The following is from my weekly e-mail to the members of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ where I serve as minister:
If you live in Brookside or Waldo, as many folks in our church do, you have probably been paying attention to the debate about the proposed light rail streetcar line. This week, it was announced that the proposed north-south line will stop near UMKC and will not come down into Brookside and Waldo. Press reports indicate that resistance to the plan in Brookside is why the line will stop at UMKC.
I am probably stepping way out on a limb here, but I think how these events developed can provide an analogy for how unhealthy churches operate. Bear with me a bit.
I should tell you up front that I'm disappointed there won't be a streetcar running in front of our church. I think it's a great idea. Granted, I don't live anywhere near the proposed line, so my property taxes wouldn't have gone up to pay for it. Also, I don't even live in Brookside or Waldo, so if the line did go in and was a disaster, I wouldn't have had to live next to it. Nonetheless, I think the streetcar--if done right--could have been a real benefit to our church and the community it is a part of.
I also realize that there are most likely members of our church who were opposed to the streetcar. We are a church of diverse opinions and beliefs after all, and nowhere does it say a church member has to agree with his or her minister. A while back, our church was asked if it had a position on the streetcar line, and our response was no. The only way our church can have a position on anything is to hold a congregational vote, and there were not and still are not any plans to hold one on the streetcar. So, read the rest of my thoughts--as you should every week--knowing that they are my thoughts alone.
Our church building sits in the Armour Hills neighborhood, and the neighborhood association meets in our building. I knew that there was a public meeting planned with representatives from the city about the proposed streetcar happening at our church building, and I became aware that other meetings in the area had included some ugly behavior. Some of the opponents to the streetcar had been disruptive of those meetings. So, I asked, since the meeting was taking place in our church building, if I could come and welcome those assembled. I did so and asked them to behave as good neighbors. I noted that we were a congregation that believed people could disagree with one another without being uncivil and without demeaning one another. For the part of the meeting I was present at people generally behaved themselves, although I was informed that later on as the crowd thinned things did get ugly again--in large part due to the actions of opponents of the streetcar.
A week later at the monthly association board meeting--held next door to my office--the room was packed. Usually it is sparsely attended, but this time the room was overflowing into the hallway. When I asked what was on the agenda, I was told people were there to express their opposition to the streetcar again. The opponents turned out. They had the loudest voices. A week later it was announced there would be no streetcar line in Brookside. The voices that declared "Not in my backyard" won out.
I freely acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to question the idea of a streetcar. For retirees on fixed incomes, an increase in property taxes of $300-$500 is a burden. It seems unfair that only people who live within 1/3 mile of the rail line have their property taxes increased and people who would not have property tax increases get to vote on approving them. Plus, there are many examples of public transportation boondoggles. There are probably other concerns I haven't thought of.
On the other hand, everyone knows that as a culture, we need to drive our cars less for the sake of the environment. Dynamic cities tend to have functioning public transportation systems--systems that have more than buses which middle class people generally refuse to ride. If you lived in Brookside and worked downtown, the line would save you money on gas and parking. Most of all--and this seems key to me--if people living in Brookside want to sell their homes in 15-20 years the generation
they would sell to (Millennials) want to live near public transportation (again not buses). Thus far, Millennials want to drive in far fewer numbers than previous generations--that's money which could be spent on cell phones and internet access!--and they desire to live in urban areas that allow for this lifestyle. It seems to me that if you want to sell your home in the future, your home value would only go up if you lived near a streetcar--bad news for people like me who live in Johnson County and now bad news for Brookside and Waldo.
What do these events have to do with church?
On the one hand, these events could be an example of democracy in action--people rejecting something they don't like, but on the other hand--and this is how I interpret events--they illustrate how a small group of people can block any change in the status quo and any actions that demand present sacrifice for future reward. I've heard it expressed as the 10-80-10 principle. 10% of people in any group want to push for change. 10% are generally opposed to any change to the status quo (too expensive!, too risky!, what's wrong with the way we've always done it?, we've never done it that way before!). The remaining 80% of people will generally fall in line behind whichever 10% shouts the loudest. Given that being against something is easier and generates more emotion, more often then not organizations--and I think especially churches--follow the 10% that prefers never changing and never risking anything new.
The future for American Christianity--especially for churches like ours--is pretty bleak. The Millennial generation is abandoning organized religion in greater numbers than ever before. Significant changes need to happen immediately for most churches to avoid becoming relics of the past. Yet, any such changes naturally involve sacrifice, energy and a whole lot of risk. In the face of such challenges, it is natural for people to choose the "devil" they know and continue to do church in a way that works for them. This means, of course, that the members of a church opt for the comfort of the individual rather than the health of the community. Unfortunately, it looks like choosing not to change means most churches will become irrelevant. By choosing not to sacrifice in the present, a church ensures it will fail in the future.
For a healthy church to exist--and a healthy community for that matter--the 10% who push for change and for what is best for the whole have to work twice as hard. It also means that the 80% who give in to whatever group has the loudest voice (usually the 10% against ever changing) have to step up and get engaged. Most of all, the church--and the community--have to think about the future; decisions made today are not just about the present but also about future generations.
It remains to be seen whether Brookside and Waldo have missed out on a good thing for the future. There's always the chance the streetcar line will be revisited. Also, the neighborhoods could be strong enough to still remain desirable 15-20 years from now even without a streetcar. We shall see.
I feel the American church has far worse odds, however. Only those churches willing to dream big and take risks for the future will have one.
Grace and Peace,