Thursday, April 28, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part Four)

What can the church, especially the suburban or "out of the city" church, do to address the reality of inner city communities? It's a question that people ask me continually.

The list continues.

9) Churches should stress the spirituality of simplicity.

Over twenty years ago Richard Foster gave us his significant Celebration of Discipline, followed by Freedom of Simplicity. Revisiting these resources would be helpful for most congregations today. Materialism and the extension of a consumer culture and mindset into the everyday life and work of the church no doubt affects decisions made about the city and the relevance of its pain for the church's mission.

A commitment to simplicity in today's American culture is both a counter-cultural action and a matter of spiritual discipline.

When coupled with a strategy to off-load material resources to people living daily in situations of pressing need, simplicity can be powerful and life-changing all around.

10) Churches should consider supporting public policy changes that would require them to begin paying property taxes in their communities or voluntarily "tax" themselves with clear, justice-oriented priorities.

I know, I know. At this point you are questioning my sanity. Some may even be considering more drastic actions! But hear me out.

Most likely the political leaders of your community and mine will never propose this on their own. This one fact makes clear how much under-utilized influence churches have politically.

I read recently of a large church that set aside an amount of funding equal to what their local property tax bill would be if they had one. Every dollar of this fund was used in the congregation's community development work.

Interesting paradigm, huh?

Just last week I read an article in a local suburban newspaper that reported the taxable value of the real estate owned by several larger churches in the area. It was amazing to realize that the funds lost to the community totals in the millions, and that at a time when community need is clearly on the rise.

Several of the churches were avoiding annual tax bills of well over $100,000.

Churches and non-profits are tax-exempt because government assumes that these organizations are making an invaluable contribution to the good of the larger community.

Now there is an assumption that every church in America should prove up internally.

In other words, if church leaders had to justify their tax status in court based on the measurable good they performed in the community, would they pass the test?

What if taxing authorities imposed this burden of proof on faith communities?

What in fact are communities receiving in return for such tax abatements?

What if cities required churches and other communities of faith to devote a set percentage of their operations budgets to economic development, compassion ministries and consistent outreach to the poor? Such requirements would be nothing new to people who read the Bible with a view to establishing organizational agendas. The only difference would be that local government would expect the church to live up to its own teachings.

Churches can make a significant impact on urban reality. The question is seldom one of capacity, but almost always a matter of will.


Jeremy Gregg said...

Several years ago, at the very first seminar I ever attended at the Center for Nonprofit Management, I heard Dr. J. Cook (from the Communities Foundation of Texas) speak about the purpose for non-profits. In essence, he described, non-profits exist to do the work that government would have to do otherwise. As such, he argued, we have an obligation to fulfill our duty to the citizens of that government.

The same goes for churches. They receive preferential tax treatment based on the idea that what they contribute to society outweighs the impact of the government programs that would otherwise be funded through their taxes. In this way, loss of tax income from granting non-profit status is offset by decreased need for government programs. Or, at least, that's the theory.

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting here uncomfortably imagining what it would be like to have to justify the tax exemption our church gets.There would be an awful lot of scrambling to "comply."


owldog said...

I agree with Anonymous, it would be uncomfortable for must of us "church" going people to justify the tax break our church receives.

I saw a bumper sticker at a Maverick game several months ago,

"If churches want to change the Morals of our government they need to pay taxes"

Until today I did not understand that sticker.

Randy Brown said...

I agree that churches need to be taking care of the poor in their communities. We need to be doing more than we are doing. We need to do all the things Larry has talked about over the last several days. I love the idea about giving the equivalent of our property taxes (and much more)on community development in our neighborhood.

I would argue, however, that even if churches spent none of their finances on local community development, they are still an invaluable resource to their community. Let's be careful, not to minimize the value of what is happening in the spiritual realm as churches lift up the name of Christ in this culture.
Imagine if every church in the metroplex ceased to exist. What a dead, hopeless place this would be. People would have no community of people to go to where they could find Truth and hope.

I love the heart that is being expressed on this blog. The church needs to be goaded to action. I love the church, though. It is the ONLY way people see the living Christ in this world. It is precious to God. Though the church is weak and unhealthy in America it is still the most valuable resource this nation has.
Your humble brother in Jesus

Anonymous said...

I respect your heart and your love for the church, Randy. But, the sad and undeniable fact is the church typically reveals Christ only to itself in the vast majority of cases. Christ is revealed most often outside the "sanctuary" and nearer to the streets. The "counter-witness" church after church who has no heart for the poor, the oppressed and the kicked aside is an afront to the name of its leader.

You ask a good question, "What if all the churches disappeared?" I think the bulk of what would be lost in that would be organizational reality and thus, an organized expression of religion. The true heart of the faith--quite a different thing--would live on and thrive out where people are hurting. Just remember the example of Jesus.

Faith is no commodity to be consumed, but a pathway to walk upon.

Larry James said...

Randy, I guess what I am suggesting is that the church acutally "appear," rather than disappear.

Sometimes our well-intended actions can result in unintended consequences. Here at CDM we have an arm that we call the Institue of Faith Health Research of Dallas. Scholars and academics from as far afield as SMU, University of Chicago, Baylor, Northwestern University, UT Southwestern Health Center, ACU and others are using our organization as a lab if you will for studying things like health and social capital.

Of course, we want to study the impact of faith on health. Surprisingly to some, this study will include not only the benefits of faith to health, but the negatives, especially as that relates to political action, public policy development and general surrender to the way things are with an eye on heaven.

I pray that the church will awake from its slumber and "appear" in the cities of America--not just to serve with compassion, but to also challenge the powers that be that work hard daily to keep people down and shut out.

judy thomas said...

Thought provoking questions--especially the tax part. Thanks Larry for being our goad to better goals.

Neal W. said...

But Larry...what you're suggesting would change the very foundation, our whole understanding of how to do church!!!


I hope that your voice finds a huge audience...and that people listen. I pray for the strength and wisdom and leadership to lead my own congregation into having a heart for justice and the marginalized.

Randy Brown said...

I love what you're doing and I have a huge admiration for you personally. You are one of my heroes and mentors. I made my comment not so much to disagree as to clarify that the church is important. I know there are probably a lot of people who keep up with this blog who are not part of a local congregation of the church. I suspect that many of them think they are better off without being part of a church. I just want to say that is completely false. To have Christianity without local organized groups of believers is like having a Bible with random words scattered around instead of sentences. The message of Jesus would be completely unintelligible. I'm fine with getting rid of all the church buildings, and we definitely need to have a major reform take place in the church,but the church is the ONLY hope of the world. There are many great congregations out there, and even ones that aren't so great are still part of our family. We do need to all be working at this problem as part of one body. Don't you agree?

As a young member of a Christ exalting church, I have great optimism that things are changing. Jesus is cleaning house again, and the real church is emerging from the culture. Please let's not give up on it.

Larry James said...

Randy, thanks for your comments, your heart and your commitment. I wish we could share a cup of coffee! The downside of this medium is you can't hear the tone of voice or get the full emotion in some of the exchanges.

So, let me clarify a bit. I didn't intend to discourage anyone about involvement in a local church. I guess from my daily perspective and from having been so involved in local congregational life for so long, my concern comes from a love for the church. I just want the church to understand that all of the energy spent on so much of what seems most important, is actually pretty much a waste in view of the reality facing most people in the cities of America. That's really all I meant to say. I think Jesus got at this often when he dealt with the religious establishment of his day.

And, you are correct, Randy. I see a new generation of church leaders who are not satisfied with the same old approach. I spent about an hour yesterday with a bright, young minister who came to visit about serious engagement with the inner city of Dallas. He leads a suburban church. I am excited and grateful for that.

Let's keep talking!

Randy Brown said...

Thanks Larry. I would love to get together for coffee sometime. You are a wonderful man and I know your heart is good.