Faith-Based Community Organizing
The State of the Field
(Note: The highly respected Interfaith Funders completed a study of the 133 Faith Based Community Organizations (FBCO) in January 2001. They found that 3500 of members institutions are religious congregations (87%) with 1 to 2 million people reached. But the study showed that few evangelical and Pentecostal churches are involved. One of the two authors, Richard Wood, has written an important article on the future of FBCO.
XI. FBCO's Experience with New Religious and Social Constituencies (from Exec Summary)
FBCO lead organizers say they are reaching out to new constituencies beyond the Roman Catholic, historically black, and liberal/moderate Protestant churches that continue to provide the institutional core of the field. Such new constituencies include both religious groups and new social sectors. The most common such outreach efforts are to evangelical or Pentecostal congregations, Jewish congregations, and new immigrant groups, with about half of all FBCOs reporting contact with each of these. Though these efforts clearly vary in intensity, the following generalizations appear to be warranted:
The outreach to new religious constituencies raises important questions of how best to bridge relations between traditions. One respondent summarized a successful approach as follows:
XI. FBCO's EXPERIENCE WITH NEW RELIGIOUS AND SOCIAL CONSTITUENCIES
The core constituency of FBCO efforts has traditionally been made up of heads of families who are members of urban Roman Catholic, historic black Protestant, and liberal/moderate Protestant congregations. As discussed earlier in this report, these constituencies remain core to FBCO today. However, in an effort to broaden their impact, faith-based organizers in some areas have reached out to new constituencies in recent years. The lead organizers interviewed were asked about their efforts to work with evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Christian congregations; Jewish congregations; other non-Christian congregations; and immigrants, parents, workers, and youth, i.e. as members of these groups, rather than simply as members of congregations.
Recall that Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, other non-Christian, and evangelical/fundamentalist/ Pentecostal Christian congregations combined make up less than 12.5% of the congregations involved as members in FBCOs. ...
When prompted regarding Jewish and evangelical/Pentecostal/fundamentalist involvement in organizing, a large number of lead organizers said such congregations were indeed involved, at least to some degree. Forty-seven percent of organizers interviewed noted some contact with Jewish congregations and 56% noted some contact with evangelical or Pentecostal congregations. Very few claimed contact with congregations identified as "fundamentalist." Less than 12% reported no contact with any of these groups. ...
The extensive number of contacts reported with evangelical and Pentecostal Christian churches suggests that lead organizers recognize the significance of this burgeoning sector of the American religious spectrum. These Pentecostal and evangelical churches appear to be primarily African-American, especially Church of God in Christ and Latino congregations, and less frequently, white evangelical congregations. This may partly stem from the fact that white evangelical congregations tend to be located in more affluent neighborhoods or in the suburbs, but some respondents also suggested that these churches: (1) have less fully developed the social dimension of Christian teaching; or (2) have memberships with different economic or political interests. Several respondents, mostly in southern California, reported that their organizations were working with Christians Supporting Community Organizing to engage evangelical and Pentecostal pastors and lay leaders in organizing.
Respondents noted potential benefits and significant obstacles to collaborating with evangelical or Pentecostal churches, whether minority or white. Among the benefits cited were the scriptural fluency common in these churches, the fact that they "bring lots of diversity" to an organization, and the belief that evangelicals "are less likely [than other church-goers] to explain away the demands of scripture if they understand those demands." Organizers reported that the most significant obstacle to working with these strands of Christianity was the theological or cultural divide separating them from FBCO. They said these churches "tend to be otherworldly," "do not have much trust of us," do not see this work as "part of their definition of their mission," or "see no need to hold systems accountable." A few noted that evangelicals sometimes feel marginalized by the Catholic and liberal/moderate Protestant culture that has been central to faith-based organizing, and one noted that his organization lost some evangelical members due to the fact that some member churches accepted gay and lesbian members or had female pastors. ...
We note that, as reflected in the above quote, at least two strategies exist for handling religious diversity. One strategy encourages participants to speak strongly from their own traditions, with other participants translating this into their own faith languages. Another strategy is to ask all participants to pray in neutral terms that seek to avoid any language that is not acceptable in other traditions. The former strategy places a burden on everyone to learn something about others' cultures; the latter strategy runs the risk of so diluting faith language that it no longer "moves" participants. Deciding when to adopt which strategy represents an important area of continuing experimentation and discernment in faith-based organizing, with important consequences.
Expanding beyond the black Protestant, liberal/moderate Protestant, and Roman Catholic core of traditional organizing culture brings wider credibility, new ethical insight, new constituencies, and greater diversity into the organizing world, but it must be undertaken in ways that sustain the flow of commitment and motivation within organizing. If faith-based organizing accomplishes this, it will have a great deal to teach the wider political culture about appropriately combining faith and politics across the religious spectrum of contemporary American society. ...
FBCO lead organizers expressed a desire to reach out to new constituencies beyond the Roman Catholic, historically black, and liberal/moderate Protestant churches that continue to provide the institutional core to the field. Such new constituencies include both religious groups and new social sectors. The most common such outreach efforts are to evangelical or Pentecostal congregations, Jewish congregations, and new immigrant groups, with about half of all FBCOs reporting contact with each of these three sectors. Though these efforts clearly vary in intensity, the following generalizations appear to be warranted:
Figure 1 shows the location of the 133 faith-based community organizations.