Philip Amerson, May 2023
The Evaporating Parish (Part 2-A)
In June 1979, the Indiana United Methodist Annual Conference met in the I.U. Auditorium. The presiding bishop, Leroy Hodapp,[i] set an agenda for the future “We must go to where the people are!” The subtext was clear, we must go to the suburbs and invest talent, time, and resources there. As pastor in a core-city neighborhood at the time, I leaned to a friend beside me and whispered, “What are the people in our neighborhoods? Chopped liver?
The post-WWII Baby Boom population surge was slowing. A “population shock wave[ii]” or “Agequake”[iii] disrupted assumed church practices. Denominational anxiety about the future was on the upswing. In 1970 Alvin Toffler, with his wife Adelaide, published the popular Future Shock.[iv] It spoke of the events of these years as “too much change in too short a period of time.”
Urban neighborhoods, perceived as dangerous and in inevitable decline, were changing rapidly. Homes were abandoned by families, mostly of European ancestry and sold to real estate speculators. The houses left behind were often subdivided into multiapartment residences. The new arrivals came mostly from non-Caucasian ancestry. Typically, they were families with lower wealth. Dramatic population and neighborhood changes continued, wavelike over the next decades, as residences and local businesses were turned into rental properties. Only a couple of decades later, change came again as younger folks who were given the rather ironic label of “urban pioneers”[v] arrived and refurbished the older houses again into single-family dwellings.
In an earlier post,[vi] I wrote of the demise of the Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. A version of Central Avenue’s story was replicated in thousands of churches in the U. S. during the middle-and-late Twentieth Century. The underpinnings of parish life were vanishing as linkages with surrounding neighborhoods diminished. This pattern, like rolling ocean waves, washed across city neighborhoods. Social connections withered, were then rebuilt, and again diminished, and then reestablished again.
Gentrification was only beginning. White flight had speeded changes.[vii] The none-to-subtle subtext of the bishop’s counsel in 1979 was that primary attention should be directed to those leaving the core-city and refocused on suburban church growth. Ironically, of course, the population density in core-city neighborhoods was growing to levels higher than ever.
The good bishop’s analysis and strategy failed to perceive the ways in which the “left behind” neighborhoods were becoming more global, more multicultural.[viii] There was also a failure to discern the gifts being brought by the new residents. Even as new Asian, Hispanic enclaves emerged, and African American communities were enlarged, at the same time many of these “re-establishing” neighborhoods became more multiethnic in composition.[ix]
A listening to, visiting with, and welcoming of the people of the neighborhoods near the church buildings by church leaders was rarely practiced. The focus was on who was leaving, following “our” people. There was a blindness. Importantly, and in truth determinatively, the financial base for many city congregations was diminishing as members left for the suburbs. In the Baby Boom years of the middle 1950s and early 1960s, many church buildings were expanded beyond what could be afforded by those left behind or newly arriving in the following decades.
The call to “go to where the people are” failed to consider options other than an exit strategy. Left behind were paternalistic responses welcoming the new arrivals. If there was an outreach to the newcomer, it was typically an effort to “fix” these new in-migrants. Rather than seeing these persons as resources, with gifts to share, they were thought of as “the needy” and as such, well-meaning ministries like food pantries, thrift shops, and tutoring programs became the primary mission of many inner-city churches.
As was noted in the previous post, “It is one thing to restore buildings and houses, quite another to re-establish (or perhaps rediscover) a parish.”[x] What lessons might we discover from this history? We ask: why? what if? and why not?
Why did these parishes evaporate or vanish? In the next two postings I will offer what I believe are the two primary reasons for this phenomenon: 1) the social and political ecology of embedded racism in the nation; and 2) Ineffectual denominational and congregational responses to these changes lacking in theological clarity.
Coming Next: 2-B, The Social and Political Ecology of Embedded Racism in the Nation.
Your thoughts? — Please enter these in the comment section.
[i] Bishop Leroy Hodapp was a good and intelligent man and a good friend. Still, he was a product of the mid-twentieth century church culture that selected him and shaped him for leadership. He would be considered a Christian “progressive” and generally friendly to many urban ministry efforts at the time. However, the pressures of office and desire to balance competing expectations of over 1,100 congregations and 300,000 Hoosier United Methodists limited what he perceived to be the best way forward. There were dozens of urban congregations and pastors that might have helped widen his vision, but the dye was set by the prevailing myths of the inevitability of suburban growth and urban decay.
[ii] Rizvi, Abul, Population Shock, Monash University Publishing, 2022.
[iii] Wallace, Paul, Agequake: Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster, Shaking Business, Finance and Our World, UNKNO, 1999.
[iv] Toffler, Alvin and Adelaide, Future Shock, Random House, 1970. Society was said to move through the three stages: agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial and with each transition there was a period of societal disruption and stress. Toffler’s analysis followed in follow-up books, The Third Wave and Powershift.
[v] Hwang, Jackelyn, Pioneers of Gentrification: Transformation in Global Neighborhoods in Urban America in the Late Twentieth Century, Demography, February 2016, 189-213.
[vi] Amerson, Philip, Recentering the Parish – Part 1, see: https://wp.me/p5lzr1-3Kc. Upon reading the earlier piece on the decline of Central Avenue church a friend reminded me of other changes including the interstate highway system where Interstate Highways I-64 and I-70 sectored off neighborhoods from one another. He also noted the consolidation many city and county functions in a new structure known as Unigov in Indianapolis. He was right. There are multiple other contributors as noted in this essay and each one seems shaped by racial discrimination.
[vii] Semuels, Alana, White Flight Never Ended, THE ATLANTIC, July 30, 2015.
[viii] Buccitelli, Anthony, Bak, City of Neighborhoods: Memory, Folklore, and Ethnic Place in Boston, University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.
[ix] Hwang, Jackelyn, op cit.
One thought on “The Evaporating Parish (Part #2-A)”
I really appreciate your series!
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