By Roger Boatman
“There will be no large churches in this city,” thundered the city councilman of a Seattle suburb to leaders of a Christian church. At issue was land the church had in escrow to develop as its new campus. Church leaders objected, saying elected officials could not determine the size of their church. “Oh, yes we can,” the councilman replied, “because we set the parking code, and you will not be approved for this or any other large site in this city.”
Not to be denied their vision for the church, the congregation backed away from that site and instead purchased an existing industrial complex with plenty of parking spaces and grew into the city’s first megachurch.
Years ago, as our nation was moving westward, a church was often one of the first buildings to go up in a new town. Today, it is one of the last. What’s going on? The answer is . . . plenty!
Through the years as the size, scope, and variety of ministry changed, cities have scrambled to adjust. How does a city respond to a megachurch’s sudden purchase of 50 acres, or an existing church’s decision to add a school, or a host of new churches springing up in storefronts, public schools, theaters, and residences? In truth, a city sometimes reacts with anger, frustration, and fear; it might enact a myriad of strange and arbitrary local rulings.
A church in Oregon was allowed no more than 70 people at one time, although its sanctuary seated 400. Another church was permitted no more than five weddings per year. A city in Illinois sued a church on a “nuisance” charge after the church bought a former Walmart.
New churches are in the crosshairs of this ongoing battle as they seek temporary and permanent sacred space. When it was a year old, First Christian Church of Irvine, California, was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union because it was meeting in a public school for Sunday worship services. Some municipalities have declared “religious free zones” restricting size and location of churches through arbitrary zoning laws and conditional use permits.
The controversy of land usage is frequently a tax revenue issue. Cities facing critical budget shortfalls favor tax-producing projects rather than tax-exempt places of worship. Cottonwood Christian Center, Cypress, California, owned land and was repeatedly denied permits because the city openly said it wanted a Costco to build on that property instead. The church ultimately filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from taking its property through eminent domain. After many years, the property was sold to the city in exchange for an alternate site on which the church was allowed to build.
In another situation, a developer in Southern California was planning an 83,000-acre master planned community for 200,000 people that was to include only four churches. After it was revealed the developer long ago had commented he considered “funny little steeples . . . an architectural blight on his model city,” public outcry caused an additional 10 properties to be released for churches. The developer, it turned out, had acted disingenuously during many of the planning meetings.
Congress entered the fray with hearings that resulted in The Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). This federal statute provides stronger protection for religious freedom in land use contexts. It states, “No government shall impose or impede a land use regulation that imposes a substantial burden on the religious assembly.” This law gives churches a way to avoid burdensome zoning restrictions on their property. It is difficult, however, for planning commissions to establish and enforce zoning that pleases everyone.
WHAT SHOULD CHURCHES DO?
Be sensitive to what may be the leading of the Lord.
Sometimes when a church’s plans are challenged, its people become angry and go into crusade mode and focus on only one possibility. I have seen churches filled with angry people build the wrong building, or at the wrong time, or on the wrong site because they felt they were being pushed around and needed to stand up for God. Sometimes it’s God doing the pushing because he has something better in mind for his church.
Because of delays, a new Christian church in Indiana waited 18 months to buy its first property. When the day for its hearing arrived, hostile neighbors stood up to oppose the project. The pastor backed away from the property, though he knew of no other option. Two days later, a stranger called the church to offer property that was four times larger, in a far superior location, and at a lower price than the first parcel.
Try the political process.
In two different situations, in two different cities, I have taken mayors to lunch, and it has resulted in victories for the churches (and the mayors even bought my lunch!). In one instance, the church’s plans had been stalled by red tape for two years. When I mentioned to the mayor that the church was considering relocating to a different city, he asked that I give him 24 hours. He called the next day to say there would be a vote in two weeks, and that it would be 6-1 in favor of the church. What the church could not do in two years, the mayor was able to accomplish in five minutes. I have found most mayors are cordial, helpful, and up for re-election.
Consider legal action.
“You can’t fight city hall,” the old saying goes. That is not entirely true, though I generally advise against a church attempting to fight unless the injustice is so egregious and flagrant that there is no other recourse.
Rocky Mountain Christian Church sued the Boulder County Board of Commissioners in Colorado after its request to enlarge its campus was denied. This resulted in a seven-year legal battle that culminated in a 12-day trial with the jury ruling the county had violated three parts of the federal land-use act. The court also ordered the county to pay $1.5 million to the church for legal fees. The county appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in January 2011 officially refused to weigh in on this matter.
This judgment may have significant impact on future church and city cases. Church land-use lawsuits are not for amateurs or the faint of heart; they can be lengthy, costly, draining, and distract a church from its ministry. A church can easily get wrapped around the axle of land and construction issues and end up winning the battle but losing the war for the hearts and minds of the very city it wishes to serve.
Before you commit to such a fight, make sure you have your facts straight, understand the laws clearly, and understand the city’s complaint. Be mindful that the city is charged with big-picture considerations that include neighbors, noise, traffic, and parking in front of residences and businesses. (Years ago, who would have ever dreamed of the size and land requirements of some of today’s megachuches?)
I recently was in a major metropolitan area and happened to look down from a skyscraper’s 44th floor upon the street below. My eye caught a steeple now dwarfed by modern construction. The church had once been the tallest building in town but now was crowded out and barely visible. I will admit to some anger, but I paused, realizing time marches on and progress had no doubt been made.
I did wonder about the future, however, and what the religious landscape of the city will look like years from now. It is a chapter to be written by church planters and visionary church leaders of today.
Luke records that Jesus once looked down at Jerusalem and wept over it (Luke 19:41). I think he still does.
Roger Boatman is a consultant with Grubbs Boatman & Associates in Newport Beach, California. He has led more than 250 capital campaigns for churches.