In defense of the common congregation

Scott Hagley suggests small congregations as places for cultivating communities of abundance and care, as common places for social healing and spiritual renewal.

People filling plates at a summer barbeque

Despite an invisibility made possible by their ubiquity, the quiet, ordinary churches that have sat– and still sit – on the corners of sometimes-overlooked spaces are where we can cultivate communities of abundance and care, social healing and spiritual renewal.

One Saturday afternoon this past June, 40 people in the Kenmore neighborhood of Akron, Ohio, gathered for what they hope will become an annual summer festival. People thronged around tables with hot dogs and potato chips, while under the low hum of conversation, a local DJ played music. Kids took advantage of sidewalk chalk to make life-sized art exhibits, and a young bike mechanic in a t-shirt patiently walked families and kids through basic bike repairs — cleaning and greasing the chains, adjusting the brakes, checking the tire pressure, performing a standard safety check. At the end of the event, the kids rode their tuned-up bikes home. One child, whose bike was not deemed safe by the mechanic, rode home on a new bike donated. The summer festival emerged from what has become a monthly ritual in Kenmore, where strangers and neighbors meet for a meal in a small church building and share their concerns and hopes for their neighborhood.

In 2022, Allenside Presbyterian Church found itself the victim of several vandalism incidents. Each time congregants arrived at the building to find another window broken, police and neighbors would gather to talk about the neighborhood. These broken windows felt like an ominous sign. Like many neighborhoods in Akron and across the so-called Rust Belt, Kenmore has suffered consecutive waves of disruption and disinvestment. Long-time residents remember when Firestone and Goodyear offered stable unionized jobs, as well as upper-management posts that attracted talent from across the country. But capital investments fled to the coasts, and manufacturing jobs departed for cheaper labor overseas. But alongside the nostalgia and despair that grips so much of Middle America, the pride of this place can be felt as well as the rich history to which it bears witness.

The congregation was not sure how to respond to the vandalism. With only 12 active members, they felt powerless to effect any change in the neighborhood. When the church members consulted with neighbors, they suggested a neighborhood meeting. The congregation set to work printing and posting reusable yard signs and inviting their neighbors. They planned a meal. They also reached out to a community liaison police officer, who told them to prepare for a handful – four or five – concerned neighbors to show up. But when the night came, congregants watched people stream through the doors. At the start of the meeting, they counted 35 neighbors in attendance. After a night of conversation, they learned that their neighbors did not really want a community watch program.

They wanted community.

So Allenside Presbyterian – all 12 of them – has hosted a meal and a conversation every month since, with more and more community partners coming out in support. This experiment in community-building, I suspect, witnesses to the uncommon possibilities within the common (read: ordinary, small, often beleaguered) congregation. In a world marked by division and polarization, Allenside discloses an unrealized capacity of the local congregation to curate common ground among great diversity.

In a world marked by division and polarization, Allenside discloses an unrealized capacity of the local congregation to curate common ground among great diversity.

Small local congregations have fallen on hard times. According to the most recent National Congregations Survey, the average size of a congregation in the United States continues to fall while the median number of churchgoers attend larger and larger congregations. In one sense, we are watching in real-time the same market forces that closed Main Street work their havoc on the local neighborhood congregation. Large program-driven and attractional churches can offer age-specific programming, high-energy contemporary worship, and a variety of niche religious products, consolidating churchgoers in the process. To put it in economic terms, with the rise of the “Nones,” congregations like Allenside can only claw at the edges of a diminishing religious market.

But we neglect Allenside – and the thousands of congregations like it – at the peril of neighborhoods across the country. As we wring our hands in collective anxiety over declining religious institutions, we miss the larger story within which this decline takes place. People are not just leaving the church. They are wandering from institutional and public life in general. Since the 1950s, rates of voluntarism have dropped off a cliff, leaving neighborhood associations and PTOs and community service organizations scrambling for help. Once trusted institutions are now viewed with skepticism. Measures of social trust are in free fall. Gun sales continue to climb. And we are lonely, dangerously so, caught in a vicious cycle driven by disconnection and despair. Places like Akron, cut off from sleek, social innovation entrepreneurs and big-city think tanks for civil society renewal, have few spaces or opportunities to imagine social possibilities beyond the menu of distrust and disconnection. But they do have Allenside Presbyterian: 12 neighbors who curate and maintain a public space, whose hospitality just might be a witness to the good news of God in this time and place.

Of course, a large congregation can also do good work in the Kenmore neighborhood. Large congregations can and do cultivate space for neighbors to gather; they do recruit and employ volunteers; they do offer a wide variety of services for their neighborhood. Only wistful romantics can claim that small churches – because they are small – are somehow naturally better at building out local networks, addressing loneliness, or building trust in a neighborhood. Small congregations can be petty and short-sighted and self-interested and toxic just like any other community.

But the Kenmore neighborhood of Akron does not have a mega church. They have Allenside Presbyterian, and I think this is the best argument to be made for small struggling congregations like Allenside: they are common and ordinary places scattered across long-forgotten neighborhoods. A building on a corner with a sign-out front that has just always been there. An afterthought to local residents. We are just as quick to dismiss these communities as we are to romanticize them. But it is this very feature – their invisibility made possible by their ubiquity – that should cause us to reconsider, to lean in, to embrace these small congregations as places for cultivating communities of abundance and care, as common places for social healing and spiritual renewal.

For several decades, social scientists and political theorists have noticed the frayed edges of American public life. Declining social capital, as Robert Putnam calls it, can be seen in lower levels of voluntarism and higher levels of inequality, in the housing crisis and depths of despair, in patterns of loneliness and social anxiety. But social capital analyses offer a diagnosis without prescription.

For example, while Putnam’s work on voluntarism reveals startling trends, it yields few insights except to note that volunteering seems to reflect societal conditions rather than cultivate them. Interrogating patterns of volunteering across time and in different cities, Putnam has noticed a virtuous circle at play. Higher levels of social trust and social stability lead to higher rates of volunteerism, which, in turn, leads to social trust and stability. But when one of these components is missing, the virtuous circle becomes vicious. Low social trust pulls people from voluntarism; less voluntary activity leads to lower social trust.

For congregations, this remains a new learning for our post-Christendom and post-Christian era. We used to think congregations helped equip members to be good socially engaged citizens. We now know that congregations depended upon a ready supply of engaged citizens to help staff our committees and lead our budgeting process and facilitate public meetings. We know now that the full-service congregation of the 1950s was part of a larger relational ecosystem, to which our congregations contributed and from which our congregations benefited.

But even if building social capital was something easily solved through new volunteer training, social capital can be the proverbial double-edged sword. Recent research has shown how high levels of social trust can facilitate anger and resentment, fueling the rise of authoritarian politics and conspiracy theories. This has been especially true in places that have suffered from long-term declines in economic and demographic measures. High social trust, when coupled with regional inequalities, leaves communities susceptible to demagogic populism, and all the risks that come with it.

High social trust, when coupled with regional inequalities, leaves communities susceptible to demagogic populism, and all the risks that come with it.

Given the fact that we are in the middle of “The Big Sort,” in which left-leaning, college-educated people move to liberal coastal areas and large cities, making “Red” America more conservative and “Blue” America more liberal, the real danger of social capital facilitating democratic decline is obvious. This holds true for many other accounts of our public life. Our social fabric is tearing, and we cannot do much about it. We have little recourse or imagination for the common good, for considering what goods we hold in common.

This is due, in part, to the ways our relationships are mediated by the market. We construct identity through consumer choice and learn to market ourselves on social media. We compete with other buyers for homes and Taylor Swift tickets and the last bag of candy in the grocery store on Halloween morning. It is considered normal to pay exorbitant amounts of money for things once thought a shared – or at least a cheap and accessible – community good, such as children’s sports leagues, yard maintenance, or access to a lake, beach, or swimming pool.

Over the past several decades, we have experienced the ongoing privatization of social goods necessary for human well-being. Parks, shelter, education, recreation, security, health care, and self-care are largely secured by individuals shopping for services or paying to play. At one level, this frees us up to construct our own identities and to seek our own bliss. We can find the school that is perfect for our children, we can buy a home that meets our needs, or we can join the recreation center that has convenient hours or the best equipment. But it comes with a cost. As Michael Sandel writes in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, markets are economically efficient tools that both create inequalities and alter the thing being exchanged. What happens to public education, for example, when those with means can purchase elite educational opportunities for their children? We already know the answer. A democratic good that could be held in common is put up for sale to the highest bidder, making it possible for groups to hoard opportunity. Education becomes a consumer good rather than a democratic one. This happens in housing and health care, policing and environmental care. For some, this arrangement offers freedom and flexibility. For others, it constrains opportunity. For all of us, it diminishes our sense of connectedness and interdependence. It makes it difficult for us to talk meaningfully about the common good or the goods we hold in common.

Over the past several decades, we have experienced the ongoing privatization of social goods necessary for human well-being.

For decades, Peter Block and John McKnight, who co-wrote The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, have argued for a return to neighborhood-based solutions to our social maladies. To rebuild trust, we need to rediscover the gift economies that make community possible, and that starts by identifying the goods we hold in common by nature of being creatures. We live in this place, breathe this air, drink this water, enjoy recreation in this outdoor space, and are worried about this act of vandalism. To identify the common good, we need to know that we hold goods in common. Block and McKnight build upon this basic insight to help neighborhoods build communities characterized by the sharing of gifts, the presence of associational life, and the “compassion of hospitality,” as expressed in their book. Such communities, they suggest, are made possible by people and organizations seeking to cultivate connections between the divergent gifts, concerns, passions, experiences and hopes of the people in any given place. An abundant community is a community that has become aware of the gifts and wisdom of its people, and it is a community that takes responsibility for shared well-being.

Akron, like so many cities in the United States, has suffered from the flight of capital to new places and the hoarding of opportunity by elites; it has persevered through bouts of public disinvestment and the slow decline of social trust. But it has residents with gifts and wisdom, who love Akron and hope for a better future. It also has Allenside Presbyterian Church – an ordinary congregation that inhabits a social space not necessarily governed by market pressures, a place where people can congregate and discern a future together.

Left behind by the program-driven mega-churches, smallish and mid-sized congregations are inefficient and clumsy competitors in the religious marketplace. They do not offer high-value curated experiences for their guests, but they can offer a steady rhythm of presence, a baseline of care and attention humming underneath whatever else happens in that place, in that neighborhood.

In opening their church building and serving a meal, Allenside created space for neighbors to discover goods they held in common apart from the machinations of the market. Allenside had no program to offer the neighbors, nobody had a product to offer or a consumer service to provide. In a neighborhood like Kenmore, few spaces remain, and few organizations exist where such a group can be convened. Kenmore’s “third spaces,” such as coffee shops and pubs for gathering, remain governed by commercial logic. Also, most non-profits in the area do not have the regular rhythm of meeting, the building with a fellowship hall, and the long-term presence in the neighborhood of a congregation. What makes Allenside nearly invisible – this small building sitting on the edge of a residential neighborhood along a school bus stop and where neighbors walk their dogs – is what also offers something vital and uncommon in this time and place: a space where the haze of market rationality might clear just long enough for neighbors to see one another and, in doing so, begin to recognize the gifts they hold in common.