Friday, May 2, 2014

"Who is my neighbor?"- Do growing churches ask or care?

As one who grew up in a church, served as an Elder in my local church and worked for several growing churches, I recently realized how blind I had become to the downside of church growth.  

It was the slow take over and consumption of my childhood neighborhood by a local church which opened my eyes.  The slow moving but devastating changes this church subjected my parents and their neighbors to over the years went from mildly annoying to a downright affront to their once peaceful environment.

The entire experience left me wondering if growing churches ever stop in the midst of expansion and honestly consider, "Who is my neighbor?" and what that means. From what my parents experienced, it left me asking, "Do churches ask or care?" 

Unfortunately, I realized I never heard anyone ask nor did I when in church expansion mode, but we all know what our answer is supposed to be.

"Love your neighbor as yourself." Galatians 5:14b

Here's hoping and praying my true story serves as a cautionary tale for church staff, church officers and church members in times of church planting, building and expansion. As for me, the entire experience puts church expansion in the "proceed with compassion, care and caution" category.

In 1960, my parents moved our growing family to a home on a dead end street in a brand new neighborhood. When we moved in, their were only a few homes in a little valley behind a major road. The dead end street and the entire neighborhood was bordered by acres of woods owned by a small neighborhood church on the main road. At the time, we could barely see the steeple for the road, but we could hear the lovely chiming of the hours.

We coexisted as good neighbors. It didn't take long for neighborhood children to establish the woods as a playground. The church didn't mind our presence on their land or the bike trails and "camps" we created on their property. The neighbors who went to the church actually used the bike paths as short cuts to services on Sunday morning.

In the mid 1960s, I am sure the small church asked the question,  "Who is my neighbor?" because they were very interested, inviting and welcoming to the new families and even helped transform the new subdivision into a community. My family chose to join the large downtown church of the same denomination, but on occasion I attended the neighborhood church's VBS and other outreach functions.   It was clear, reaching out to their immediate neighbors was their mission.

Actually, in the late 1950s the church I grew up in built and funded the establishment of small  neighborhood churches as a mission outreach.   Planting churches near new subdivisions was my landlocked church's growth plan. Instead of continuing to increase their footprint downtown, they invested in building and supporting new churches out in the suburbs. My parents told me the church decided against impeding on the immediate neighborhood to create an even bigger mega-complex. Their mission to build small neighborhood churches on available land out in the suburbs let them care for their immediate neighbors and provide church homes for future neighbors in the growing suburbs. 

In the early 1970s, the neighborhood church expanded the parking lot to accommodate the harvest of new members. The woods still buffered the church from our neighborhood, but a few acres of trees had to be cleared away.  I was too old to roam the woods, but my little brothers still enjoyed playing there and enjoyed playing basketball on the church's outdoor court.  The church loved their neighbor as themselves.

I'm not so sure when the little church stopped seeing themselves as a neighborhood church and began aspiring to become a mega-church, but sometime in the 1980s I became acutely aware of it because our neighborly neighborhood church started to change their tune.  Their answer to "Who is my neighbor?" became "Who cares?"

The church expanded the parking lot and connected it to the dead end street so their attendees could have another entrance and exit. When the neighbors objected to the latest parking lot expansion and creation of a thoroughfare in a quiet neighborhood, the church response was typical.  "Think of the lost souls we might have to turn away if we don't expand!" Is that love?

My parents just shook their heads in disbelief. Sad to say, when they shared the news with me, I was deeply ashamed of my own unloving attitude.  I'm not so sure I hadn't use the same rationalization of building bigger to save souls at my own growing wanna be mega-church in Raleigh. Nope, I am SURE I had!

What was I thinking? What were THEY thinking?

It didn't take long to find out just how invasive the new mega-church mission was to my parents. Not too long after the floodgate for lost souls opened at the end of the street, the mayhem began. On Sunday mornings, from 9am to 12:15pm my parents thanked their lucky stars they left early for church downtown, because our quiet little street became a major thoroughfare.

With all the trees missing, the sun blinded the early morning attendees causing them to drive right into cars parked on our street.  At least, that was what the lady told my brother when she crashed into his car. She should have stopped talking until the police arrived and before she told my brother it was HIS fault for parking in front of his own house.  Good thing she was a believer with a ticket to heaven, because my brother totally wanted to send her there after her callus excuse. Because my brother is a kind Christian and was backed up by the insurance company and police, her trip to heaven was delayed. Whew! Talk about saving souls!

And it happened a few more times! And again and again, the driver tried to put the blame on the car owner for daring to park in front of their own house. It got so bad, when we'd visit Mom and Dad on Sundays or Wednesday nights, we'd do our best to get all the cars lined up in the driveway. If one had to stay on the curb, we'd hold our breathe and pray for the best.

Less than a decade ago, the neighborhood won the battle against the thoroughfare. The dead end street would be closed and a buffer of trees would be planted between the neighborhood and the church. At least, that was what the church promised as they bought up the homes backing up to their property to create an outpost for their Youth ministry, Adult Singles Ministry and other departments. Seriously, I'm not sure what each outpost is for. I lost interest and hope.

Fast forward to today! "Who is my neighbor?" and "Where is the love?"  .

For all intents and purposes, the immediate neighbors are gone. Many sold their homes to the church and moved out. The homes not used as outposts were torn down. There used to be three houses and several acres between my parents and the church. Now there is one house, a four foot strip of curb and gutter with a buffer of spindly shrubs planted 6 feet apart and asphalt from the buffer to the main road.

The parking lot is so huge, the city required them to create a holding pond for the excessive run off.  Of course, they put the holding pond beside a home with small children. The safety perimeter is inadequate at best and any landscaping is non-existent.

The noise levels of the church's HVAC equipment is loud and magnified as it bounces off the asphalt. It was to be surrounded by a sound barrier, but when running, the roar turns talking outside into a shouting match. Get this. The church says they can't afford to build the sound barrier because they had to pay to re-engineer the huge they built within a few yards of the main road. At least when the AVAC is running it drowns out the unbuffered noise of traffic from the main road.

That's not all folks! The parking lot halogen lights make night into day. I don't know how my parents sleep at night. The neighborhood hopefully has the church in check and it won't get any worse. At least, the church's current financial situation makes further expansion cost prohibitive.

So, here ends my cautionary tale of church growth and expansion. 

As always, my forgiving and wise parents continue to take it all in stride.  They still love their neighborhood church and wish them the best. My mom even chuckled when I suggested they brought it all on themselves by contributing to the church planting fund. (Insert here: Edina M. singing "No good deed goes unpunished!") 

As for me, I promised myself I will forgive and love their neighbor. I'm also hoping and praying the realization I may have behaved like them will make me find a way to like them

Galatians 5:14
For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Go Ahead - Google it!