Heartbursts: Only Christians Can Own Cottages in Michigan?

April 11th, 2018

Spirit works in, through, and sometimes in spite of culture; 
Culture expresses, shapes, and sometimes challenges spirit; 
The church is port of it all.

Leaders must discern what in the world is happening. This new column, Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures, will help you plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries in service of that discernment. Enjoy the inaugural article below, and all future pieces as they appear on Ministry Matters.

Editor's note: for in-depth descriptions and analysis of the data-based lifestyle segments (and the broader cultural categories in which they reside) mentioned below, pre-order Thomas Bandy's new book Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures, available August 2018 from Abingdon Press.


Only Christians Can Own Cottages in Michigan?

An interesting Holy Week story concerns Petoskey, Michigan, which is managed by the Bay View Association of the United Methodist Church. Since 1889 they have managed what is now an upscale community just outside the city. Petoskey, along with much of the west coast of Michigan, has become a summer vacation destination for Chicagoans much to the benefit of the economy above Grand Rapids.

I remember Petoskey because in the late 50s my uncle and aunt, struggling as a sculptor and painter, probably contributed to the growing arts community. Today they would probably have belonged to the lifestyle segment named “Bohemian Groove." As a child I remember playing in their rambling old Victorian house which was typical of the city and environs.

They did not live in the United Methodist Community, however, because the policy of the neighborhood association has always required owners to have “good moral character." I don’t think they would have qualified. Even if they had, the policy at the time was to limit Catholic homeowners (my uncle was Italian Catholic) and exclude Jews (who comprised much of their friendship circle). Now the neighborhood association is being challenged by a lawsuit for religious discrimination. For many United Methodists across the nation, the lawsuit seems both justifiable and anachronistic. Why has it taken this long for the policy on religious discrimination to be challenged?

Before this debate gets too heated, it is helpful to consider demographic and lifestyle changes in western Michigan over recent decades. To their credit, the community association dropped discrimination based on race in 1959… probably quite progressive among culturally right lifestyles living in Michigan at the time. But a lot has happened since then.

First, it has taken this long for peri-urbanization from the Chicago megalopolis to reach this far around Lake Michigan. There was once a railroad and public ferry from Milwaukee, but that shut down fifty years ago, leaving Petoskey to enjoy small town solitude as railroad tracks and industries moved south. Gradually interstate highways and Chicagoland suburbanites, along with their restaurant and retail tastes, have travelled north again.

This is why the neighborhood association is surprised and shocked that their first inkling of legal challenge was in the form of a lawsuit. Normally, they say, disagreements are petitioned, discussed, and resolved “in house." But that attitude toward conflict resolution is a small town notion. Urbane Chicagoans have long realized that policy change based on democratic voting by unbalanced demographic favoring Protestant Christians probably won’t bring change anytime soon. Save time and go straight to legal action.

Second, as the economy of Michigan above I96 and I69 (the boundary of what is now known as the “Rust Belt”) shrank, young adults had to move south for jobs. The median age of the remaining population went up, along with the proportion of empty-nesting boomers and retirees (see the MissionInsite demographic mapping). By using databases from Experian, church leaders can identify the lifestyles and populations in their region. The following chart futher helps church leaders relate those lifestyles to potential church participation. 

My book Sideline Church provides deep information about the segments in the chart above. So here, for example, I am applying data to understand the cultural conflict between a group of United Methodist church leaders and a Jewish woman who wants to stay in their neighborhood

Travel above the east-west Interstates and there is a veritable sea of three related lifestyle segments: J35 Rural Escape, I30 Stockcars and State Parks, and L43 Homemade Happiness. In Petoskey environs, add in a lot of E21 Unspoiled Splendor and a small core of K40 Bohemians Groove. All except K40 are key segments making up what I call the Culturally Righteous and the Culturally Ambivalent (see Sideline Church). Today they are butting heads with the migrating Culturally Ambivalent from the cities to the south and Chicagoland to the west. In 1959, when the association repealed racial discrimination (at least as a policy), they were young progressives. Today they are disillusioned about what the church has become and defensive about where the country is going.

Recently I enjoyed conversations with United Methodist leaders in Michigan, and it is interesting to see how these tensions are playing out in the conferences that are now in process of merging. Tensions over cultural diversity, and radically different lifestyle expectations of the church, are growing. They are often submerged under lots of theological bickering and heated ethical debates over a narrowly selective range of issues. Underneath all that, however, is a deeper cultural divide that is about how ordinary United Methodists define “ordinary." It might be helpful if United Methodists everywhere could shelve theology and ideology for a while, and just try to understand how different kinds of people behave in everyday living, think through everyday decisions, and resolve everyday relational problems.

I suspect the neighborhood association outside Petoskey will quickly change their policy. And I imagine United Methodist Conferences across the country will revise policies one way or another. But that doesn’t mean there will be healing. That requires demographic and lifestyle empathy.

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