Don't be a stranger, be a neighbor.
Its tax time. A man in a plane lets billions of dollars drop out of the cargo bay. Then the announcer bellows, "Get Your Billions Back, America."
There are billions of dollars deducted from paychecks and qualifying deductions every year, according to H&R Block. Most of us don't think about the scale of all those billions of dollars finding their way back. Wouldn't you want to be part of that resource aggregation?
There's another large scale resource exchange I want to share with you not only because it gets overlooked, but because your mission can be empowered when you understand it. For example, every year in Essex County New Jersey alone, more than two million dollars is at stake. And this is just the Presbyterian portion! When you account for others like the Assembly of God, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, etc. and other religious and not for profit organizations, that $2 million is just the beginning. Billions are at stake. HR Block can't help you get these billions back. But to understand this resource exchange, let's start by taking a look at the property tax exemption.
In the United States, property tax exemptions relieve churches from paying billions of dollars to their communities. They are exempt from a municipalities' property tax that every other business is obligated to pay. Though not for profits enjoy the same community benefits of services including police and fire departments and snow removal, common access to community places and roads, and in some areas, trash collection and even an invitation to be in the annual parade, churches get the billions.
The value accruing to churches and other nonprofits represent an exchange with every municipality in the United States. We may not think about it very often, but it is at the center of a national debate. You might expect the Freedom from Religion Foundation to object to a continuance of the church property tax exemption, and maybe not be too surprised that Frank Zappa said, "churches should not only pay taxes but should pay back taxes going back 200 years's. Years ago, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Douglas concluded that, "tax exemption is unconstitutional." In Pennsylvania this year, the Legislature is considering which charitable organizations deserve tax exemptions. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "a coalition of local government officials and organized labor" is opposed to the move because "it gives too much power to state lawmakers." Related legal implications concern the actions regarding minister housing exemptions in in Wisconsin. However valuable this debate on whether property tax exemption is constitutional or appropriate any more or not, (and it is an important debate) the deeper opportunity for the church is to refute the argument of many objectors to the exemption by ensuring the value added to the community through the ministries and services of the church exceed the equivalent property tax being exempted in the first place.
The mission opportunity for every church in America is to understand that earning the right to be heard begins with earning the property tax exemption gift from the community.
We are not strangers in a foreign land. We are not refugees from our community. We are not exiles (and we must stop acting like we are). We are treated (historically) by our communities as resident neighbors. We are citizens. In fact, our presence as a church is so highly valued by the community historically, that our towns help fund our ministries. Its reasonable our communities expect the church to represent a blessing to the community they are in.
While citizens may file to "Get (their) billions back...," from the government through refunds, citizens in our communities are expecting something tangible, authentic, and meaningful from the churches and other nonprofits, at least equivalent to and in exchange for the property tax exemption. When governments do the math, however, as some states are already doing, the property tax exemption is at risk of being eliminated because they do not consider the exemption to be equivalent to the nonprofit's value to the community any longer. Its time for churches to start paying their billions back to America. Imagine how our communities might improve their experience of health and wellness, justice and reconciliation.
Our congregational buildings and other community assets are not just gathering places, but sending places. What do we send? We have an obligation, even more, an opportunity, to deliver the good news that God is present and God has heard the cries of the poor, seen the abuse of the priviledged, suffering of children and the aged, the sick, and alone. The longings of parents, the toil of the employed, the aspirations of governments and businesses to make a better world, the intentions of educators, struggles of the working poor, and the fears of those who have empty stomachs and no room to rest their heads have not gone unnoticed by God. We must listen but then act courageously with and for our neighbors to promote life-giving hope, compassion, peace, and justice for all. Taxpayers in our communities have already invested in us. How can we make sure our worship, witness, and mission offers a return on that investment?
We can start by choosing to be a good neighbor, putting love into action, with a spirit of generous reciprocity. We can be sure that as we practice good discipleship, our commitment as a follower of Jesus Christ means we also practice good citizenship.
We demonstrate transformational behaviors by listening to the cries of the poor, becoming more of a resident, not a drive-in church. Then God's story and God's message will ring out, and our faith in God will become known everywhere (1Thes. 1:7-8). That's the never-ending story that connects people to God's spiritual network through Christ resulting in changed lives, communities, and the world. I may never look at tax season the same way again. Will you?