Saturday, January 14, 2012

How Much Real Estate Does God Need?

These properties are all exempt from paying real estate taxes.
I well remember a sign I saw once along along Highway 33 east of town that announced, “God is about to do something wonderful here.”

Turns out God was apparently planning to turn some irreplaceable farm land into a large asphalt parking lot with a multi-million dollar brick and concrete structure built in the middle of it.

As open land in our Valley becomes more and more scarce, I’ve long been concerned about our preserving as much of our remaining unspoiled wooded and agricultural land as possible.

This calls for help even from congregations.

In theory I am on the side of people of whatever faith being able to buy and build wherever they choose. Having said that, I would also expect believers to be especially careful about how much of God’s good earth they gouge out and pave over.

As alternatives, congregations could cooperate in better using their existing buildings. Most church auditoriums are occupied for only a few hours a week, and have plenty of spare pew space. It’s true that some congregations offer day care and other services that use some part of their property more efficiently, but that still represents only a small portion of their total space.

I believe we would honor God more by having numerous services in our existing structures, since it is nowhere written that we need to "assemble ourselves together" on Sunday mornings. The Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Harrisonburg,  for example, with a parish of over 1500 households, holds four separate services each weekend. When the church added a larger auditorium in 1995, they built on downtown property they already owned.

And there are other options. Numerous local congregations rent “secular” spaces for their services, such as schools, store fronts and town halls.

Why not? Early Christians met for worship and weekly meals together in their homes, and at various times of the day. In parts of the world where Christianity is spreading most rapidly (in China, for example) home-based churches are often the norm. These believers hold that any space becomes sacred when two or more are together in God’s name. They also give witness to the idea that believers themselves, not the edifices they build, are God’s real “temples.”

In the May 2005 issue of Christianity Today, Asbury Seminary historian Howard Snyder notes that “church history shows an inverse ratio between dynamic church multiplication and preoccupation with buildings.” Certainly this has proven to be true in Europe, which has the world’s most beautiful cathedrals but a decreasing number of practicing Christians.

I am not against the use of modest structures set aside for purposes of worship. And I actually favor Christians meeting even more often than just an hour or two on a Sunday morning. But in a world with so much need, what kind of message could we send if we dramatically reduced the money invested in real estate and instead invested in more affordable housing, nutrition and health care for the poor?

That could honor the Creator in a way even an agnostic could understand.
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