I’ll start by putting this mildly: the church has an uncertain position in modern society. Fewer people identify as Christian, fewer people attend or otherwise support the church, and fewer people trust the church to exercise moral authority. There are reasons for that. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad. But it is indisputable that the church’s social position is uncertain.
Every so often, I see requests for the church to simply solve—or make a major dent in solving—some big social problem. The most recent example is this perspective piece in the Washington Post: “Cities need housing. Churches have property. Can they work something out?” Here are the key bits:
I’m not about to propose that church real estate is a silver bullet in the affordable housing crisis. But it is absolutely the case that many churches are holding underutilized real estate — parking lots (and the airspace above them), vacant lots, and empty or mostly empty buildings.
It’s also the case that in this era of declining religious affiliation, churches across the nation are getting creative about what to do with their underutilized real estate.
Churches can’t provide solutions to this problem at scale. But they can provide leadership, spiritually and practically, by getting creative about how their real estate can help make space.Patton Dodd, “Cities need housing. Churches have property. Can they work something out?” Washington Post, November 5, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/11/05/cities-need-housing-churches-have-property-can-they-work-something-out/
But I’ve also seen it elsewhere, often along the similar lines of why churches don’t just leave their doors unlocked so that people experiencing homelessness can sleep on the pews, use the restrooms, and have a warm place to stay the night.
Now, I don’t want to get into the weeds here, and I don’t want to dismiss the concerns of the people who raise these issues. Could (and should) churches be doing more to address big social problems? Absolutely. Are there significant barriers standing in the way of churches that try to address those problems? Yes.
See, for example, Patapsco United Methodist Church in Dundalk, Maryland. It allowed homeless people to set up camp on its property and faced a $12,000 fine from the city (ten percent of the annual budget of the church) for code violations. After—but hopefully not because of—the unflattering press that fining a church for letting homeless people stay on its property generated for the city, the city agreed to drop the fine in exchange for the church also educating the homeless people who stayed there about the services that were available to them.
There were some good reasons for the city to not just let a camp develop on the church’s property. My point is just that church’s aren’t allowed to just do whatever they want to help people. Churches are accountable to secular authorities. And they would be accountable to those authorities if they opened their doors to homeless people, tried to set up affordable housing, or did anything else.
What I’m interested in, however, is the general attitude of can’t-the-church-just-do-it. As I wrote above, we live in a society where people are increasingly disengaged from Christianity and suspicious of the moral authority of the church (if they grant the church any moral authority at all). And yet, people still seem to expect Christians and Christian institutions to live up the highest moral expectations.
On the one hand, that’s good. The church should be held to high moral expectations. And the church should strive to meet those expectations. At the same time, it would be nice if everyone recognized the centrality of grace to the Christian story. We should strive to meet high expectations and we will fail to meet those expectations; but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying to live into those expectations.
On the other hand, that often feels like a little bit of moral offloading. We don’t expect secular society to reach those same lofty expectations. We don’t expect struggling businesses to find a way to use their property to solve housing crises or hotels with vacant rooms to give them to homeless people free of charge. Instead, we expect to simply go on with our lives while asking Christians to provide a social safety net. And that seems unfair.
So I’m a little split on this. Again, the church should absolutely be doing more to address big social issues. But we all should be doing more to address big social issues. And one of the things that I hope I am doing in my life as a pastor is inspiring people to not only be the church, but transform our society into one that cares for the least among us.
And, maybe, right now, that amounts to this: we cannot simply live in a society defined by capitalism and hope that Christians clean up the messes that capitalism creates. We need to decide that we want a society that doesn’t create those messes and build it. And, frankly, the church might be able to provide the blueprint for a better society: one based on radical charity and extravagant hospitality.