Call Us Crazy! 5 Reasons Our Church Voluntarily Pays Taxes

ishot-041Six years ago this month Redemption Church was planted out of chaos and in hope. Since that time, Jesus has seen fit to not only keep us alive, but has stirred us to thrive. It has been a season loaded with times of uncertainty, yet consistently each uncertainty has been upended by the gracious incursion of God’s provision.

One of the most amazing things is related to how God put all sorts of crazy pieces in place to make it possible to purchase an old bank building along with two adjacent lots on the main street of our city. We are not yet able to use the space for Sundays, but it’s trending that direction within the next two to three years – which is incredible since just two to three years ago we thought there was no way possible we would ever have a building of our own in our city. God still does BIG things.

In becoming property owners, we also wanted to face bigger questions as to the use of our property. A component of our mission statement is “for the good of our city” as highlighted in Jeremiah 29:7. How then would our space fulfill that mission? What things could we do to show our love for the city? To show our commitment to the cares and needs of the community? How could we be good stewards, not only of the facility and finances related to it, but also to exist for the welfare of the city Jesus put us in? So far we’ve come up with a lot of ideas, many of which are already underway in the space as it currently is. But one of the truly novel things we came up with was an added step that I’m not certain I’ve come across before; we proactively decided to voluntarily pay property taxes. Crazy, right? Maybe. But it’s missionally crazy, and if you’re going to be crazy you might as well do it for missional reasons. So why have we chosen to do this? Here are the 5 core reasons.

1) To Display Solidarity with Our Community

Communities need resources to be communities. In the case of cities and counties these resources come in many forms, but one of the key elements is fiscal resources that are acquired by taxing the members of a community. Thus it was our conviction that we could display a heart for “the welfare of our city” by making the conscious decision to contribute, as an organization, in a way that is similar to the inhabitants of our city. Some may find this an odd way to display solidarity, or they may say there are better ways to spend money on community needs. But we believe there is a different form of generosity that is displayed when you let another party that is commissioned to lead a community to decide the best way to use resources for that community. In this way we display that we are in the community like everyone else.

2) To Show Goodwill toward Our City

Believe it or not, being a city official is difficult work. Whether this is an elected official or an employee of a particular department, there will always be the stress of a collection of citizens with different views on how a city should be managed. This stress is compounded by how the city is going to pay for it. This is why to some degree city and county officials don’t get vigorously excited when they hear that a church wants to buy up 5-500 acres for a new campus. It’s not driven by opposition to religion. Rather, there is no revenue for a tax-exempt building and as long as it is a church it will not generate revenue. Thus in a strange sort of way, not only are churches not paying customers, but they take up the space of something else that could be. Therefore, if we are in this “for the good of our city” then one of the ways we can truly stand behind this conviction is to invest in a way that puts tax money where our mission mouth is. In fact, it’s been fun to see how quickly pleasant surprise come across the face of community officials when they discover our position. In this way we display that we are concerned with the concerns of those who lead our city.

3) To Remove an Understandable Area of Criticism

I will assume that most of us have come across some meme on social media that shows a picture of the most ornate church cathedral or megachurch with the caption “tax churches now”. While as a pastor I know that this is a provocative image dislodged from a whole plethora of facts, there is another fact that still remains; the unbelieving communities that we are seeking to reach see this exemption as odd and unfair. It’s a perk for churches, but it’s equally a stumbling block for those not in churches. And if our mission is to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks for the sake of Christ, then for us it made sense to remove this stone in the path of our mission field. In this way we display that the souls that we hope to see saved matter more than the money we can save.

4) To Govern Our Own Sense of “need” vs. “want”

Churches have a strange pull to want more than they need. More staff, more supplies, more tech, more budgets, more of more. This is also true when it comes to space. We tend to believe that bigger buildings will equal bigger crowds, even though we’ve all been lectured ad nauseam to the contrary.  We have still blazed ahead with multimillion dollar debt loads that we can’t easily manage since “we built it and they didn’t come – just like everyone told us from the get-go”. Now, I’m not saying big is bad. Nor am I saying that there are not legitimate space needs in churches that are growing. But I do believe churches would make more conservative decisions on buildings and debt if they also had to consider the taxes on the facilities they were building. For us, our future expansion looks to maximize a footprint that is efficient and effective without being intrusive or ostentatious, especially as we look toward future generations which may be more inclined toward minimalism and outward investment. In this way we model that restraint is a virtue that allows for the freedom to pursue opportunities God places before each generation.

5) To Prepare for a Possible Future

Quite honestly, the odds of property tax exemptions sticking around in our post-Christian climate are not in favor of churches. Already we know that the question of the constitutional legality of exemptions for clergy are working their way through the court system. Some project that property tax exemptions for churches will be next to follow. In light of these strong possibilities, we opt to prepare ourselves in the present for the future. By including property taxes in our budget now we have been able to adjust our overall budget so that we are acclimated to this particular cost of doing ministry in our culture. If that day ever comes, we will have already been doing it far before that day. In this way we proactively mitigate sudden budget hikes that would harm our missional priorities.

In the end, am I saying all churches should do this? No. Am I saying that we are more missional, trusting, godly, sacrificial, (fill in the blank) for doing this? No. Is this a creative way we have been led to connect with and build bridges within our community that most churches have not considered? Yes. Ultimately the question for all churches is not what they are required or free to do in matters such as this, but what is Christ leading them to do in order to display commitment toward the welfare of their city?

4 thoughts on “Call Us Crazy! 5 Reasons Our Church Voluntarily Pays Taxes”

  1. I disagree with this on all points. This behavior is helping set dangerous precedents. In what other ways are we willing to sacrifice to “build bridges” as you say? Today it’s taxes, what’s next?

    The principles behind the churches tax exempt status, are established in the Bill or Rights, and for good reason. The ability to tax is the ability to control. Taxing the church implies that God is subservient to the state. I believe the resources you are voluntarily handing to the government are better, trusted to the hands of the church, rather than the inefficient hands of government. Essentially you are saying that the state is better suited to expend these resources for the welfare of the community, while I would say that the church is.

    You offer reasoning that this is inevitable, so why not conform now. I don’t buy it. The 1st amendment is relatively clear on this point and the Supreme Court of the United States has in multiple instances reaffirmed the interpretation that churches should remain tax exempt. There is no indication I have seen, to lead me to believe SCOTUS will be changing that interpretation anytime soon. One specific example of this, involving property taxes specifically, is Walz v. Tax Commission of the city of Ney York decided in 1970, where SCOTUS ruled in favor of the churches exemption from property taxes.

    While I currently go to Redemption Church, I am not a member. I realize I don’t have a say in how this church chooses to conduct its business. However, as a Christian and a religious individual, I believe you are doing a disservice to both the church, and religion as a whole in the U.S. Each case like this only strengthens our oppositions arguments and efforts to demand all churches pay taxes.

    Paying the government money you don’t owe is just plain silly. When you do it as a church, there are political implications and ramifications. You are helping shift the tides.

    1. I completely believe the opposite. By acquiring tax exempt status, you automatically put yourself in a position that… if you want to keep your exemption, there are “certain topics” that you are not encouraged to talk about. The most important of those is the endorsement of candidates for political elections. Try having a pastor say from the pulpit “You should vote for *********, he is pro-life and pro-family”. They use pulling of tax exempt status as an axe to fall on any church organization specifically to achieve silencing of endorsements. Not that stopped John the Baptist, but we all know what happened to him…

  2. Hello Michael,

    Those are very thoughtful concerns/objections, some of which I have wrestled though myself in the midst of this topic. It’s a difficult situation right now as far as how we seek to reach a post-Christian society vs preserve what has been historically a Judeo-Christian worldview. Here is perhaps an addendum on some of the processing I’ve gone through on this. I don’t give it as a defense, just a further articulation. I agree there are risks and weaknesses in all debatable actions. This approach focuses on seeking to establish goodwill within a city/region (we obviously don’t give federal tax money with property taxes, just local taxes for local investment) even though it means giving up other things.

    1. Building bridges are only sinful when it’s clearly sinful. When it comes to giving money to a government or other authorities, Jesus didn’t seem to see that as an inherently sinful issue. Aside from the “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” or even “voluntarily giving your cloak when only your tunic is required,” I would look at the times where Jesus advocated and celebrated the wilful giving of money to the corrupt religious system of the day. Certainly the widow with her two mites, the Temple-tax that was paid (from a fish’s mouth) for every non-required/non-essential visit, the alter gift of the person who is at odds with another or Jesus’ affirmation of paying the tithe to the Temple in addition to caring about the weightier matters of the Law – all those payments could have been better used. Even Jesus was aware of Judas taking money out of his own coffers and yet still allowed the women, who would have had very little money to give, to give it to the guy who was stealing it. He clearly saw the giver of all such gifts was wilfully giving money to thieves, but He still gave the money Himself or praised those who did. This seems to come down to the heart of the giver more than the decisions of those who use it. Oddly the widow stored up eternal treasure by giving money to the very system that used the money to kill Jesus.

    2. Our decision is rooted primarily in the first 4 points. The 5th is a possibility that others have speculated on and so I reference it. The 5th may never occur and that is my hope, but there are a few things that SCOTUS has ruled on in the last 40 years that I’m sure our founders would be shocked by. That there is even a concern regarding Religious Rights in and of itself is enough reason to be concerned. It seems that something which was assumed to be clear and airtight is in fact not so tight. That’s why in California Christian Colleges and Seminaries are having to consider future shifts pertaining to government-backed student loans, G.I. Bills and state-endorsed accreditation. You would also think that such inherent rights in the Bill of Rights would be protecting small business owners, but they apparently are not. I hope you are right and all of this concern is overblown reaction on the part of some Christians, but the evidence is murky at this juncture.

    3. As to the first 4 points in the blog, the heart behind this is a grassroots approach to building community or civic connection. Churches spend a good amount of money on all sorts of things to build inroads to their region. Increasingly one of the things churches have had to adjust to is that it doesn’t matter as much what we think a community needs, but what they voice as needs or cares. Jeremiah 29 is key on this. I believe we now live as exiles in a Babylonian conformist culture far more than we do in either a Roman pluralistic culture or even in an American founding fathers culture. In light of that we may need to function more like “Daniels” and “Esthers” who aided the welfare of their city/culture by being an ally of the system; provided it didn’t require sin. I think about Daniel, he could have just done the median requirements and slid through. Instead, he creatively and proactively sought the welfare of Babylon (a clearly corrupt system) as long as it didn’t require him to personally sin. In doing so he gained favor with those in authority because he proved to care about what they cared about. This, in turn, gave him latitude to bring positive influence that would not have been available otherwise. Currently, if you mention to a civic official that you want to build a church in town the first thing a good chunk of them think is, “Great! They suck up land and don’t contribute revenue.” In fact, I have a friend of mine who is a prof at UofW who is writing a book on how local governments across the country are seeking to shut down / encumber church property ownership and construction because of this very point. Now go a step deeper, if that civic official or body is not a religious person/persons the thread runs a bit deeper. 10 years ago non-believers saw religion as a positive force in culture. Today, it’s seen increasingly as negative/repressive/harmful. Pastors used to be trusted members of society, today the majority see them as less trustworthy. More and more people – especially in more liberal regions – tend to see religion as either wanting control or money or both. Thus, if you’re a civic official you may be processing all sorts of concerns when it comes to a church moving in. Thus, when a church then rolls in and says, “We don’t want something from you, but rather something for you. And the proof of our goodwill is to give you something that’s important to you without any strings of control from us.” I think that builds a unique bridge of favor and trust for the welfare of the city. Now on this, I want to reiterate for clarity that we can only do this in areas where it doesn’t require active or clear sin. Like Daniel, we can’t concede Truth, prayer or worship. But some steps may be helpful to building goodwill when much goodwill has been lost in culture.

    4. In addition to this, I believe it is incumbent on churches to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks that get in the way of outsiders becoming insiders. I don’t mean this in regard to sin/moral issues, but things that are not moral/theological issues that become stumbling blocks to outsiders. Clearly how churches have sometimes handled money and build buildings worth tens of millions is a stumbling block that it seems for the most part we’ve been pretty comfortable with – and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It also seems that when we poll the future church generation they too don’t seem to think it has been a good thing. People can say what we want about Millennials and Gen Z, but the reality is that they unique civic, outward and diversity-mindedness that is different than their predecessors. It’s why so many of them liked Bernie Sanders (for good or bad).

    I do respect your perspective and I really get it. In the end I’m not sure if our approach will accomplish the goodwill we seek to build as peacemakers “for the good of our city,” but I know we must seek to become more the unifiers who display we are “in it” with our community in ways they measure being “in it.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s