Not In Our Backyard! – The Church and Zoning

pinmapI’m writing this entry in my blog primarily as a resource to those who made read this later while moving through the church planting process. Unlike me, you may already be aware of some of these issues, but I was caught off-guard. I’m referring specifically to my naiveté regarding worship space for our church. I honestly thought that a church could gather for worship pretty much anywhere that they desired, provided that they were willing to pay to lease the location and certain fire/building codes were met. So I was quite surprised to find that there are areas within the city (many in fact), where “houses of worship” are not allowed under the city/county codes. And even in some of the areas where they are allowed there are other conditions that must be met (like minimum size of property) and additional applications that must be submitted and approved. So my advice to others beginning to search for space for their church plant: go and ask the city about this issue specifically and get a map before you begin looking.

I’m learning a lot about this issue, but I admittedly still know very little. I can tell you this: it’s quite complicated and the issue of churches and zoning is dealt with differently in different locations. Stanwood does not allow churches in most of the commercial areas in town. Our vision of having an office and small worship location in a community center with a cafe type atmosphere is looking more and more unlikely. The city explained it to me this way: if we want to lease a place that is being used primarily as something else (like a school/theater/etc.) then we are ok. But if we want to lease a space to be used on Sunday morning for worship and the rest of the week as an office then we fall under the “house of worship” classification and our choices are limited by the current zoning.

There is a federal law that was passed in 2000 often referred to by the acronym RLUIPA (Religous Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) that prohibits cities from discriminating against religious organizations in their zoning. I did some research and a number of sources say that most cities are probably not in compliance with the law. However, there have also been differing circuit court rulings on the interpretation of the law. The heart of the problem is apparently not so much that cities are anti-church, but rather that they need tax revenue. When a church moves into a commercial or industrial space that city loses the potential tax revenue. When a church purchases a building the city loses the property tax revenue. I understand the dilemma. I also understand the some mega-churches have not been the most welcome neighbors and have not been in well-planned locations.

Whether or not a city is in compliance with the law is probably a matter of debate and would likely require significant legal work to resolve. For us, legal action and fighting is simply not the way forward. We desire to be the best church for the community and to work in partnership with the existing organizations and structures, not to be an adversary. However, it is very frustrating and I believe short-sighted on the part of the city. A healthy church provides so much benefit to the community and neighborhood that go well beyond the issue to taxes and revenue. We dream of being a church that supports work with the homeless, provides tutoring, supports the local schools, and through the power of Christ changes the very lives of families for the better. We want to see crime reduced, marriages healed, children educated, hungry fed, seniors provided with community, etc. – all in the name of Christ. So my hope is that over time we can also be a voice to challenge some of the existing zoning so that more creative models of “church” can be allowed to flourish in the community as it continues to grow.

In the meantime, we are once again back to the drawing board. I’m convinced that we will eventually find the right fit for us, it just may not happen as easily or as quickly as we hoped. And this entire issue convinces me, once again, that the missional community model is an effective way to live as the church in our changing culture. None of these land use issues effect what happens in our home, with 10 – 20 people gathered together for a meal, and strategizing about how to “be the church” in the neighborhood where we live. And nothing is preventing us from having another 10 – 20 groups all doing the same thing!

Sheep Stealing?

wolf_sheepThere is an interesting tension we are beginning to experience in our start-up year as a church. While we are convinced that our first missional community is becoming all that we hoped it would be, and it does seem to work as a way or reaching those that have never been part of a church community, it is likely going to be quite some time before people coming through the missional community end up in worship with us on Sundays. More importantly, it will be some time before we develop mature leaders through this process. So how do we go about recruiting/attracting potential leaders in the community to join us without “stealing” from the existing congregations?

I’m convinced that churches (especially new church “plants”) are not always honest with themselves in this area. So often they  end up attracting a large number of people from other congregations because they are “fresh”, have better programs/music, more energy, or people are just unhappy with their current congregation. I’m sure anyone who has been in ministry for any amount of time can relate to having a conversation with visitors on a Sunday morning who begin explaining to you that they are at your worship service because they are unhappy with their current church. For me, this always triggered a red flag. More often than not (though I understand that there are legitimate exceptions), these people will “hop” on over to another place once they realize just how imperfect and messy your church is.

So now we are at a place where we are considering doing some of the things that we have not done much of up to this point. Namely, getting a building space, and doing more promotion to invite people to join us for worship. I think we need to do this because going forward we are going to have to find more people to join us in this work. We need a worship leader, we need a church administrator, we need people to help with children’s ministry, and we need others to join our missional community leadership so that we can multiply and start missional communities in other areas. And the big question in my mind is: How do we do this without simply pulling people out of their existing church community?

I have already met people that have recently moved to the area and are looking for a church home. The demographic research tells us that the Stanwood/Camano Island area will continue to grow. So that would certainly be a group to focus on. I also know that there are some people who travel a very long way to go to worship. While I understand that there are a variety of reasons for this, I also know that it is hard to truly be the church in your neighborhood or community if all of those in your worshipping community live 30 miles away. So perhaps there is some room there for people to reconnect their worship life with their community life.

We are just beginning this conversation as a leadership team. It will be interesting to see where this all goes. In the meantime, I have Jesus words ringing in my ears:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask
the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Will Your Kids Follow Jesus?

TirePlayI can’t tell you how many times over the past 10+ years I’ve had a discussion with other parents and church leaders about the struggle of discipling children through our current church programming models. The following is an excerpt from a Verge Network article by Ben Connelly called “How To Incorporate Kids into Your Missional Community” (full article here) that articulates this challenge well:

Focusing on the right things
The focus of a “kids ministry” shouldn’t actually be kids; it should be parents. Whether preschool or high school, the same principle applies: churches and leaders who put time, effort, money, resources, and intentionality into equipping parents instead of merely entertaining children accomplish two significant things:

  • They help develop the whole-life spiritual maturity of the children
  • They put parents back in the place the Bible places them.

Churches with Sunday-focused kids ministries spend 50-100 hours per year (of the 8,760 hours in any given year) with your kids. Minus vacations, sickness, and other reasons to miss, trained workers teach kids biblical concepts for an hour or two on Sundays. And even the most intentional churches might host a second age-specific gathering sometime during the week.

In those few hours, trained leaders must cram in entertainment, music, a snack, and often a Bible story that immediately transfers into a life lesson. “Discipleship and spiritual growth” become limited to a few hours a month, and generally limited to one “style”: in a group, with lots of energy, listening to a teacher teach a broad lesson.

What about the rest of the week?
But what happens in the rest of a child’s week when the teacher isn’t there? Who hears about getting made fun of on the playground? Who’s there to encourage the student in the midst of a specific high school struggle? If a child is in school until 4pm and goes to bed at 8pm, parents interact with their kids 1460 hours a year!

Parents see the daily struggles. Parents have conversations in the car. Parents are asked the hard questions. Parents deal with the specifics, the scenarios, the struggles, the sins. Parents meet their child – every single day – where the real-life rubber hits the road.

The author makes the argument that we need to be spending more of our time training parents as the primary disciplers of children. I agree. Yet, look at the job description of just about any church children’s minister or youth minister and you will see just how little of their time is expected to be spent doing this kind of work. In fact, it is entirely possible (and I have seen this many times myself) where we end up with adolescents in this model that “know” more about the Bible than their parents do. Can we see how backwards this is if we really believe that the parents are the primary teachers and disciplers of their kids?  I personally believe that when we talk about the issue of so many young people leaving the church after high school that it is related to this issue. Their spiritual training, their so-called discipleship is totally disconnected from their life at school and at home.

So what is the solution? I imagine that for many programmatic, attractional churches they might be tempted simply to hire more staff to teach more classes at the church building for parents. Personally, I don’t think that is the answer. The didactic teaching style has its place, but it is no substitute for discipleship in the everyday life. I don’t want to claim that missional communities are the answer, but I do believe that they are a step in a better direction because the focus is on reorienting our lives to be on mission in our home, work, school, family, neighborhood, life.