No more country clubs

Photo by Elliot Brown via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Quick facts

Cumulatively, the American church is likely the largest private land owner in the country. Most zip codes contain at least one house of worship. In my zip code alone there are more than 30. In many communities around our nation the church occupies some of the prettiest property in town. It’s square footage competes with all other public buildings in girth and consumption of natural resources.

Cumulatively, the American church is likely one of the largest private employers in the country. Each of those congregations in my zip code employ at least one individual. But when you include secretaries, janitors, and associates, the number goes up. Nationwide hundreds of thousands of people are employed by churches.

And yet…

  • Churches pay no property taxes
  • Most church staff do not pay full payroll taxes.

Think about the fiscal crisis your state is going through… not taxing churches and their staff comes at a pretty high cost, right?

Why is that so?

Have you ever thought about it? Why don’t churches pay property taxes? And why are clergy taxed differently than other types of employees?

The best I can tell there are two main reasons for this:

  1. In the last 70 years, there has been an increasing desire to keep church and state separate. The Supreme Court has, again and again, affirmed a desire to not sniff around in the churches business too much. Collecting property and payroll taxes would probably require audits which the federal government wants no part of.
  2. Historically, there was an understanding that the local church was the primary provider of social programs. It didn’t make sense to tax the entity taking care of the sick, feeding the poor, and often providing meeting space for the community.

(More on this from the L.A. Times)

Closed to non-members

If I were to walk to the front door of most churches in our country today and pull the handle of the door I’d find it locked. (And not because it’s a holiday, it’s locked nearly every day. Even if unlocked I don’t have access to use the space.) I’ll quickly be told it is private property.

The simple truth is that the church is one of the largest private land owners and largest private employers, but it is generally closed to the public. The possibility of its existence is financed by 100% of the community whereas the benefits of the property, staff, and resources, are functionally only available to the 5% or so who attend.

For years I’ve heard the local church referred to as a country club and scoffed. But largely, it is true.

The public is not welcome.

My dream for the church

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I will watch the speeches. (And make my kids watch them, too.) I will remember the effects of his ministry. And I will be inspired by the quotes on Twitter.

More importantly, I am empowered by Dr. King’s message to keep dreaming.

When I close my eyes these are the things I dream about:

Photo by Brian Hawkins via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One day, the churches facilities will embrace the implications of its tax status. It will be a place truly separate from the world because it serves the world. So separate that people coming into her doors will wonder if they are in an alternate reality. I dream of a church who flings it’s doors open to the public Monday – Saturday from 6:00 AM until 10:00 PM. It’s a place the poor are served. A place the sick go for healing prayers. A place the elderly use as a resource. A place high school volleyball teams practice. A place kids go for tutoring. A place of civic debate. A place the arts are celebrated. A place local business people use for meetings. And a place where people go to find out how they can serve their fellow neighbors.

One day, the churches staff will see themselves as employees of the community. The skills Paul talks about in Titus 1 & 1 Timothy 3 will be used not just to run programs attended by the faithful but cast upon the community for the common good of all people. Sure, there will be sacramental duties performed by the staff. But they will be kept in focus by the needs of the community. The pastor will see himself as not just the pastor of the people who come on Sunday morning, but as the pastor of the community he’s been called to serve. (Using “he” in an inclusive mode, my egalitarian friends.)

The church will no longer be dictated by fears of lawsuits. They will rise above the desire to protect its assets in realization that the assets came from and belong to the community in the first place. The church will no longer be stricken by a separation of church and state because it is too busy embracing the needs of the state’s citizens. You want to sue us? Then sue us because we have made our property open to all. You want to close our doors? Then you are closing the doors on the place of refuge for refugees and the place of stability for those lacking the stability of a family. Let our good works be our best defense.

The church will be a physical manifestation of the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit. The church will be a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. It will be a place every person can both be served and serve in the fullness of their spiritual gifts.

What will we see than? We will see Jesus at work. We will see the irresistible draw of our Savior on the hearts of the community. The church will cease being a place for the 5%-10% on the fringes and regain its place as the centerpiece of our communities. We will see that the church will be the waypoint when giving directions to people around town. We will see that the community will look at offering tax breaks to churches and clergy will be a bargain and a burden its people happily bear for the greater good of the community.

This won’t wallow in a social gospel. Instead it will embrace that the Gospel is social. It’ll be the embrace that the Gospel isn’t just about renewing of our hearts but also a renewing of our community.

Let the religious among us be skeptics of what can happen when we embrace our role in society. In the meantime, when we step into these things, we will see today’s skeptics give their hearts to Jesus when they finally see the Gospel alive with their very own eyes.


23 responses to “No more country clubs”

  1. Brian Avatar

    Love it Adam. John Calvin believed and taught that 50 percent of a church’s income should be dedicated to ministry to the poor, the orphans, widows, those in prison, etc. Sadly, most churches dedicate the majority of their money to maintaining a building that is used one day per week, maybe two.

    What would happen if churches saw their tax benefits, less as a benefit and more of a mandate? What if we took the money saved in taxes and poured them directly back into our communities rather than indirectly by building more buildings, hiring more professional pastoral staff and buying nicer sound equipment?

    Great post. You rock dude.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      @brian- it’s one thing for me to talk about it. It’s another for you to take the bold step and leave the comforts of your position and set out on this path. I’m praying for your new ministry as you get it going.

      1. Brian Avatar

        Our brief conversation in PA was just the tip of the iceberg where our new ministry is concerned. We’ve had some amazing conversations with our potential launch team members about this very topic. Getting people (myself included) who have been indoctrinated with “churchianity” to think and dream about how this changes how we operate is difficult.

  2. Mandy Avatar

    Great stuff. Love the way your mind works.

  3. Daniel Griswold Avatar

    The seminary I attended (Gordon-Conwell) dealt with this issue, and I’ve thought about the churches response when the community decides they want to revoke the non-profit exemptions due to budgeting issues. If you want to read how I think Christians might respond.

    Adam – one big part of this thought here that really blows me away is the Closed Door issue. I remember when I was a teen, I had been in an argument with my parents and I walked 10 miles to downtown in the snow. My first thought was to find a church to pray in – but every church in my hometown was locked.

    The situation was resolved, but I never lost the feeling that the church should find a way to be open during store hours as houses of prayer. If the church could overtake Starbucks as the “3rd place” people go after home and work, that would be a huge culture shift.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      How interesting is it that a coffee shop is more welcoming than a church? I loved The Starbucks Experience. It’s a great read for church leaders.

  4. Robb Avatar


    I am honored to say that I get to be a part of this kind of church. Our building is used by some if not multiple groups every night of the week. During the days a number of social groups are coming in and out of our facility. We understand that God has blessed us and we are in a position to reach more through our building than through our programs. The perception of our church has definitely changed in the community and I truly believe that God is moving in lives as we make our resources available with no thought of what it will bring us. As we work towards our next phase we would love to have a coffee house that meets in our foyer and allow for people to come in and have a place to connect and when they need us a relationship has already been built and it’s not being forced. Thanks for the great thoughts.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      This is amazing, dude. It’d be killer if you guys made a video that showed how this played out day-to-day. Churches are looking for examples…

    2. Clay Conry Avatar

      I’d like to see that too!

  5. andrea Avatar

    Love this, Adam!

    Over the last three years or so, our church has really tried to be a place for the community. Trying to make ourselves available for the community has been hard sometimes, and required a little more from us than we would have liked or expected, but it’s provided so many opportunities for us to share Jesus with people too!

    As a staff we’re trying to be more intentional in serving the community together. We’re trying to come up with more ways we can serve as a staff as well. It’s been nice the few times that we’ve been able to serve the community as a staff. Great team building opportunities and a lot of fun too! (Any suggestions would be appreciated!)

    One thing that we’ve struggled with is trying to get the older generation within our church to understand that this building we’ve been blessed with isn’t ours to keep and use exclusively. We’ve had a hard time communicating that, while yes, their offerings over the years have provided what we have, it all belongs to God. Trying to work through that line of thinking with them has been a bit difficult. Any ideas any of you might have to help that situation along would really be helpful too!

    I’ve been encouraged by a lot of churches in specific communities coming together to do things for the community. It seems like more churches are starting to grasp the idea of being there for their community.

    Good stuff Adam! Thanks!

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Where’s my “thumbs up” button for this comment? So encouraging!

      One suggestion? Advertise your availability as the meet-up spot. Free coffee/wifi in the foyer during ___ hours. Or even just a simple ad in the announcements section of the local paper or even craigslist? Allow people to fill out a meeting request form on your website. Wouldn’t it be cool to be the meet-up spot? I know I’ve served on committees and stuff and we were looking for space all the time to meet. Make the room free, maybe $25 to use a projector or something like that?

      1. Daniel Griswold Avatar

        Absolutely – there are churches who have built space specifically to be that kind of space and intended the community to use the church space as community space. I was part of large church like that in MA, and we ran our youth group as a “neutral ground” for young people from the community. It worked but took four years of continual relationship investment, and we saw lives changed. We studied a place in Hamburg, NY that had invested 4 mil in a facility that had community art exhibits, youth dodgeball leagues, basketball, concerts, and hang time. It shows that the church is a giving organization, rather than a taker.

      2. andrea Avatar

        God has truly blessed us with a great facility, so we are able to open our building multiple times a week for organizations that need a space. We’ve got boy scouts, HOA meetings, different basketball and volleyball teams. It’s crazy sometimes but so cool at the same time! We’ve had the local PD in here for their training and meetings. We even had the US Census Bureau utilizing our building for weeks on end for training of census workers. (That kind of made me laugh a bit… what separation of church and state? ;))

        We charge like, $5 or $10 for the use of the Gym for ball practice I think. HOA meetings and stuff where people use classrooms is usually just on a donation basis. We don’t require it, but we’ll accept it if the group feels like donating.

        We’re actually working on our “Lobby Coffee” area now. We started it just before Christmas and are coming along pretty well on it. Most of it is done, just a few more of the details that need ironed out and such. We’re excited about it! Our church is located in a very residential heavy part of town near the intersection of a couple of highways, so there aren’t a lot of place around here that you can meet up with someone for a quick cup of coffee or something like that.

  6. Chris Schaffner Avatar

    I absolutely agree with this post Adam. The only thought I have contrary to this is that we should be willing to do this in our own homes as well. If we aren’t doing it there first we shouldn’t expect God to bless other efforts.

    We are a church that worships in a community center but we felt very convicted that we first needed to practice hospitality in our homes. God has woven together a network of families that house people on the fringe of society. (i.e., substance abusers trying to kick the habit, men and women in domestic violence situations, persons struggling with financial difficulties trying to get back on their feet, etc.) We can run many of the same programs organically without all the overhead of having a building.

    We would love to have a facility that would house many of these activities but God has shown us a way to subvert our dependency on buildings and programs.

    I love hearing about how God is using others in similar ways. Thanks for the post.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      @chris- love your comment and completely agree. My post from yesterday affirms that concept. Good news starts with me and you loving our neighbors. (I’d argue that we have no business doing ministry in the local church until we have a ministry of loving our neighbors as ourself.

  7. Chris Schaffner Avatar

    Adam – I have to admit I had bought into churchianity for years. I’ve been very challenged since we began connecting with a faith community in our hometown. We have been challenged to live more simply so there was less standing in our way of loving God and others, to share more so other didn’t have to go without, to open our homes to strangers, to take risks that others thought we’re stupid, and to trust God to take care of all of it.

    The crazy thing about it all is that the way God has called this community to live has got the larger community around us talking (for and against) about what is happening. It has been unsettling to some and freeing to others. Above all God is being glorified and people are being loved.

  8. Carl Fuglein Avatar
    Carl Fuglein

    great post, as usual Adam. After Katrina, our church was the antithesis of what you write – it was a very open place of refuge.

  9. stew carson Avatar

    Hey Adam, I think if we as Christ followers just starting living this way in our own neighbourhoods we wouldn’t waste the precious time & effort we have trying to get others to do something most of us aren’t willing to do ourselves…

  10. Jeffrey Dick Avatar

    The Starbucks Experience should be a must read for church leaders.

    I am also honored to be at a church that is open 6 days a week (not much happens here on Saturdays for some reason). Lots of community groups meet here, as well as a food pantry, counseling center and lots of Scout groups.

    One piece that I believe you missed was staff time donated to the community. I serve in a variety of ways within the community because I am the pastor here.. I also am available to officiate at funerals for folks who have no church, volunteer chaplain at our small hospital, etc… One of my frustrations is the number of folks who drive an hour to go to a large church out of town. The staff of those churches have no connections to this community. Our church and myself do. I believe (but could be wrong) that many small town church pastors do the same.)

    The one question i have in your note is about staff not paying full taxes. Due to the bizaar rules of out nation, I am considered self-employed. I still pay taxes, and even have money withheld from my pay check. The church does not pay the employee tax, I do that myself. Sure, there are some benefits that I get, like housing allowance and maybe that is what you mean. I would much prefer to be treated as a regular employee – would make life easier!

    Again, thanks for the note and appreciate reading the responses.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Your congregation is a beautiful exception. And, as I’ve seen here in the comments, there is a growing movement of churches finally drinking this kool-aid!

      Dude- I hated that self-employment stuff. As much as I didn’t mind not paying fed taxes on that one portion, it sure cost me more than that in headache. Add to that headache the fact that I owned an LLC plus made some money paid as a 1099… my tax return was an audit waiting to happen. And quarterly payments? That is horrible!

  11. Benjer McVeigh Avatar

    Adam, I’m so thankful for how up-front you are about this. I’m supposed to serve our community. Only about 1.5% – 2.0% of our community walks through our church doors during any given week. So…what am I and what are we as a church doing to love the other 98.0% – 98.5% that don’t walk through those doors, or in our culture, the 90% – 95% that NEVER walk through the doors of any Christian church?

    Thanks for the encouragement…

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