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Church Leadership Social Action

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.┬áThe 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.