About two decades ago, Lyle Schaller predicted that one of the great challenges for local congregations would be restrictions placed on the churches by governmental authorities, particularly local municipalities. My reaction at the time was that Schaller was overreacting to a few isolated examples, and that such a development was unlikely.
I was wrong. I see the reality of church versus state taking place on a regular basis.
My Awakening to Reality
I began serving as a consultant to local congregations in 1988. My assignments for the first few years were not out of the ordinary. Should we build a new facility? Is it time for our congregation to relocate? How do we have a better assimilation ministry? What type of staff should we add? How do we break out of the 200-attendance plateau?
But in the late 1990s, I began receiving calls of a different nature. Local congregations were being challenged or prohibited from moving forward by governmental authorities on a number of fronts. With increasing frequency, I was called to be an expert witness, to sit for a deposition, and to testify in court when churches and municipalities were challenging each other.
Many of the cases in which I was involved dealt with the issue of a local congregation being denied permission to add or remodel physical facilities. One church in the Chicago area was prohibited from expanding its worship center. Another church in the South was denied permission to expand its parking on its own land. In a recent case in which I was not involved, a congregation was not given permission to replace its aging and breaking stain glass windows. Fortunately, that church did finally get the needed permission on appeal.
We must be fair about many of the decisions. Some local governments are reticent to grant such approval because they are concerned about traffic and safety issues. Others rightly listen to local residents who express concern about the changing shape of their neighborhood when churches expand. The governmental agency is not always the evil empire.
But on too many occasions, I have seen governmental agencies and zoning commissions deny churches needed permission to expand for no apparent reason. I wonder if they are fearful of their tax-paying base being eroded by a non-taxable entity acquiring additional property. I sometimes wonder if some of the leaders simply have an anti-Christian bias that manifests itself in these unfortunate situations.
There are other issues beyond those related to physical facilities. And too many times, I am left figuratively speechless with the adversarial attitudes I see against Christians and local congregations.
I do not see any sign that the church versus state challenge in America will get better in the near future. I do, however, have some suggestions for leaders in churches to deal with this reality.
First, lead the church to love the community. Find ways to be a positive presence in the area. Do good deeds for the local schools and merchants. Find ways to partner with the city to help children, the elderly, and the mentally challenged. Become a volunteer force to keep an area of the town clean. Provide free medical and dental services on occasion. Help needy children to buy school supplies. In an adaptation of President Kennedy’s famous words: Ask not what your community can do for you; ask what you can do for your community.
Second, pray for your community and its leaders. Leadership is never easy; leading a governmental body is a special challenge.
Third, be involved in local community and governmental functions. Show that you care about your town with your presence, voice, and action.
Church versus state is a sad reality in many places today. But it is possible that you can lead your church to change that reality. Your church can be Christ’s presence in ministry to the state.
What church versus state realities has your church encountered? How is your church moving forward to be a positive presence in your community?
I look forward to hearing from you.