The Vulnerability of the Western Church

By Neil Cole

Imagine you are a character in an original series Star Trek episode on some strange magical planet and you are captured for the entertainment of the gods who inhabit the planet. You will fight like a gladiator against a wild beast. You may choose your weapon: a machine gun or a bazooka. You can also choose your foe: An angry mutant grizzly bear twice the normal size or an ordinary swarm of agitated killer bees. What choices do you make?

Even though the fierce bear may be terrifying in appearance and a single bee may seem small and insignificant (sans allergies), a swarm of bees is something you cannot stop with such weapons. The choice should be an easy one. [Note: no animals were hurt or injured in the writing of this blog post. This is only an analogy to make a point about vulnerability. I do not need any comments from animal rights groups because I would never shoot a bear with either a bazooka or an automatic weapon, and if I shot a swarm of bees with either I would not likely hurt or injure a single bee. Point made.]

I do not think persecution is so far off. What would it take? Not much. I believe the pieces are already on the board and being pushed into play. Truthfully, however, I think most churches can be taken out before any persecution ever occurs.

The large churches in the West are far more vulnerable than most care to admit. With the rapid rise of the mega church we have been watching the church become more centralized, more expensive, more personality-driven and consumer-oriented. In fact with the closure of so many smaller churches and their people being assimilated into the larger ones, we have actually concentrated all our people, resources and ideas into a few large targets rather than many smaller autonomous ones. We have also seen that the church is more dependent upon a single charismatic leader. Take him/her out (or compromise this person) and the whole church suffers greatly. We are regularly seeing some of these large “successful” churches struggle after the departure of their dynamic leader. It’s becoming a weekly occurrence.

For the sake of discussion let me simply map out a few feasible steps that would permanently alter church as we have known it. In fact, it wouldn’t take persecution to close many churches down, just a few legal changes that are likely already being considered.

If the following benefits were revoked many churches would close: the tax deduction for contributions, property tax exemptions and the parsonage allowance. I say this because the way we do church is so expensive that we rely upon these special privileges to survive. This is especially true in a struggling economy where our government is looking for ways to reduce its deficit and increase tax revenue to provide more services for its constituents––services, by the way, that churches no longer supply to the community.

If you are a leader of a church, as you read this I suggest that that you ask yourself how your church would survive if these three tax benefits were revoked. That is far better than to simply write off what I am saying by telling yourself this could never happen. Crunch the numbers. Do the math. It will be scary but may lead to some good sound steps to be better prepared.

Removing the Parsonage Allowance

Few ordinary citizens know about this special perk that pastors get. I have enjoyed this benefit and to be honest, I don’t even know why it is afforded to me. All money spent on housing (rent/mortgage, utilities, furniture, home improvements/repairs/upkeep/supplies) can be taken off the salary of a paid church leader even up to the entire amount they are paid in salary. I actually feel like I am betraying our “special club” for even speaking of it publicly…like I might jinx it. Add to that the fact that church leaders are able to opt out of social security and you can easily see how pastors are able to get by on much less than the rest. If you don’t think churches rely upon this your head is in the sand.

A pastoral staff can literally double with this benefit allowing a church to maintain a professional staff twice the size that it can actually afford. There are not many churches in the West that feel like they have more staff than they need. Most churches have far more ministry than they have leaders. The more a church relies upon professional staff the more vulnerable it is.

Removing Property Tax Exemption

What would happen if our churches were forced to pay taxes on their property? This would push most churches over the edge of viability, at least in their current form––especially if the other perks mentioned above were also removed.

Most cities are already openly hostile to churches and trying to prevent them from acquiring property because there is no income from these organizations. I cannot imagine that the city of Houston isn’t glaring at Lakewood Church’s $32 million/yr income and wondering what the property taxes should be. The Houston Rockets used the same space more often during the week and paid their fair share. This is how the world sees our special perks. Most city officials see the local Denny’s as more beneficial to the community than the local church. Why? Because the restaurant provides meals, jobs and taxes. The local church usually provides none of those things. No wonder there is an unapologetic hostility toward churches looking to purchase property increasing in neighborhoods across the US.

Removing Tax Deductions for Contributions

If people could no longer write off their contributions to churches I am sure that many churches would see their annual income drop severely. I would like to think it isn’t so, but why else is it that we count on larger gifts at the end of the year? It’s because we know people are looking for a tax benefit. Granted, this is likely the last perk to be removed because so many other non-profits benefit from this.

How Will the Church Respond?

We already have earned a reputation of being intolerant in our society. Evangelical and fundamental expressions of Christianity that are too closely tied to the Tea Party and Republican agendas have consistently decried those who have what we call “special entitlements.” This will set us up for public mockery…something we should be used to by now. When these laws take our own entitlements away and we are found complaining louder than all others, our reputation as hypocrites will be confirmed in the eyes of the world and will only expedite passage of these laws.

It’s a simple scenario and as you can see it is not only possible, but there is movement to already enact some of these plans. Are your churches getting ready?

Like the Russian church prior to communism, our churches are dependent upon holy buildings (remove property tax exemption) and holy men (remove parsonage allowance) that perform holy practices in those buildings (remove tax deductible donations). Our vulnerability is quite obvious. These three areas of dependence will kill us. We must decrease our dependence upon buildings, budgets and big shots. We must also respond to our society with love rather than with lobbying for self-interested legislature.

Church leaders need to be considering these possibilities and take steps to be prepared. I firmly believe that the more we move toward an incarnational, missional and movemental expression of ecclesia the better prepared we will be. We must be aware of our vulnerabilities and shift toward a form of church that is less easily destroyed. We must adopt more of a swarm mentality to survive and thrive in the coming days. Then no weapon fashioned against us will be able to stop us.