target, and poor minority ones in particular, contain dense and highly diverse religious ecologies. Take, for example, Four Corners, a mostly poor, black Boston neighborhood that has been a center of EUM activity. Four Corners is a neighborhood teeming with lush religious life. There are at least twenty congregations in the neighborhood; this estimate, of course, does not include the notoriously uncountable religious gatherings that occur in living rooms and spaces rented on a nightly basis. The religious presence is most obvious on Sunday mornings, when the storefronts, dark and deserted most of the week, come alive with the movement and sound characteristic of vigorous worship and warm fellowship. Religion, however, is not invisible during the workweek. There are a few "community churches"; these are conspicuous because their doors are perpetually open, their lights are always on, and there are always people going in and out and milling around. In the meantime, a variety of evangelists rove the streets and occasionally "set up shop" in outdoor common spaces. A half dozen white-robed members of a nearby Spiritual Baptist church regularly convene on Washington Street at the edge of a small park; for hours, they sing hymns, beat tambourines, dance, and shout. Their pastor, a tall man with a rich Caribbean accent, loosely orchestrates the public ritual while shouting shrill exhortations into a bullhorn. Young white men - Mormons, in fact - in freshly pressed white shirts, dark pants and neckties stroll the streets in pairs, greeting each and every passer-by. Modestly dressed middle aged women distribute copies of the Watchtower and other Jehovah’s Witness publications. The words "ecology" and "market", currently vogue in the sociology of religion, do not quite capture the quality of religious presence in this neighborhood. Four Corners is a religious bazaar, where one finds the most commonplace faith tapestries alongside the most exotic spiritual spices.

Often, a couple of particularly bright stars emerge from neighborhoods like Four Corners as leaders of collaborative neighborhood improvement efforts. Usually, these are mainline churches, such as Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics. These stars, however, are only a small portion of the heavenly bodies in the urban religious constellation. Theologically conservative, or evangelical, faiths such as Pentecostalism, continue to spread like wildfire across the ghettos of urban America. In Boston, Pentecostalism is the only flourishing Christian group (Ribadeneira 1996). In fact, Pentecostal congregations actually outnumber all other churches in the city. Most of these congregations are made up of black Americans, Caribbean blacks, and Latinas/os. In addition, most are concentrated in the city's three poorest neighborhoods: Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. In spite of their ubiquity, Pentecostals and other evangelical groups largely have failed to show up among the rank and file of EUMs. Thus, in order to become truly ecumenical, truly representative of local religious life, EUMs will have to find ways to reach out to groups that are often considered marginal, but are, nevertheless, at least as populous as mainline churches.

In this paper, I try to distinguish some of the important challenges that EUMs will face in their attempts to accomplish this goal. The discussion will focus on lessons distilled from interviews I conducted with ten black Pentecostal ministers (To protect their identities, I have changed the names of all interviewees. I will also refer to them occasionally as the "Boston Pastors.") who have joined Boston's major EUMs: the Roxbury Church Collaborative (RCC), Mattapan-Dorchester Churches in Action (MDCIA), and the Ten Point Coalition (10PT). All three EUMs aim to improve neighborhood life, increase church visibility in community affairs, and cultivate lay leadership capacities. Currently, twelve Pentecostal pastors (roughly 27% of EUM clergy) are associated with EUMs. Of these, ten are members of the Ten Point Coalition. I conclude that EUMs face at least two critical challenges. First, they must find ways to create religious common ground while honoring the practices and priorities of individual congregations. Second, EUMs must respond to the various organizational needs and interests of potential member congregations.

Theological Conservatives and EUMs

Several EUM studies and recent dispatches from major EUM sponsors report that few, if any, participating churches represent Pentecostal denominations, or other charismatic/evangelical groups (Scheie, et al. 1994; Davidson 1985; Rogers 1990; Rooney 1995). Some have taken this scarcity as evidence of the "other-worldly" inclinations of theologically conservative folk (Davidson 1985; Tamney and Johnson 1990). Davidson (1985:23-24), for example, offered the following commonsensical explanation of the lack of evangelical participation in the Lafayette Urban Ministry in Indiana:

Conservative and fundamentalist theologies (in addition to being suspicious of ecumenism generally - believing it requires groups to compromise on truths they believe should not be compromised) - stress individual salvation and personal reform to the virtual exclusion of social change... Thus, they foster a view that social problems are mainly spiritual, not economic and political issues.

For certain groups, conservative theology does appear to be correlated with social retreatism. Pentecostalism, for example, historically has served as an alternative to social activism among poor black Americans. During the great black migration of the 1940s and 50s, these accommodationist, yet insular, "sect" churches simultaneously prepared blacks for and protected them from a rather bleak urban life. Instead of spurring blacks to challenge societal impediments to worldly accomplishment, the tiny storefront communities offered alternative social systems, within which accomplishment was measured by divine criteria.

Yet, as the New Religious Right has demonstrated, there is not necessarily any causal relationship between conservative theology and non-activism. In fact, Pentecostal activism is on the rise in many inner cities. Apparently little of this activism, however, is connected with collaborative faith based efforts. The question for EUMs, then, is not Why don't evangelicals act? but rather, What considerations guide evangelical decisions to join, or not join, EUMs?

My discussions with black Pentecostal pastors yield two tentative answers to this question. First, while conservative theology is not the obstacle to activism that some imagine it to be, these clerics are highly concerned with maintaining a balance between spiritual and worldly activism. Second, these ministers are interested in organizational growth and maintenance as well as broader social uplift. As such, they seek precious visibility and information on how to grow a congregation in a highly competitive religious ecology. Below, I develop these answers more fully.

Balancing Spiritual and Worldly Activism

In contrast to the observations and theoretical predictions found in older writings, recent literature argues that theology is not a rigid predictor variable, but rather a cultural resource that believers can use to justify both activism and retreatism (Mock 1992; Roberts 1990; Dudley and Johnson 1991). Likewise, while some elements of Pentecostal theology and practice may restrict engagement in social activism, other elements can facilitate and complement, rather than obstruct, social engagement.

The Boston pastors have managed to integrate spiritual and activist imperatives using elements already present in Pentecostal theology. They found the traditional Pentecostal emphases on the tangible workings of the spirit and on experiential understandings of Biblical ideas to be particularly useful for justifying their activist leanings. In addition, they transformed the Pentecostal preference for tightly knit, morally strict communities into calls for broader community cohesion and moral accountability. The pastors used these ideas to create ministries serving the "whole person", or "total man", in all his/her spiritual, material, political and social complexity.

Nonetheless, the pastors are still committed to the spiritual person as much as the social, political, and economic person. In fact, the pastors use the "whole person" concept as a kind of measuring stick to evaluate and compare activist agencies before joining them. Programs lacking a spiritual component fail to measure up. Thus, while most of the pastors have collaborated with secular service organizations, they expressed strong preferences for church-based efforts designed to propagate Christian moral standards as well as generate life opportunities for dispriviledged people. Efforts lacking a religious foundation, they felt, would ultimately leave people in the "same position" despite temporary physical, social, or economic amelioration Here, Rev. Barbara Twain expresses this comparative preference:

A lot of the [other] community programs weren't necessarily church based, or run by Christians. They don't necessarily promote Christianity, and when you do it directly from the church, I think we can really begin to promote Christianity. For instance, the Mother's Mentors program - I'm on their advisory board. And we deal with all the problems that go with teen pregnancy, the mothering, the whole thing. When we are sitting there making plans and all, unless I am going to really promote it myself, nothing is brought up about - well, naturally it come up out the moral standards, but it doesn't come from the moral standards of a Christian base. I'd be the only one to say "You've got to put Christianity and Christ in it. There's got to be some guidelines." Instead of abstinence, [they say] "Well, you got another baby, we gotta find some more food for this one. You got another baby, we gotta find someplace for you to stay."

In a similar statement, Rev. Green idealizes the community work of the House of Prayer for All People, a black Pentecostal denomination:

If you're looking for social change, the [House of Prayer for All People] is the best kept secret in this country. They got churches all over the country, and everywhere they build a church they build 200 units of housing around the church... Their rents are cheaper than anything that the government could do. And they have less vandalism problems, less everything in their communities, because of the way they do things. Once they build those houses, they teach the folks spiritually and everything. That's the answer. To let the church be the church. Let the church be what it was for.

Finally, Pastor Wright explains why he has avoided joining secular community efforts and seeking secular funding for his own outreach:

If people are not changed, then they're gonna be in the same situation ten years down the road. If people have no moral convictions - if people have no sense of the fact that "I'm a child of God," then I'm not gonna take care of my housing project any better. You can build me a brand new housing project and move me in there, but if my head and my heart haven't been changed, I'll have it looking just like the old one that you just tore down...

I never applied for any funds outside of funds from churches, because I didn't want anybody telling me who I couldn't have, or who I had to have, or what I couldn't say, 'cause "you got our money so you got to do it this way." No, I don't want to compromise the Gospel, or compromise my standards. So, therefore I've always maintained a relationship with Christian organizations.

Such accounts imply that EUMs, and other community programs, that "frame" (Snow et al. 1986; Klandermans 1992) their activism in moralistic, if not explicitly Christian, terms will attract Pentecostals, who are thoroughly invested in the theological doctrines of personal salvation through Christ and personal "holiness". Indeed, several of the 10PT pastors said that 10PT is attractive because it blends explicit Christian themes with street outreach and political activism. Rev. Lakes, a 10PT organizer and Pentecostal, is aware that many Pentecostals find this recipe for urban ministry to be uniquely savory:

Pentecostals tend to be more evangelistic in their outreach, at the kind of popular, grassroots level. And, so, the mission and the goals of 10PT would line up with their own institutional goals and interests... for example, you're talking about calling on churches to commission missionaries to work in juvenile courts. You're talking about churches adopting gangs. You're talking about churches setting up neighborhood crime watches. You're talking about churches developing partnerships with community-based health centers. Now, those things are in line with any Pentecostal church who wants to go somewhere and build.

Growing a Congregation: Organizational Incentives for EUM Membership

In addition to looking for the perfect mixture of social activism and spirituality, the ministers look for forms of activism that will help them maintain and expand their congregations. This goal makes sense when we consider that congregations exist not in isolation, but in complex ecologies, where religious groups compete for members and resources. Ammerman (1997: 346; see also Guest and Lee 1987; Gibbs and Ewer 1969; Kanagy 1992; Warner 1993) writes that in an ecology,

new life forms are constantly emerging, as old ones fade form the scene. As the resources of the environment change, some species find they already have the adaptive mechanisms eeded for survival. Others evolve new ways of garnering necessary resources, and still others whose habitat needs are not met by the new environment must move or face extinction.

Ecologies are crowded and volatile in many poor neighborhoods. Often, dozens of congregations exist in a relatively small geographical area. These congregations tend to have short half-lives due to intense competition, coupled with the transience and limited financial resources of local residents. In such settings, congregations often try to relieve the pressure of competition by carving special niches in the religious market; in poor, minority neighborhoods, ethnic, neo-Islamic, and decidedly "other-worldly" niches are common. Also, given the intense social and material need characterizing depressed inner city neighborhoods, it is not surprising that some churches try to carve out a social activist niche.

The Boston pastors are niche-carvers. Some are entrepreneurial (Ammerman 1997) pastors - they established activist churches designed to attract groups historically neglected by black Pentecostals, namely young adults, educated people, and politically-minded folk. The other pastors inherited waning congregations, and used activism to attract, or recover, these prized populations. It is no accident, however, that these pastors have chosen EUMs as venues for activism. EUM membership facilitates the roles of entrepreneur and innovator. As a number of previous studies have speculated (Gibbs and Ewer 1969; Kanagy 1992), collaborative church work can help pastors to carve out their organizational niches by offering precious visibility and legitimacy as key actors in the ongoing drama of urban community life. And, as the pastoral accounts reveal, EUMs may disseminate vital information on how to make churches grow, and how to develop "worldly" congregation-based services.

Many of the Boston pastors could have developed activist programs without the help of any kind of collaborative effort. Indeed, several of the clerics were activists for many years before any of the Boston EUMs were conceived. This reality highlights an important fact: some of the pastors joined EUMs to draw their churches into the mainstream of urban religious life, thereby throwing their distinctness as activist Pentecostals into relief, while protecting them from perceived anti-Pentecostal prejudices.

These pastors are acutely sensitive to mainline judgements about Pentecostal spirituality, and feel that Pentecostals have been alienated from the black religious community for that reason. Rev. Green:

[W]e still have had problems between denominations. Big problems. Between Pentecostals and Baptists and Methodists and what have you. Because they have fought Pentecostals and they don't trust us. Because we're growing so fast, we're a threat.

Bishop Brown:

Some of the mainline feel that Pentecostals is not on the up and up, and they are. May not be as qualified or well prepared for the society... Pentecostalism, if you don't know A lot about it, was kind of looked down on for years as the people who make noise and clap and roll on the floor and speak in tongues.

For this reason, the ministers seemed eager to demonstrate that they were not insular, that they could be as socially engaged as mainline clergy. EUM participation, then, was a way to be visibly active in mainstream religious life. By allaying fears and suspicions, the ministers felt that they could neutralize threats posed by other religious organizations. Pastor Patterson, for instance, joined 10PT to appear to other pastors as a "team player". In a similar spirit, Bishop Brown said:

To me, [being a member of Ten Point] means unity and support for the betterment for humanity. And just because I'm an independent church doesn't mean that I have to be independent from people and good causes. I work with whoever for good causes.

Facilitating Pastoral Care

EUM membership also provides a way to exchange strategies for congregational development. Rev. James Powell, for instance, joined 10PT in part so that he could learn how to implement youth programs at his own church. Currently, his church offers six youth programs. For others, including Bishop Farmer, EUM-sponsored social programs are incentives to join. Farmer speculated that if he joined the nascent RCC, his church's youth would one day be able take advantage of the leadership development programs that the EUM plans to establish.

Interestingly, EUM organizers are well aware that clergy seek congregational development as well as neighborhood improvement. Rev. Lakes, a 10PT organizer:

What I'm seeing is that most of these Pentecostal churches come to me for advice about how to get money and technical assistance: "Lakes, show us a boiler plate prototype of your proposal. How did you get money from the Boston Foundation? Who are the major players?" I mean, literally, much of my time now during the day is meeting with other ministers to talk about how they can get technical assistance to put together their shops.

In fact, when recruiting members for their respective EUMs, organizers appeal to the pastors' organizational interests as well as their sense of altruism. Rev. Lambert, a MDCIA organizer:

I tell them all the time that leadership development - you can use it anywhere. If you learn good leadership skills, that is useful on your job. It helps to build up your church... And the Hyams Foundation [a primary funder of MDCIA], they offer excellent training. I mean, they pay people to come out and teach fundraising, how to do an ad book, how to write proposals... We go on trips, so you're exposed to different cultures, see what people are doing in other cities. It builds up your church.

Hank Sampson, a RCC organizer, uses a similar pitch, albeit with a youth focus, to appeal to churches in Roxbury.


While the preceding analysis is based on only a handful of black Pentecostals in Boston, it is plausible that similar religious and organizational considerations play into the decision-making of many inner city congregations, including non-Pentecostals and even non-Christians. As such, my analysis points to some of the challenges facing EUMs as they grapple with the inevitable expansion of formerly peripheral faiths. First, EUMs are challenged to think of religion in a new way - not as a rigid predictor variable, but as a versatile fuel. Religion is something that people sift and knead to suit their own vocational and organizational imperatives. Thus, if non-activism suits a congregation, it will certainly find religious justifications for non-activism. If a congregation or religious leader feels that social activism is necessary, the religion will bend to justify activism. This conception of religion opens up possibilities for outreach to groups often assumed to be straightjacketted by their religious ideas. Organizers should be aware, however, that the secular flavor common among EUMs is a double-edged sword; while the suppression of explicit religious activity may chip through the walls dividing mainline congregations, it may simultaneously deepen rifts between the mainline and congregations for whom brave testimonial is a religious imperative. Another challenge facing EUMs, then, is to find forms of collaboration that value religious common ground and mutual respect, yet permit individual groups to testify without shame.

A third challenge is to recognize the extent to which congregations are driven by organizational forces. Community organizers have already taken advantage of the fact that churches are organizations - replete with ready-made social networks and leadership, money, and permanent meeting places. Yet, as market-driven organizations, churches are highly protective of their their footholds in the multi-organizational environment. In poor neighborhoods, this is especially true because there are so many congregations sharing so little space. When a pastor becomes an activist, joins an ecumenical or interfaith activist collaborative, or otherwise changes his or her ministerial formula, s/he risks losing hold of the niche that has, for better or worse, provided a living for the church.

Congregations that rent space in storefronts are doubly vulnerable: they not only risk losing members to churches that remain conservative on matters of worldly involvement, but they risk losing their physical niche in the urban space. It is a wonder that any storefront churches join economic development initiatives, for such efforts ultimately aim to put stores in storefronts.

EUMs, then, would do well to promote the organizational advantages of EUM membership. Where there are no obvious organizational advantages, organizers should work to develop them. EUMs should routinely provide training on how to manage organizational growth and cultivate life opportunities for congregants. In the meantime, EUMs should make opportunities for leadership and visibility available to all member churches - not just the founders or the biggest congregations. Finally, programs aimed at economic development should help storefront religious communities find more permanent spaces. Perhaps EUMs could raise funds to help activist churches purchase such spaces. This would help ensure that activist congregations remain activist, and remain in the neighborhoods that need them the most.



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