Leaving Nashville. Rebuilding Detroit

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In some ways, Nashville and Detroit don’t have much in common. They are in different regions with different weather. Leave Nashville and you’re in the country; leave Detroit and you’re in another country. They have a bit in common. Nashville is Music City, while Detroit has Motown. Henry Ford’s Detroit might be the Motor City, but Nashville has the headquarters of Nissan and Bridgestone. Yet both of these places are enigmas. Detroit is a modern city peppered with decaying buildings. Nashville is a historic city where old buildings are constantly demolished. As an Ohioan and Memphian, I’m inclined to dislike Detroit and Nashville. In Ohio, “the state up north” isn’t viewed favorably, while Memphis can be a bit jealous of its elder brother. But I like both places and am happy to feast on Sicilian-style pizza and spicy fried chicken.

These niceties aside, it’s impossible not to notice that Nashville is living in its prime and Detroit is not. The Tennessee capital’s population is four-times what it was in 1960 (the locals mention this on occasion). Detroit is less than half the size it was then (the locals ignore this). Detroit has more big city amenities, like a world-class art museum and four professional sports franchises, which should make Nashville envious. But Nashville has buzzing streets of new growth, construction cranes, and apartments full of recent college grads. Checkmate.

One city feels like it’s going somewhere, while the other feels like it’s been somewhere. The thing you notice most is the infrastructure. Nashville could use more of it (like the fantastic public transit plan that was struck down a few years ago), while Detroit has too much of it, leaving it feeling empty. The dwindling tax base is insufficient to service the infrastructure that was built to serve the million people who once lived there and now don’t.

Infrastructure is probably the most boring political topic, but possibly the most important. Take away water and electricity for a day and see which politicians are still arguing about erasing Abraham Lincoln’s name from a school. Roads, bridges, sewers, and utilities matter for every single one of us. Infrastructure is not terribly interesting; it’s about doing the difficult work of maintaining what we’ve already committed to maintain.

Sorta like life.

Churches, like cities, have life cycles. Cities have roads and bridges; churches have buildings and grounds. Cities have budgets and payrolls; churches have budgets and payrolls. Cities have residents; churches have members. Cities have historic financial commitments to pension funds, ballpark renovations, and airport upgrades. Churches have commitments to missionaries, neighborhood outreach ministries, and capital debt. These are the stark realities of what it means to be in community over a long period of time. Inheriting something from the past means leaving something for the future.

Since March of 2020, churches are down 30% in Sunday attendance. Most churches have reduced their budgets since 2019. I don’t know many churches who have baptized more people in 2021 than in 2019 or who had to add an extra week of camp to accommodate new campers. Members buried loved ones in the most lonely, isolating way possible. Morale has been down across the board. 

But a reduction in attendance has not been met with a reduction in needs or expectations. The church facilities are the same size they were in 2019, making heating, cooling, and grounds upkeep constant. And post-pandemic parents have the same expectations for quality youth ministry and children’s programming as they did pre-pandemic. There are questions about whether the existing population base can maintain the existing infrastructure. Church leaders already know the truth. They left Nashville. They now live in Detroit.

How should church leaders respond to working in a place that is overbuilt? Here are a few:

  1. Maintain existing infrastructure. It was easy during the early parts of the pandemic to talk about how the world had changed and that we could retire old church things that had outlived their usefulness. We said we should be the church rather than just come to church. I agreed and still agree. But churches also have commitments that are baked within our mission that we cannot drop. We should not say that we are no longer committed to foreign mission work because it is expensive or we no longer want to offer children’s Bible classes because they are hard to staff. Like roads and bridges, some things are worth paying for even if they aren’t fun to pay for. We must support our core ministries before we add new ones.

This is a hard message for the American church. People grew up taking spiritual gifts inventories and learning about their Enneagram number. We are an individualistic people. Yet we cannot always be unique and do our own thing. You be you is an awful slogan for ministry. We don’t just need people to find their unique calling; we need them to sign up to own the work that needs done. When we do that, we might find that our new ideas aren’t as necessary and that the church is actually doing more than we imagined.

If I wanted to, I could look at White Station and think of all the things we aren’t doing or the things we could be doing. Instead, I look at what we can do through our existing ministries. By giving money to our Good Samaritan’s fund, we can help anyone who asks for financial assistance. By supporting the Threads of Hope ministry, we provide clothing to foster families. Investing in Iglesia de Cristo means providing spiritual family, resources, and hope to those who’ve come to America without money, family, and faith. I love new ideas as much as anyone. But in the same way that a city is unwise to build a new bridge when they can’t afford paint for their old one, the church must be faithful to previously made commitments.

  1. Build up, don’t tear down. Jesus spends very little amount of his time deconstructing the problems of Judaism. He affirms the goodness of the Law (Mt. 5:17), speaks of the flawed heroes of the faith (Moses; David; Jonah), and adheres to many of his religious traditions (Lk. 4). Without question he takes aim at misguided religious leaders (often after they attack him) and can be really harsh on individual matters like hypocrisy and self-righteousness. But Jesus spends much more energy galvanizing a group of followers than he does chewing the fat with the disgruntled.

Churches should take note. The Church (universal) is durable and can withstand a lot. On the other hand, the local church can be pretty fragile and requires great care. Could we as leaders encourage extravagant generosity rather than harshly judging the giver? Might we spend our energy welcoming our multicultural neighbors rather than  driving wedges between us and our political opposites? Dare we dream of our church’s future without discounting the tremendous sacrifices made by our senior members? We cannot be built up as a group if the only language we speak is deconstruction (1 Cor. 14:12). Whenever we choose to be gentle and kind we are building up (Phil. 4:5).

  1. Rep your hood. One thing that Nashville and Detroit have in common is an intoxicating sense of local pride. Athletes and musicians from Detroit often reinvest in their hometown. People from Nashville are quick to tell you about their city’s incredible populat….yep, you know. Pride is not something that is usually commended in Christian teaching (it comes before destruction, right?). There is another word we might substitute for pride right now: faithfulness. The world is totally transient. Formerly stable professions like nursing and teaching are experiencing a mass exodus. Remote work has allowed people to live out of their vans in lush environs and become Instagram celebrities. People sell houses, flip them, and move again as if they are living on a Monopoly board. 

Church is a place where we can practice faithfulness before a world that only knows transience. We never give up and we bear with one another. We forgive more times than we can count and pray for those who persecute us. We inherit what is handed down to us and we pass it to our children. We find opportunities to serve the poor, sit with the lonely, feed the hungry, and comfort the sick. 

Let’s serve and live in a way that creates a positive environment. Leaders should not ask churches for blind obedience or unconditional support. But it wouldn’t hurt the church to have a few more cheerleaders who know the bad and the good but speak more often of the good. Civic pride exists in cities around the country—despite the terrible things in each place. Churches could use a bit of the same. Putting our heads down and dedicating ourselves to the hard work of rebuilding community is a challenging discipline; but it might be the definition of faithfulness in 2022.

So welcome to Detroit, the place that gave the world Motown and the automobile. Bundle up,  have a coney dog, and stand up straight. It may not be at its peak, but we’ll always have those Barry Sanders highlights. We have such a bright future. But now we need to get back to work.

We’ve got a city to rebuild.

Bob Turner is the Senior Minister at White Station Church of Christ-Iglesia de Cristo in Memphis, Tennessee.

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