Religion & Beliefs

Jesus Complicates Everything — Including Death and Taxes

Last week the NY Times ran an article about how Megachurches are getting so big that they're doing things like buying shopping centers, which is fine, except when a church owns a store that makes money there's a question about … Read More

By / November 26, 2007

Last week the NY Times ran an article about how Megachurches are getting so big that they're doing things like buying shopping centers, which is fine, except when a church owns a store that makes money there's a question about whether they have to pay taxes on that property. Here's an excerpt from the article:

Among the nation's so-called megachurches – those usually Protestant congregations with average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more – ChangePoint's appetite for expansion into many kinds of businesses is hardly unique. An analysis by The New York Times of the online public records of just over 1,300 of these giant churches shows that their business interests are as varied as basketball schools, aviation subsidiaries, investment partnerships and a limousine service.

At least 10 own and operate shopping centers, and some financially formidable congregations are adding residential developments to their holdings. In one such elaborate project, LifeBridge Christian Church, near Longmont, Colo., plans a 313-acre development of upscale homes, retail and office space, a sports arena, housing for the elderly and church buildings.

Indeed, some huge churches, already politically influential, are becoming catalysts for local economic development, challenging a conventional view that churches drain a town financially by generating lower-paid jobs, taking land off the property-tax rolls and increasing traffic.

But the entrepreneurial activities of churches pose questions for their communities that do not arise with secular development.

These enterprises, whose sponsoring churches benefit from a variety of tax breaks and regulatory exemptions given to religious organizations in this country, sometimes provoke complaints from for-profit businesses with which they compete – as ChangePoint's new sports center has in Anchorage.

Mixed-use projects, like shopping centers that also include church buildings, can make it difficult to determine what constitutes tax-exempt ministry work, which is granted exemptions from property and unemployment taxes, and what is taxable commerce.

And when these ventures succeed – when local amenities like shops, sports centers, theaters and clinics are all provided in church-run settings and employ mostly church members – people of other faiths may feel shut out of a significant part of a town's life, some religion scholars said.

I was reading this trying to think about whether I would feel comfortable working out at a gym that was owned by a church, and I don't think I would. In fact, I know I wouldn't. Later on in the article there's a point where a business manager at one of the big churches owns up to the church's motives:

Mr. Rieder, the church business manager, paused when asked whether people of other faiths would have felt comfortable at the event.

"We try not to discriminate in doing community service," he said. "There are Muslims and other non-Christians here, of course. And we do want to convert them, no doubt about it – that's our mission. We don't discriminate, but we do evangelize."

The same quandary confronts Pastor Clauson in Anchorage. "There is nothing inherently alienating about what we're doing economically," he said. "An Orthodox Jewish youngster or a conservative Muslim child encountering our programs would find zero intimidation."

Nor does he want his community to become divided along religious lines, he said. But at the same time, "we definitely want to use these efforts as an open door to the entity that we feel is the author and creator of abundant life – Jesus."

He added, "It's a tough balancing act."

Emphasis mine. Full Story

I can tell you right now I would never set foot in a mall or a sports complex that let me know I was going to get the Jesus spiel along with my purchases or basketball game.

This is a complicated issue on the tax front, and also on the ethical front. What happens when a church dominates the fitness scene in one town? Or owns the mall, or the movie theater? Would you shop there? And does the Starbucks that the church brought in need to pay taxes?

I know that Megachurches have been a good thing in a lot of ways, but this scares the shit out of me.