An important part of any congregational study is understanding the history and ecology of the community. These changes can involve racial or cultural changes to the community, like the example from Oak Park Illinois. Other important changes can be the growth or decline of local industries, such as the example in Anderson Indiana. [To read more about these and other cases of congregations in changing communities, check out the book Congregation & Community, by Nancy Ammerman.]
Oak Park, IL: “In 1970, Oak park was 98.8 percent white, but just across Austin Boulevard to the east, Austin had already gone from an all-white community in 1960 to being one-third black in 1970. (By 1980, it would be three-quarters black.) The people of Oak Park saw the handwriting on the wall – or more accurately, the For Sale signs in the yards. They decided to fight the trend. Rather than try to resist integration – or run away – they undertook a program of planned integration that has since become a model for communities around the country. The community trained its realtors and strictly forbade the sorts of scare tactics that fueled white flight elsewhere. It even banned the posting of For Sale signs. A kind of unofficial quota system went into place to avoid concentrating all the new minority residents in one part of town. And the town provided an “equity assurance” program that guaranteed home values against steep declines. After a short period of uncertainty, in the early 1970s housing prices stabilized, and the community has remained prosperous ever since. The result is a community that is still three-quarters white, with 18 percent African Americans, 3.3 percent Asians, 3.6 percent Hispanic, and a handful of others” (Ammerman 1997: 20).
Anderson, IN: “Anderson, a county seat forty miles northeast of Indianapolis, was a sleepy country town when natural gas was discovered there in the 1890s. That discovery began to attract manufacturing concerns and workers and to transform the community. In the 1920s two of Anderson’s manufacturing firms, Delco Remy and Inland Fisher Guide, allied with General Motors (GM), and the community quickly and gratefully became a company town. By 1970, almost twelve thousand persons in Anderson were employed in the manufacture of durable goods. Jobs were plentiful, and the pay was good. In the 1970s, however, the U.S. automotive industry went into a steep decline that quickly affected Anderson’s GM plants. In 1978, GM’s Delco Remy operated fifteen plants and employed 15,000 workers. In the next several years, those plants laid off or relocated 7,000 of those workers. Inland Fisher Guide added 1,100 more layoffs to that number, and Anderson’s unemployment rate reached 24 percent in the 1980s. Delco Remy’s local United Auto Workers union placed approximately 4,000 workers in GM facilities elsewhere, but thousands of others were forced to fend for themselves. Layoffs extended into months and then years, forcing younger workers to look for jobs outside Anderson and, often, to relocate” (Ammerman 1997: 23).
In what ways can you imagine the focus on integration in Oak Park had to the congregations nearby? How do you think the economic problems within Anderson affected the congregational life? The processes of integration and economic job loss are obviously external to the local congregation, but what occurs in the ecology surrounding the congregations effects the vitality and strength within. In what ways has the changing community around your congregation affected it?
An important consideration here is making sure this historical research is data-driven. Often, congregations like to tell stories about how the neighborhood has shifted demographically, resulting in the decline of their congregation. Those stories may not always be accurate. A careful congregational study will take the time to examine the demographic and cultural shifts of the social context in which the congregation is seated.