July 23, 2015
A Faithful Church is in Business 24/7/365
Grace to you and peace from Carly, called to be servant, prophet, and teacher with and among the saints, sinners, sitters, settlers, students, simple, and sharp in La Grange and beyond. We are the living Body of Christ at all hours of the day and night and every day of the week. But we have a long way to go to reflect that reality to the world.
A large group from our church attended the meeting of the La Grange Plan Commission on July 14 to be the Body of Christ in action as the Commission worked through the specifics of a long series of proposed amendments and refinements to the Zoning Code for the Village. The amendment that concerned most of us related to the redefinition of "religious use" for church buildings. The proposal had some serious implications for how congregations can use their buildings and land.
The proposed amendment was removed from the agenda prior to the meeting and was not discussed. Upon this realization, many in attendance left the room. About a handful of village residents remained through the meeting. I remained to hear the discussion of the other amendments; others remained to await a time of public comments. During those comments, the overarching concern was that this amendment removed from the agenda and not discussed. One of the residents said something to the effect of this:
"When I moved here 12 years ago, I expected that the church would be busy on Sunday mornings.... but there is something happening there every day.... that is not acceptable; it needs to be regulated."
Wow. That did not connect with my understanding of how our society operates. Has our educational system so failed this person that basic civics is not within the speaker's grasp?
- Surely somewhere in the educational system this person was required to study the First Amendment of the Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
- Where was this person when in school they taught about the Anglo settlement of New England in the 1600's by people fleeing religious regulation? You remember them -- the Pilgrims, who established a faith based community where the work of faith and life itself were indistinguishable?
- Surely it was covered in school that the 1740's settlement of the west coast was led by Roman Catholic Missionaries was taught? You remember that -- the Roman Catholic missions that housed and educated the native population and established all of the oldest communities in California, and were the back bone of that society.
- Surely someone taught this person about the founding of public education by churches who opened their doors to children returning from long hours of labor in factories and mines, whose doors were open 365 days of the year to provide food, education, and places to organize for the establishment of child labor laws.
How did public education fail the person who spoke this complaint?
I understand that someone who does not practice faith might think that Sunday morning is the only time a faith community is active. Clearly the speaker had an impression of faith communities that did not match my experience. There was a lack of understanding on both sides of this conversation. Some things just didn't connect.
- How could someone not know that the work of a faith based community is non-stop?
- Why would a church need a building if it is a Sunday-only association?
- Why not just meet in people's homes?
Clearly the CHURCH that formed this person's experience of church had failed in its 24/7/365 practice of faith.
My initial reaction was anger. I left the meeting with my blood pressure through the roof. I took the long way home -- walking briskly in the night air five blocks out of my way so I could think and pray about the situation. God has a way of turning my reactions into responses if I can just keep my mouth closed long enough.
My reactions are usually knee jerk responses in anger or defense; I should never speak after 9 p.m. when my brain operates only in the brain stem and my reactions are reptilian. Responses are the result of trying to understand the other point of view and offering a reasoned, rational reply. Responses come from the cortex and upper brain anatomy. I cannot be reasoned or rational if I'm angry.
Through the cool night air and the brisk stride, God doused the anger with another possibility. In the middle of the second block it struck me that the church this person was talking about is doing faithful ministry -- if they are doing "something every day," if their ministry is not just on Sunday morning, they are being the Church, the Body of Christ. If that faith community feeds the hungry, offers drink to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger, clothes the naked, visits the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25), they are indeed being the church.
God reminded me that we need to celebrate with this community of faith that someone is complaining that they are faithfully following Christ by providing for "one of the least of these who are members of [Christ's} family" [Matthew 25:40). This IS the work of the church.
If our building is not used 24/7/365, we are not being faithful. We are not being good stewards of the blessings God has given to us through our predecessors in the faith. We are called to fill our empty space with those busy going about the work of providing for the least of these. We are called to commission those among us for ministries. If the Kingdom is going to come "on earth as it is in heaven," we cannot sit around and wait for it to happen; we are called to use our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits - and every asset with which we have been blessed. Let us fill the building with God's work! Let us make busy the doors! Let us be the church to all the world.
To the specific concerns raised that evening, I offer these responses:
Comment: Churches rent their space to outside businesses and agencies so that they can increase their coffers and make their expenses.
Response: Churches do not rent space. Rents and leases are legal terms that refer to a business proposition. Churches offer to share our space with agencies who are doing work that tends to "the least of these" that the congregation lacks the ability to do for themselves, or that the agency can do more efficiently and thoroughly than can the congregation. That may include, but is never limited to work with the young, aged, widowed, addicted, homeless, oppressed, unemployed, under-employed, poor, disabled, sick, naked, hungry, imprisoned or newly released, mentally ill, sinners of all sorts, immigrants and other strangers, and even you.
Sharing space is just that: space is offered so that those who are working toward the fulfillment of the Realm of God (see Matthew 25) can have a safe and secure place to do their work.
If churches make a profit of any kind, they lose their property-tax exempt status and will incur massive expenses in the form of property, income, and unemployment taxes; these would far outweigh the benefits of operating at a profit.
Churches offer space at the cost of having that space -- which is far below the market rates. Churches may recap the cost of the space, but nothing a church can do will ever re-cap the cost of building and upgrading the space; the best that can come of shared space is re-cooping the cost of heat, air conditioning, electricity, and maintenance of the space. This is no different than lending your car to a friend. You don't ask them to pay for the car; but you expect that it will be returned in the same condition and with the same amount of fuel in the tank as when it was lent. Churches do not make a profit at anything they do.
Sharing space is a stewardship issue. We have been blessed with huge buildings by our predecessors in faith. The Gospels tell us that to those whom much is given, much is required. We share our space so that it does not sit empty and unused when there are others who need space to fulfill their mission - their role in the Body of Christ to bring about the Realm of God. When we have an abundance, scripture requires us to be generous and meet the needs of those in need. We share space because we have space and others need it.
Sharing space is not a business proposition. It is not an income generator. It is a faith requirement.
Comment: Not for profit is tax terminology; it does not relate to what the churches (in La Grange) are doing. (I believe this comment is referring specifically to BEDS shelters and day services.)
Response: Unlike other entities in our Capitalistic Economy, the goal of the church is NOT to make a profit or to stay "in business." The mission of the church is to usher in the Realm of God by offering God's extravagant welcome, unbounded hope, abundant grace, and unlimited love to all who will accept it and be transformed by the realization that they are children of God.
When this mission is completed, the churches can and should go out of "business;" but it will never be complete in your lifetime or mine. It is ongoing and fueled by hope and the vision of a better world. The difference between the capitalist business (aka a "for profit") and a faith community rests on the benefactor of the activity: For-profits are fueled by the vision of benefit to the owner(s) (monetarily) while not-for-profits have a "benefit the other" driven vision. Not for profits "do it" at a loss -- always because we're not in it for the money; we're in it for the benefit of "the least of these." That's why we depend upon donations.