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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Faith in Boston: How Congregations Confront the Changing Urban Structure

Event Recap

Days after the Boston Archdiocese announced its process to choose which churches would be closed, the Boisi Center hosted Professor Lowell Livezey, a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School, who spoke about his ongoing research on urban congregations in Boston and Chicago. Focusing on the Boston congregations in this presentation, Livezey discussed the patterns of demographic shift in the Boston area. He described the more recent emergence of large commuter churches and compared these to the features of neighborhood churches. The commuter church follows an entrepreneurial model of church building that seeks to draw members from a broad geographic area. These are “niche” churches that appeal to a common cultural ideal which might be a particular kind of demographic emphasis, i.e. well educated, suburban, environmentalists. Their members tend to be more homogeneous in terms of race, social background, lifestyle and interests and, because of this, members are more likely to form more personal bonds with one another. To address the intimacy challenges which these large mega churches encounter, they are also more likely to form small personal fellowship groups based on shared interests, i.e. young mothers with toddlers, fathers who fish, etc.

The neighborhood church tends to be smaller, is more likely to be racially mixed, and because ties are based on a geographic sense of place, members are less likely to have the kinds of strong intimate social ties that emerge from shared interests and background. On the other hand, these relationships are more likely to be layered because they are tied to place rather than interest. For example, one might know a fellow member from the playground, see them at the grocery store, and say hello to them at church. Their membership at church is more likely to be ascribed and habitual rather than chosen. Members of neighborhood churches are also more likely to focus on social action targets within their neighborhood, and are more closely tied to their local community in a number of ways. While he did not endorse one model over another, Livezey‘s presentation clearly showed the different qualities that are present in each of the ideal types.