Church seeks a country home But neighbors aren't welcoming the huge complexes

February 02, 1997|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

First, the exodus was from city to suburb. Now Maryland churches, especially large evangelical parishes serving young professionals, are following congregations from suburb to the farmland beyond.

It is proving to be a very difficult step to make.

Take the case of Riverdale Baptist Church, a storied Prince George's County congregation battling to build a 112,000-square-foot complex in rural south Anne Arundel County over fierce protest from the wealthy neighborhood. The National Cathedral in Washington is two-thirds the size of Riverdale's proposed complex.

"This is going to make it like a city," said Estelle Congdon, a Davidsonville resident who opposes the Riverdale proposal. "People should not have this afflicted upon them."

Riverdale is part of a revolution in American religion toward the full-service megachurch, a kind of rollicking spiritual amusement park that uses secular appeal to bring God's word to the "unchurched." Huge and resourceful, megachurches have outer suburbia wondering what happened to the white-clapboard chapel.

For evangelists, whose central task is conversion, bigger is better. Baptists define success by growth. So they have begun a trek to inexpensive farmland that has become the destination for white middle-class families fleeing the suburbs they once considered salvation from urban ills.

Prodded by community outcry, local Maryland governments are beginning to lump large churches such as Riverdale into zoning categories similar to those reserved for such unpopular community essentials as trash dumps, jails and stadiums. "We just want them to think ahead and try harder to fit into neighborhoods," said Daniel L. Wilhelm, president of the Greater Colesville Citizens Association in Montgomery County.

Special review

Anne Arundel recently began requiring special review for large churches planned for farm land. The Montgomery County Council will soon consider several zoning measures that would make it more difficult for even small churches to grow in residential or rural neighborhoods. Several Virginia counties have set up additional zoning hurdles for churches.

Religious leaders say the local laws violate a more important principle than smart planning: the First Amendment, which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The U.S. Supreme Court will help decide whether they do on Feb. 19 when it hears a case, City of Boerne vs. Flores, brought by the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

Freer rein?

"Should churches have freer rein because of the free exercise clause? The answer is probably yes," said the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Georgetown University law professor and former Massachusetts congressman.

"But communities are saying that these are planning issues, not religious ones," he said. "How much freedom do the churches enjoy that the shopping plazas don't? That is still unclear."

But religious leaders are also asking a less secular question: Since when did American communities become hostile to places of worship?

"They want to keep that area rural, and I can appreciate that," said Margaret Hunt, a Riverdale parishioner, during a recent Sunday service at the church in Upper Marlboro.

She draped an arm over a pew, covered in faux red velvet, and listened to the church band tune up for hymns that sound more like Hootie & the Blowfish than Handel. "But that area is not going to stay rural, and what better neighbor could there be than a church?" Hunt asked. "We are here to save souls. And that is what the world needs today."

But the dimensions of a megachurch can be mind-boggling.

Outside Landover, Jericho Baptist is spending $15 million to build a complex serving outer suburbia. Upper Marlboro's Evangel Church, more convention center than country chapel, has a customized "call routing system" to sort a daily multitude of phone calls.

Rural neighborhoods argue that megachurches are not churches all, but projects that generate traffic seven days a week, consume affordable open space, and deplete the tax base through their tax-exempt status.

"Churches are a business now," Leroy J. Koch, a Davidsonville resident, told the Anne Arundel County Council. "These outsiders are coming in here wanting special privileges. Protect the people who vote for you."

The patchwork of new regulations, many of which use the size of church parking lots to trigger stricter land-use rules, have pushed pastors into the secular realm of politics.

Riverdale leaders spent more than $100,000 on Annapolis lobbyists, law firms and consultants to kill a proposed county law that would require the project to win special exemption. But the bill passed in December.

"I thought they would welcome us," said the Rev. R. Herbert Fitzpatrick, Riverdale's 70-year-old patriarch, who made it one of the country's 10 fastest growing churches in the 1970s.

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