Friday, March 28, 2014

What Does the KC Streetcar Teach Us About Church?

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,


Anonymous said...

You didn't even go and listen in on the meetings. Yo just "heard" that the streetcar opponents were loud and ugly. Gee. Wonder who you heard that from? The Twitter feeds of streetcar supporters that live downtown? I was not at your neighborhood's meeting, but assuming it went like the meetings in other neighborhoods, things did not get ugly, just heated. Neighbors demanding Next Rail consultants answer their questions, consultants side stepping the issues or refusing to give an answer. As a pastor, you need to be more engaged with what is happening in the neighborhood where your church is located. You should attend all HOA meetings, listen, and witness what is happening. Only then can you know.

Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting you refer to above, the board meeting that overflowed with people. It was not about the streetcar, Sir. The people were there to address the President of the Armour Hills Homes Association and the Board. Our concern was her outspoken support of the streetcar extension initiative. She should have maintained a neutral position. She didn't. The opponents to the street car into Brookside had learned that a letter written on Armour Hills Homes Association Letterhead, signed by Tiffany Moore, was sent in November, 2013 to Nextrail. In her letter she offered overwhelming support by the Homeowner's Association for the streetcar extension. Problem is...conflict of interest. Also brought to light in that meeting, the same president had paid for the yard signs for the support from the treasury of Armour Hills Homes Association. She was asked that night to resign due to the conflict of interest.

You are mistaken to think the opponents are 10% of the population. Wrong. Incorrect. Not True. When Tiffany Moore did her "investigation and due diligence" concerning the support for the street car in Armour Hills, that she shared with the city council members, the mayor, etc., she had only 40 some responses from homeowners. Armour Hills has 1,100 homes. Tiffany based her research on less than 3% of the population of the organization she served. 97% of the homeowners were not contacted whatsoever, by Tiffany Moore, or any representative from, the city, the county, no one.

Public transportation is in place and it is not used. Why any intelligent person would think the answer to public transportation is a "romantic" streetcar is ridiculous. If you don't want to drive your car, ride the bus. If you don't like the bus as it is, work for improvements. Streetcars were torn out decades ago because they were not being used. Why a streetcar would have a large ridership is not supported by any documentation and is naïve at best.

Please rethink you position, talking down to the opposition of this streetcar. You did not know the facts surrounding the situation. The Homeowners were shocked at the unprofessional and unwise decisions by the President and the Board of Directors concerning this issue. Individually they can support a streetcar extension. Using only 3% of the homeowners, and writing a letter that gives the effect that a majority of the 1100 homeowners were in support was unacceptable. If you want to see the letter, go to the Nextrail website. Locate the original study, it is approximately 375 pages. Look at pages 364 and 365.

The meeting was not ugly and loud in my opinion. However, if I was taken to task for my behavior by the people I serve, I may have called it ugly and loud. I wouldn't have been correct, but I may have done that. No one likes to be shown they have used poor judgment. A simple, I am sorry would have been appreciated. Unfortunately it was not offered. Later, at the request of those in attendance, she wrote to Nextrail and said that the letter of November, 2013 was not the opinion of the entire homeowner's association.

I am sorry you got involved and felt that the information you were given was the whole truth. As you see, it was not.

Because the City has so many unanswered questions, the opponents to the street car have been asking questions. How much will it cost? Where, exactly will it be? What, exactly will it look like? When will it be finished?