Another model for churches, pt. 5

Part 5 in a series. Read Part 1.

Metaphorical and physical turf

Earlier, I said that voluntary associations offer space in which human freedom can thrive. Adams tells us that such spaces are both metaphorical and quite real:

In a modern pluralistic civilization, society is constituted by a variety of associations and organized structures. The constituent organizations cannot function if they do not have turf. Even in order to hold meetings an organization must have a place of meeting and also office space. Anyone who has experience in these matters knows that the recurrent and acute problem for many a voluntary association is the payment of the rent and the telephone bill. A ‘warrior’ friend of mine used to say that any organization worth its salt will have to face this crisis repeatedly, the crisis of being obliged to pay the rent or ‘vacate’.”

If we expand the term space metaphorically, we can say that a pluralistic society is one that is made up of a variety of relatively independent and interdependent ‘spaces.’ An effective organization… must be able, standing on its turf, to get a hearing if effective social criticism, or innovation and new consensus with respect to social policy, are to ensue. Adams, ed. Stackhouse, On Being Human Religiously, p. 57.

From this we can see a number of practical implications for our churches. At the most basic level, our churches, as voluntary associations, need a place to meet — physical “turf” — and they need to be able to pay the phone bill and have office space. At a more complex level, our churches are metaphorical spaces where we may “stand on our turf” and have our social criticisms be heard effectively; as individuals in a mass democracy, we have no such “turf” on which we can stand to be heard (that is, not unless we are extraordinarily wealthy). When you look at the budget of one of our typical churches (one which owns its own building), approximately 55% of the budget will be for staff salaries and benefits; 40% will be for building maintenance; and perhaps 5% will be for programming and (if we’re lucky) 5% will go towards social justice.

Many church members will be very critical of this breakdown, claiming that far more than 5% of a church budget should go towards social justice; this on the theory that one of the primary purposes of a liberal church is to promote social justice. However, direct spending on social justice (and in our liberal churches, this often goes towards providing direct services such as funding soup kitchens) is not the only way that a liberal church works towards social justice. In this mythical church budget, 40% of the budget of the church goes directly maintaining the building; which means that 40% of the budget goes towards providing “turf to stand on” for the voluntary association that is the liberal church; and it is standing on this turf that the voluntary association can begin to get an effective hearing in the social policy realm.

Furthermore, many liberal churches offer free or inexpensive space to other voluntary associations that have complementary missions; in this way, the liberal church can offer a little piece of “turf” to other organizations. My own liberal church is known in the community as a physical place where a wide diversity of people can feel comfortable meeting: different racial and ethnic groups, labor unionists, politicians, young people; all these people don’t mind coming in our building, which means that it is an ideal space to nurture community conversations (and it is used as such). By hosting such conversations, we can have a disproportionately large impact on social policy conversations. Other examples include liberal churches which host thrift shops, soup kitchens, or other outreach to lower-income persons; liberal churches which host AA and other self-help groups; etc.

Thus, when someone disdains to give money to their liberal church because “I don’t want my money to just go to the building,” that person completely misses the point of why the church building exists. A physical meeting space isn’t an add-on or a luxury; it is a necessity for a liberal church to survive in our postmodern society; and it is even more a necessity if we want to have a significant impact on social policy.

This understanding of our physical space is critical for those of us who believe in missional liberal churches. While some of us will prefer to start a missional liberal church that is completely unencumbered by building ownership (or by staff salaries, for that matter), it is wise for us to remember the institutional power that comes with building ownership. We have to understand this, and ask if building ownership can further us in incarnating religious values, without compromising our dedication to mission; and there is no easy answer to this question. And for those of us who are already committed to liberal churches which already own buildings, we may find that part of our missional living together will be making sure our building incarnates our religious values.

Next: “Institutional consequences” of belief