Of note here in the Holy City of Springfield, Missouri over the past few weeks has been the hubbub surrounding Walmart’s attempt to build one of their new Neighborhood Market concept stores in the central city. Anti-corporate interests have been up in arms about a big, nasty evil corporation planting a new store in their precious downtown; local business have threatened to close if the Bentonville hillbillies have their way with the city council. I disagree with all the reasoning the NIMBYists and the left-of-center set provide for standing opposed to Walmart’s proposal and the city’s willingness to accommodate by rezoning, and yet I find myself siding with them.
Life360 Church, formerly known around these parts as Calvary Temple, is “a multi-site church dedicated to winning our community for Jesus Christ. We strive for excellence in all we do, including the presentation of God’s Word, in our worship, and in our vision!” Based on the pastor’s pleading with the city council last night, Life360’s community doesn’t include Midtown: Walmart’s proposition is “an answer to our prayers.” Rev. Tom Cedarblom, the site pastor and brother to the CEO-as-pastor of the entire Life360 outfit, apparently doesn’t realize what it means to be tone-deaf to the needs of the community directly impacted by their decision. He also apparently likes the taste of his toes.
(The growing trend of family-run churches disturbs me greatly, but that’s another matter for another day. Suffice it to say that the line between a vision of ministering to a community and the ruthless ambition becomes awfully blurry when a religious organization is run by family. The difference between Cosa Nostra and the church is minimal at best.)
Practically speaking, the site in question would make for an absolutely horrible location for a grocery store. Grand to the east is only a two-lane street and then it runs through the campus of Missouri State University. The depth from the street to the residential area directly behind the church is narrow, making it an odd location for a sizable retail destination. The infrastructure there does not and could not support a major retailer–it clearly doesn’t support a church that draws less on a Sunday than a Walmart does in any given 30 minutes in any given day. Without eminent domain of the houses directly to the south of the church, one can’t really see how it’s possible to drop a big box in there without creating some serious logistical headaches.
What makes even less sense is why a church would bail on the city. Then, you see exactly why:
Clearly, this is a facility in decay, not so much because it’s obsolete, but that it has been ignored. Hey, if St. Peter’s Basilica can stay nice and gleaming for 387 years, there’s no real reason an edifice built at the apex of American construction should be this decrepit unless it’s neglected, and neglected intentionally. It’s an apt metphor, as Evangelicals have generally neglected and ignored the central city to cater to their base.
This is the crux of the problem with the multi-site/satellite/McChurch model of American churchianity: what happens when an assimilated congregation doesn’t really jibe with the practical vision of the church’s corporate architects? If the adoptive church can’t fully homogenize an adopted church into the corporate model, or one doesn’t happen to pass quality assurance checks, you get rid of it. Just like a cult. Or a dated, substandard hotel facility.
Or, perhaps more to the point, a Krispy Kreme.
As you may recall, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts expanded rapidly throughout the United States in the early 2000s. Because of this, their product got overexposed and, coupled with franchisee mismanagement in parts of the country and a subcultural movement away from fried foods, the company had to severely curtail their market penetration. (In fact, a location on the east side of Mecca not far from the proposed Walmart site closed just within the past month.) When something doesn’t work in the business world, you can either go insane and keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result (the US auto industry, for example) or you shut it down. (Or, if you’re the auto industry, or City on a Hill in Milwaukee, and you’re demonstrably insane enough, you can get bailed out.)
What’s particularly embarrassing or insulting is that the Life360 continues to advertise its presence in Midtown, when their attention, efforts and resources have not and are not directed toward the city, but rather here.
We want to go where needy people are, and not wait for or expect them to come to us. A large main campus, like the spokes of a wheel that meet at the hub, will serve these sites. In the summer of 2006 we took a step of faith and purchased 136 acres for this future main campus. (Vision360) That webpage also indicates those 136 acres were purchased at $15,000/acre, or just over $2 million. Now, the problems with that quote are myriad on its face, but the metaphor can’t even get started: the hub of a wheel is in the middle! Their proposed site is on the outskirts of town–where the rest of the churches are–and they’re willing to burn bridges with the neighborhood comprised of the very people they claim to want to reach to subsidize it!
It is a self-evident fact that Life360, like so many American churches, are cynically going where the money potentially is rather than where the ministry actually is needed? And in order to get there, they will sell their heritage to one of the largest corporate entities in the world to start work on a compound that is garish and gaudy enough to compete with the other gigantic sellout megachurch in town, James River Assembly.
It should also be noted that this selling out is taking place within two-and-a-half miles of the global headquarters of the Assemblies of God. White flight, endorsed by the silence of leadership on this matter.
This is Evangelicalism in the 21st century: fading congregations grafted into larger, more economically-viable churches, which then expand the influence of the church and its pastoral staff amongst the clergy. The new barometer of success isn’t whether or not lives are changed or the gospel is on the advance; it’s whether or not the pastor can get a shiny new building which can be touted at the next regional or national clergy meeting. In the meantime, neighborhoods continue to rot, the large body of college students blocks away continues to go about the business of ennui, the Walmarts of the world get to expand their presence in an already-inundated metropolitan area and a church gets to move closer to the people (and wallets, in no particular order) they want to reach in already-inundated neighborhoods with well-to-do believers. Who wins here?
Satellites only are useful so long as they can help support a narrative of positive growth and control. When they don’t, they become deadweight to be discarded. Or sold to the highest bidder. Or left to decay until they can claim it’s no longer a viable facility, at which point they can either discard or sell, legal or ethical quandaries be damned.
And, all the while, Christ and the power of his resurrection are left on the outside looking in. He and his message are apparently not as glamorous as a man-made lake, a sanctuary for performing arts and a Pentecostal museum.
All pictures courtesy of wife and the author.