SHADES OF WHITE FLIGHT: EVANGELICAL CONGREGATIONS AND URBAN DEPARTURE
RUTGERS UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015
In May 2015, I sat in an intense council meeting that would decide the fate of my church, Roosevelt Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The council resolved, and the church agreed, to give ourselves three months to achieve specific benchmarks so that we might discern if the church should continue on or not. We did not hit those marks. Even then, the council wasn’t quite ready to call it quits. After additional discussion, however, it reached its final verdict: Roosevelt Park would close its doors after 21 years of ministry.
After the vote, an elder blurted out the truth that no one else dared to say aloud: “I love the church and the people, but I don’t care about this community.” His words gave voice to the struggle I felt for most of my 20-plus years as the church’s pastor, trying to bridge the divide between the world of the church and the world of the local community.
I discovered Mark Mulder’s book, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure, in July 2015 while looking for a guide to help me to understand why urban Christian Reformed churches had a difficult time making the surrounding community’s problems their problems and making space in their lives for nonwhite unbelievers. Mulder, a son of the Christian Reformed Church and sociology professor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, has written a hard-hitting guide to white flight among CRC congregations in Chicago. His use of council minutes, interviews and history answered the gnawing question that had stymied me for the three decades I’ve been a member of the CRC.
In keeping with their immigrant history, they opted to move to another location to maintain their cultural identity.
In chapter one, Mulder argues that the Chicago-area Christian Reformed churches of Englewood and Roseland were not innocent bystanders when whites left in droves as African Americans made inroads into the once flourishing communities on Chicago’s South Side. Christian Reformed social life centered around two important institutions: the church and the Christian school. Given that most urban Christian Reformed churches exhibited this focus, according to Mulder, resistance to the cultural influences of the American experience was paramount. Southern blacks who had endured the harsh racial realities of Jim Crow found those same de facto features in Englewood and Roseland. Rather than adapting themselves to the new group in the neighborhood, Christian Reformed congregations increasingly turned to one solution to maintain their identity: moving to the suburbs.
HOW CRC CHURCHES FLED
Throughout the book, Mulder lifts up four features CRC churches leaned upon in leaving neighborhoods during racial change. In Englewood and Roseland, CRC churches maintained their turf for more than 100 years, until the 1960s. Their neighborhoods were havens of safety and close communal ties. Mulder comments, “[Racial] population change was a big shock, and they weren’t prepared for it” (p. 40). Adaptation was not in their cultural genes. Instead, in keeping with their immigrant history, they opted to move to another location to maintain their cultural identity.
Second, the theme of place was quite helpful and by far Mulder’s strongest theory to explain why CRC churches paid little attention to their geographical locations. Mulder contrasts the Christian Reformed approach with that of Catholic parishes, where local priests called on their members to live, work and play in the parish. Christian Reformed congregations instead operated as closed social systems, caring little about the broader community’s hopes and fears. Mulder’s use of Fourth CRC, Roseland, and First CRC, Englewood, were adequate case studies of this feature. Christian Reformed churches rarely saw their mission to their changing neighborhoods as opportunities to present the gospel. Mulder suggests that most CRC churches never thought that African Americans would ever join them.
Third, the theme of church polity is an intriguing feature of Mulder’s thesis. He argues that the Reformed Church in America tends more strongly toward the Presbyterian governance model, while the CRC more typically operates in the style of congregationalism than straight Presbyterian governance. Because the power and decision-making rested with the local church, major assemblies – such as classis and synod – had little or no power to stop frightened churches from leaving the city for the wrong reasons. Mulder argues that the Christian Reformed churches in Englewood and Roseland left for the suburbs to “exercise a sovereignty solely concerned with institutional self-preservation … Departure represented the only viable means of survival in their view” (pp. 103-104). Church polity empowered local councils to make decisions in order to survive as Dutch immigrant churches that happened to be in the neighborhood, but not of the neighborhood.
Finally, Mulder more fully develops the contrasting approaches in polity and practice of the RCA. He does so in order to provide an alternative model in dealing with racial neighborhood change in the city. When local churches lack the freedom to sell or purchase property, the classis, with its broader perspective, has more power to act in the best interests of the larger community. Mulder highlights Emmanuel Reformed Church in Roseland as an example of adaptation to neighborhood change in a way that embraces local evangelism and racial inclusion.
My only quibble with the book was wishing Mulder had written it 20 years ago. It might have saved my church and me from the many internal mistakes and misconceptions that led to the church’s death in 2015. Mulder has given urban CRC churches a book that beckons leaders and congregations to ask some tough questions about their efforts to reach their racially transitioned neighborhoods and to critique the validity of those efforts in light of his findings.
Reginald Smith served for 21 years as pastor of Roosevelt Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.