Making Inclusive Communities: Congregations and the “Problem” of Race

Abstract

This study suggests that the institutional capacity of communities and civic organizations to foster new and inclusive spaces for interaction across traditional cleavages involves both the initial impetus toward social inclusion and the strengths and limits of the cultural style that provides the rationale for inclusive practices. I ground this understanding in a study of how two churches, one liberal Lutheran and one fundamentalist Baptist, adapted to racial changes in their community. After a period of severe decline, both congregations developed a multi-cultural, multi-racial identity, attracting new members and eventually thriving. Theology did not drive this change; rather, in both cases the initial impetus came from implementing common institutional practices, specifically a similar strategy of locally-oriented church growth. Then, both congregations mined their religious traditions for metaphors of community that, when institutionalized broadly in both symbolic ways (rituals, sermons) and pragmatic ways (new decision-making routines, new programs) helped them achieve their transformation into racially inclusive public spaces. At this turning point, they defined the “problem” of race in a distinctive way, and developed a style of moral rhetoric that shaped the nature of their future public discourse on a variety of issues of social inclusion, as well as their capacity for issue-based activism.

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