'Big' Backlash

Growth-minded Houses Of Worship In Maryland Run Into Fears About Their Effect On Traffic, The Environment And Natural Beauty

September 06, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

FREDERICK - Manbae Kim was taking a pummeling.

Deputized to explain his church's plans to build a Walmart-sized worship complex at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, he had spent the better part of an hour politely parrying complaints from an increasingly hostile crowd about the project's impact on local traffic, the water supply, the area's rural beauty and the global climate.

One woman warned that clearing and construction for the Global Mission Church would chase animals out onto adjacent Interstate 270, causing accidents.

"People will die," she wailed.

Eventually, Kim appeared to reach the point of exasperation.

"Yes, we are a big church," he conceded. "We have a big building. But we are people. We have people who have been in this community, serving this community for their entire lives. ...

"I ask you, heart to heart. How many people spend five years praying about [a new church], and one day just because simply you don't like us, we'll leave and we're done?"

It's a scene that has grown familiar in Maryland: A successful congregation, enjoying growth, looks to build a larger house of worship, the better to host events, manage ministries and win souls. Church (or synagogue or mosque) leaders try to sell prospective neighbors on the good that the new quarters will enable them to do.

But the pitch does not forestall the seemingly inevitable opposition. Residents - and, in some cases, local officials - raise worries about the impact the new facility will have on their lives and communities.

Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, among the area's largest congregations with 5,000 members, drew protests last year with its plans, eventually dropped, to build a 150,000-square-foot complex on the site of the Padonia Park Club. Club members stood outside services wearing T-shirts with the question popular among Evangelical Christians: "What Would Jesus Do?"

Officials in rural Walkersville rejected the request of a Muslim sect to build a mosque and retreat center on 224 acres of farmland last year after the proposal aroused a public outcry.

In voting unanimously against the proposal of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the members of the zoning appeals board took pains to frame the denial on zoning grounds. But the town last month settled a federal bias lawsuit brought by the developers who had hoped to sell the land to the Silver Spring-based congregation.

Har Sinai Congregation battled Owings Mills neighbors earlier this decade over plans for the new synagogue it eventually built. Beth Tfiloh Congregation's 1998 purchase of 43 acres in Glyndon for a school and eventually, it hoped, a synagogue, set off years of lawsuits.

The phenomenon isn't limited to Maryland. Dave Travis, managing director of the Dallas-based consulting firm Leadership Network, tracks conflicts nationwide between growing churches and the communities into which they want to expand.

He says a week doesn't go by that he doesn't find a new example.

"One of the threats to megachurches is essentially the not-in-my-backyard position of municipalities and community groups," Travis said.

"There's still a general impression that most churches are small: The white frame church down there on the corner, the little brick building that has a hundred people. Just the fact that you've got a church with a couple thousand people seems abnormal to lots of people."

"It is equivalent in many ways to an area that's dominated by small mom-and-pop stores and a Walmart moves in," said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

"It's not necessarily that people are worried that the Walmart is going to run out all the mom-and-pop stores or that the megachurch is going to overwhelm every other congregation," Thumma said. "It's more a matter of what are the mental concepts that you carry around in your head of church."

With large congregations continuing to grow, some have adopted a new strategy: the multisite church.

"They just say, well, we're just going to start a second site over here," Travis said. "More and more churches in the large church movement are resorting to a site strategy rather than just building a bigger and bigger facility."

Grace Fellowship Church, with rented space that holds 1,100 in Timonium and additional campuses in Baltimore and Shrewsbury, Pa., already operates multiple sites. But it has not abandoned its search for a new, larger facility.

Senior Pastor Danny O'Brien says the church dropped the Padonia Park plan not over local objections, but because it had not raised the money it needed to develop the property. He says the congregation harbors no hard feelings.

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