Thursday, April 3, 2014

Who Needs Persecution? Part Two: A Plausible Scenario to Dismantle Church as We Know It

Like Amos, "I am not a prophet, nor a son of a prophet," but 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 even take any real persecution to dismantle most churches, 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, tax exempt status for churches 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 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 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 pastor’s support can literally double with the parsonage allowance allowing a church to maintain a professional staff twice the size that it can actually afford. Nevertheless smaller churches on the whole are already unable to afford their pastors. There are not many churches in the West that feel like they have more staff than they need, in fact, their ministry is likely stretched beyond what the current staff can accomplish. Most churches have far more ministry than they have leaders. The more a church relies upon professional staff the more vulnerable it is in this way.

If the special perk of a parsonage allowance were taken away we would see an immediate hardship on churches struggling to keep their staff employed. Churches that rely upon professionals would have to make due with at least half the leadership they currently have, and I'm pretty sure most do not feel they have enough staff as it is. The number of unemployed pastors is already high, but this would flood the market with unemployable church leaders whose only skill is exegeting Greek and Hebrew sacred texts and preaching sermons on it. Seminaries will probably go out of business as quickly as smaller churches once this happens. No one will be able to afford getting a professional degree that doesn't lead to employment.

If churches cannot afford their pastors they will likely also not support their missionaries. Mission agencies will be just as vulnerable if not more so. Parachurch organizations as well. Removal of this one benefit could be all it takes...but there are other legal vulnerabilities as well.

Removing Tax Exempt Status 

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. When city officials try and understand the benefit to the community these organizations provide (from their perspective) they usually only come up with two things: marrying and burying. The payoff isn't worth it. 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 views our special perks.

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? Its 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. Perhaps this could be engineered in specific examples for punitive reasons (see below).

Why Would We Lose These Perks?

What could possibly cause the government to take these privileges away? Besides our government's current multi-trillion dollar deficit and desire to raise tax revenue, as well as the increasingly hostile stance toward right-winged fundamentalists in our nation who benefit from all these laws, there is some tangible reasons that may lead to these changes. If the church is labeled as hateful then the government would feel obligated to punish it in an attempt to correct its inappropriate behavior. The government's first punitive move is always economic sanctions. This would not be the first time that our government has used tax laws to leverage conformity.

When laws are passed that allow for gay marriage, and soon after laws are passed that require organizations to not discriminate in hiring practices based upon gender or sexual preference, many churches will be found on the wrong side of these laws. Some churches will fall in line and avoid penalties, but others will not and these will face increasingly stiffer punitive restrictions. Passing such laws is not the persecution that will come, but merely the initial movements to set us up for it. But these small changes alone may be enough to close a majority of churches in America. We do not need persecution to break down our current expressions of church.

How Church will Contribute to These Actions

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 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.

This damage to our reputation (some earned and some not), and subsequent increase in financial penalties, combined with the weak economy will greatly reduce the local church’s income and many will not survive. 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 tax exemption) and holy men (remove parsonage allowance) that perform holy practices in those buildings (enact gay marriage laws). Our vulnerability is quite obvious. These three areas of dependence will kill us. What is interesting is that none of them are truly Biblical and yet they are central in importance to the way church is done in our society. In fact, it is how we are even identified as a church by our own culture and society. That is the saddest part to me. Where does the Bible say that pastors and or churches perform weddings and funerals? It doesn't.

Would the church survive these legal changes? Some would, many would not. Those that would survive will find that they must become simpler, more organic and underground. 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.

Note: Do not think I am against these benefits. Do not write comments justifying them to me. What I am suggesting is that others will question them and may remove them and we are not ready for this.


Unknown said...

I've done the math and thought about it and 'see it coming'. If we had to pay taxes on our homes, it wouldn't kill us and if the saints didn't get a tax break they may reduce their giving but I doubt they'd quit giving. That's not why they give anyway. Of the X that I give only a small percentage of it has any tax benefit anyway. Once the saints knew that, they'd still give. About property taxes, the real big places would suffer but thy'd make it. That said, shrinking our budgets by 30% or so would do us good. On a personal note, this a bit of a cynical post for you. But hey, I'm over 50 too. :-)

Unknown said...

Objectively speaking, the parsonage allowance seems to violate the separation of church and state. I do like it, though!

Robert Wall said...

Nathan, my understanding is that the parsonage allowance was to encourage pastors to settle down in cities and settlements back when the country was being founded.

Religious people = desire for church.
Stable (as opposed to itinerant) pastor = stable church.
Stable church = religious people settling in an area.

Back then, it wasn't unheard of for there to only be one church in a town. And seeing that it stayed there was actually in the governments' economic interest.

One could argue that might not be the case today, since the people who want to go to church tend to have an ample supply of churches from which to choose.

But that's how they reconciled it back then. :)

Monte Palmer said...

I agree the effects these scenarios would have on the institutional model would be devastating, but I am confused about how or why this would effect the church. The reason I say this is because the church isn't the buildings or institutions it's the people. Just because someone goes to a building or institution on Sunday doesn't mean they are a part of the church. A degree, a title, or any other religious term does mean someone is a part of the church either. I believe one of the greatest misconceptions of western Christianity is the idea that just because someone goes to a building on Sunday means they are a christian or born-again.

If someone's identity is in the building they attend on Sunday, who their lead pastor is, or their behavior modification does this make them a part of the church or born-again?

It is also confusing as to why you use the word "us" to describe the effects your scenarios would have. If we are not involved in these models or tax-exempt perks why would it effect us? Unless of course we are taking advantage of the same benefits of the IT model only without the buildings & property taxes.

I think we really need to be extra conscious of the words we use like "church" and migrate back to their original definitions, not continue to use the current cultural definitions.

rasqual said...

It doesn't even begin with the government. Just get your church on Google Apps, using email and a great collaboration environment for free as a non-profit. Then observe how the terms of use change over time. The most significant change to date, of potential consequence, regards whether the church's hiring practices discriminate on the basis of gender orientation. Never mind that-- you hire celibate gays. Fine. But then Google changes the terms so that you're no longer allowed to use Apps in case you deny employment to someone who's in an active sexual same-sex relationship (because LOVE). But meanwhile-- it's an INSANELY good collaboration environment-- you've become dependent on it. You even replaced the church's PCs with Chromebooks. You gave everyone in ministry or leadership an account. Your workflow runs on the calendaring. And now you have to (a) give it up and buy the latest Office licenses, (b) give that flamboyant fellow the youth director job, or (c) convert to business licensing of Apps and pay for every account (and/or trim the number of accounts because, as the article suggests, other financial pressures may make sustaining the glory days impossible). Oh wait-- they just changed the terms of use for businesses...