Disruption (A 5-minute story that can change your ministry forever.)
I preached during the morning worship for one of our congregations. After expressing my thanks for the invitation to be with them that day, I started with a few questions.
“To better understand your worshipping and witnessing mission, please respond to a question: Does the government support your church?” Smiles appeared on many faces and I heard uniform responses, “No,” they quickly replied. I continued, "No government support, got it. I am guessing then, that by the mercies of God, your church was built solely on the dreams and donations of faithful members. O.K.” Heads were nodding, affirming I that understood their response to what many likely thought was a strange question from me.
“Great. Just one additional question?” I continued. “Does your church pay property taxes?” After a moment, I could see heads turning side to side, or with puzzled looks. Then voices were heard. “No,” one person offered, “churches don’t pay taxes.” Another added, “We’re charitable, religious groups don’t pay taxes.”Churches are tax exempt."
I pushed a bit further with the very responsive crowd. “O.K., thanks for that. But now I must admit to being a bit confused. May I ask again to make sure I got this right? O.K.”
“Does the government support your church?” A chorus of, “No’s” resonated throughout the room. I asked the second of my questions, “Does your church pay property taxes?” Again, voices cascaded around the room, (perhaps expressed with a slight edge this time around), “Churches don’t pay taxes!”
I quickly repeated my inquiries, as the congregation began to see the apparent
How would you characterize Jesus’ mission if you paid attention to the outside effects of his ministry? Using the Gospel of John as a reference point, consider how Jesus’ incarnation disrupted the entire planet when the Word, became flesh and moved into our neighborhood" (Jn. I, 14). Jesus disrupted our economy when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables (Jn. II), disrupted faith when he told Nicodemus he had to be born anew (Jn. III). Jesus disrupted gender and race (Jn. IV), justice and resources (Jn. V, VI), education, morality, and even disrupted health care (Jn. VII, VIII, IX). Jesus forever disrupted life and death (Jn. X), our identity (Jn. XI-XVII), our expectations (Jn. XVIII-XX) and ultimately our destiny (Jn. XI).
Jesus completely disrupted what was not working, beyond repair, and unacceptable, to give life in abundance. Self-serving devotees of entrenched, incumbent leadership were targeted for transformational change. Instead of sustaining equilibrium, Jesus disrupted life on a grand scale.
We measure inside, such as membership and finances, but rarely pay attention to our engagement outside. Counting members is easy. Who is paying attention to those not sitting in our pews, or counting the un-reached? If we thought they mattered, we would likely count them, too.
Who are your church’s equity holders and stakeholders? You might quickly respond, church members. Who pays for your church’s ministry? To help understand where mutual exchange exists, consider two more questions:
Q1: Does the government support your church? “No,” you explain, “Our church was built on the dreams and donations of faithful members.” (This perception helps explain the emotional attachment members express for their beloved sanctuary.) One more question:
Q2: Does your church pay property taxes? “No,” you explain. “Churches do not pay property taxes; they are charitable, religious, organizations.”
Property tax exemption represents significant government support for the church. In northern New Jersey, property tax exemption for thirty-seven Presbyterian congregations exceeds one million dollars! The communities in which these properties are located essentially invest one million dollars in Presbyterian congregational ministry every year, not counting the other churches and ministries. Is it past time for church members in America to acknowledge with gratitude the enormous financial investment their community (country) makes in their ministry. In the past ten years, congregations indicating financial difficulty more than doubled to nearly 20% (David A. Roozen, “Holy Toll: The Impact of the 2008 Recession on American Congregations,” Faith Communities Today, 2010, p. 1). Many of our churches would be bankrupt if they had to pay their fair share of property tax.
Since property tax exemption establishes a financial contract between the church and the community, you can measure the community’s equity contribution by estimating the equivalent property tax assessed on your sanctuary, education facilities, and minister’s housing. Consider the many facets of your church’s ministry and measure the community benefit, then strive to exceed the “gift” of property tax relief.
You may want to add an amount equal to the property tax exemption received to the income line of your annual budget. Visualizing the magnitude of the gift would encourage the church to find ways for reciprocal action. Reciprocal action includes various programs and services intentionally directed outward into the community, as opposed to programs and energies designed to benefit the current church membership and those already served.
I was asked to meet with a large church planning team exploring ways to reach young people, (as one team member put it, “to bring kids back to church”). As I listened and affirmed their energy for this important project, I asked them to consider one question: In what way could their exciting youth vision bless every young person in their town? It was as if puzzled looks turned into sparks of connecting dots as the team looked around at one another. “We had never thought about that before; could we do that?” I came prepared with demographic data identifying the opportunities of community young people deserving to experience God’s love as they had. I pushed a bit harder and asked, “What could result if your vision grew to be the church for kids in your area? If you authentically embraced that vision, then every community asset that cares about kids immediately becomes your partner, and resources will align to achieve that goal.” The conversation gradually scaled to a larger vision. Reciprocal action, for example, recognizes a larger view of mission, and in gratitude for town’s support of the church (i.e., property tax forgiveness) develops ways to return the blessing to include priorities of the community, as well as the church. Today, this congregation is crafting an audacious capacity-building youth initiative that will have an enormous impact on the community.
The Bible records numerous examples of reciprocity. God’s exiled people were to demonstrate reciprocity with the exhortation to, “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare;” and to “Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you” (Jer. XXIX, 7). The Gospels also encourage reciprocity: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke VI, 31). “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. VI, 7).
Our communities are social networks built on principles of reciprocity to operate optimally. This shared value within a community is referred to as “social capital,” measured as bonding social capital (inward looking activities like churches and other volunteer associations), or measured as bridging social capital (outward looking activities of groups such as political parties, civil rights movements, youth service groups, and ecumenical associations).
Disruption offers your church a new future of increased community impact. Your community deserves nothing less.