There is much talk about removing the tax-exemption for churches and that might be a good thing.
Please understand, I am convinced that taxing churches would probably be bad for our communities. While they would see a modest increase in property taxes, they would also find themselves with a number of large, empty buildings that are notoriously difficult to resell or re-purpose. At the same time, they would lose meeting places for a host of civic groups (from Rotary Clubs to Cub Scouts) as well as Election Day polling places. For these, and other reasons that I explained in my blog (Taxes: Should the Church Pay?), taxing churches would cost our communities more than they would gain.
So what good could come from taxing churches?
Quite simply, it would be good for the church.
Under the present system, other than the cost of construction and maintenance (which are considerable), there is no cost, no penalty, to the church for overbuilding new space or for under-utilizing existing space. Too often, the church suffers from an edifice complex, in which they feel better about themselves if their building is bigger than the church down the street.
New churches build bigger than they need and old churches stay in buildings long after they can no longer afford them. Older congregations that are losing membership typically occupy a building that they own. The mortgage, if any, was paid off decades ago. Those shrinking congregations inhabit buildings that would hold three to five times their number but they remain for reasons of sentimentality and tradition and because, other than maintenance, there is no cost to staying. While the church remains in the community and may allow others to use some of their space, the majority of the church budget is dedicated to maintaining the building and not to the mission of the church.
But we NEED the room! Do you really need that much room? O sure it’s nice to be able to fit your entire congregation into the sanctuary all at once, but how much extra does it cost to have three (or even five) worship service each week instead of one compared to how much it costs to maintain a building big enough to house everyone all at once? In my last appointment, there was a Baptist church across town that only seated fifty and so they had to have tow or three series to accommodate everyone. They longed for a building as big as ours, which seated two or three hundred, but we knew that the cost of maintaining ours was a nightmare. Maybe it makes sense to have a big building if you use it all week long and have multiple worship services during the week, but how is it good stewardship to have a building that sits empty six days every week?
For larger churches, paying property taxes may cause them to rethink how they use their buildings and encourage them use their space more efficiently. And if some churches can pay their taxes and still maintain colossal edifices (and their members are willing to contribute to that), then so be it.
For small churches it is entirely possible, in fact likely, that the imposition of property taxes would cause many of them to walk away from their buildings and become house churches. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As a house church, freed from the burden of paying to maintain and heat a building they couldn’t really afford, they could now use those funds to accomplish the mission of the church. To feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and carry the gospel to the four corners of the earth.
For a church to spend its wealth maintaining a building for the sake of pride or tradition at the expense of the mission is sin.
And if paying taxes can drive the church back to its mission…
…that would be good.