The Urban Church Imagined

Religion, Race, and Authenticity in the City

240 pages

November, 2017

ISBN: 9781479887101



Add to Cart Available: 11/3/2017

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Jessica M. Barron, PhD is a Researcher and Consultant at Frontline Solutions, Inc.  Her research interest focus on race/ethnicity and racial segregation on attitudes and identities in the United States. Her publications include, Managed Diversity: Race, Place, and an Urban Church (2016) and Structures of Privilege and Oppression: Multiracial Americans and the U.S. Racial Hierarchy (w/ M. Campbell 2014).

All books by Jessica M. Barron

Rhys H. Williams is Professor of Sociology and Director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion at Loyola University Chicago. His publications include Religion & Progressive Activism (New York University Press 2017; w/ T. N. Fuist and R. Braunstein), Cultural Wars in American Politics (Aldine 1997) and articles in the American Sociological Review, Social Problems, Sociological Theory, Theory & Society, and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  

All books by Rhys H. Williams

Explores the role of race and consumer culture in attracting urban congregants to an evangelical church 
The Urban Church Imagined illuminates the dynamics surrounding white urban evangelical congregations’ approaches to organizational vitality and diversifying membership. Many evangelical churches are moving to urban, downtown areas to build their congregations and attract younger, millennial members. The urban environment fosters two expectations.  First, a deep familiarity and reverence for popular consumer culture, and second, the presence of racial diversity. Church leaders use these ideas when they imagine what a “city church” should look like, but they must balance that with what it actually takes to make this happen.  In part, racial diversity is seen as key to urban churches presenting themselves as “in touch” and “authentic.” Yet, in an effort to seduce religious consumers, church leaders often and inadvertently end up reproducing racial and economic inequality, an unexpected contradiction to their goal of inclusivity. 
Drawing on several years of research, Jessica M. Barron and Rhys H. Williams explore the cultural contours of one such church in downtown Chicago.  They show that church leaders and congregants’ understandings of the connections between race, consumer culture, and the city is a motivating factor for many members who value interracial interactions as a part of their worship experience. But these explorations often unintentionally exclude members along racial and classed lines.  Indeed, religious organizations’ efforts to engage urban environments and foster integrated congregations produce complex and dynamic relationships between their racially diverse memberships and the cultivation of a safe haven in which white, middle-class leaders can feel as though they are being a positive force in the fight for religious vitality and racial diversity.  
The book adds to the growing constellation of studies on urban religious organizations, as well as emerging scholarship on intersectionality and congregational characteristics in American religious life. In so doing, it offers important insights into racially diverse congregations in urban areas, a growing trend among evangelical churches. This work is an important case study on the challenges faced by modern churches and urban institutions in general. 


  • “In The Urban Church Imagined, Jessica M. Barron and Rhys H. Williams examine the 'dueling imaginations' posited by Downtown Church’s [DC] suburban-based leaders and city-based congregants as their new congregation negotiates racial, class, and gender boundaries. The depth and accessibility of this book make it an excellent read for scholars, students, and religious leaders interested in the sociology of religion, race theory, and/or the urban landscape.”

    Reading Religion

  • "The authors demonstrate how the racialized urban imaginary affects the religious practices, organizations, and identity of this recently formed congregation, and the complex interactions among race, religion, class, gender, cultural consumption, and the city. The discussion revolves around the key concepts of racialized urban imaginary, managed diversity, and racial utility. A significant contribution to religion, race, and urban studies."


  • "The City Imagined expertly takes us into the heart of 'new urban' Christianity, a Christianity reflecting a renewed interest in the city, but a city highly constructed to serve idealized purposes.  With richness of analysis and deep insight, we learn about the very heart of new America--the good, the bad, and the ugly.  A fascinating read."

    —Michael O. Emerson, Provost and Professor, North Park University and author of Blacks and Whites in Christian America

  • Ambitious evangelicals want to reach the city—a dynamic place filled with connotations of fashion, power, and cosmopolitanism. But the desire of evangelical churches to be relevant and racially diverse is colliding with the implicit racism still underlying their history. Drawing from observations in a multiracial evangelical church in downtown Chicago, The Urban Church Imagined reveals how modern evangelicalism is deeply entangled in the desire for contemporary relevance while persisting in racial prejudices and outright discrimination.  

    —Gerardo Marti, author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church