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True Believers?

If churches won't do God's work, they should be taxed.

by NATHAN HANEY

s a former Southern Baptist, I am uncomfortable with Al Gore's comments advocating a "partnership" between government and local churches that would address the problems of welfare and social services. The remark, made during a recent visit to Memphis, touched off a quiet but long-simmering debate regarding the role of the church in modern society.

Back in Washington, Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) has proposed a plan to funnel federal aid to churches for the administration of what would amount to privatized welfare programs. The bill would allow churches to espouse any theology they desire while carrying out these services, their federal grants notwithstanding.

Haven't we been subsidizing churches for years through tax exemptions? Why should we pay churches for simply doing their duty?

With upwards of a thousand churches in the greater Memphis area, I should think the state welfare offices would be able to close their doors forever. But for every Church Health Center that offers low-or-no-cost health care to anyone who needs it, there are dozens of church-operated "Christian Life Centers" that offer nonessential activities like basketball, racquetball, weight training, and parlor games -- often only for church members! Furthermore, according to a recent Flyer story, only 17 Memphis churches were willing to open their buildings to the homeless during the week as part of a national program.

Bellevue Baptist, boasting some 22,000 members, is just one example of a major church that could have a tremendous impact on the dissemination of social services. Bellevue's pastor, Dr. Adrian Rogers, is described on his Love Worth Finding Ministries Web site (www.lwf.com) as "one of America's most respected Bible preachers," a "staunch defender of biblical inerrancy," and "a much sought-after evangelist." He has also served three times as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

So Rogers has a great responsibility to bear serving as example for such a multitude. About 10 years ago, I believe he did a lot of harm by moving his congregation out of an impoverished area, vacating an aging facility to take up permanent residence near the Wolfchase Galleria. The message sent to millions of Southern Baptists was that the requirements of the church should supersede the demands of the community.

Citing "a need to grow" as the primary reason for bugging out of Midtown, Bellevue essentially created a model of modern Christianity contrary to the nature of Christ. Jesus hung out almost exclusively with the dregs of society, seeking out the seediest locations for lodgings as he traveled from place to place. "They that be whole need not a physician," Jesus explained in the Book of Matthew. "But they that are sick."

According to the results of a study by the Princeton Religious Research Center (published on the Southern Baptist Convention's Web site at www.sbc.net), "the presence of active churches and synagogues reduces violent crime activity in an area" and "church involvement is the single most important factor in enabling African-American males to escape the destructive cycle of the inner-city ghetto."

So much for Bellevue playing physician.

Bellevue's doctrine -- focused almost exclusively on evangelism -- makes it more of a self-sustaining entity than a charitable organization. It has its own production department, a music ministry to rival anything one might see in Branson, Missouri, and a litany of programs aimed at member support and recruitment.

But altruistic programs, according to the church's Web site (www.bellevue.org), seem limited almost entirely to the support of missions and off-site foundations. Their extra-curricular, member-focused programs are little more than close cousins to corporate "team building." Baseball Night at the Bellevue Ball Fields, choir recitals, singles retreats, couples counseling, and a slew of summer camps are on the schedule. And while the Web site mentions a drive to encourage individual members to donate their time and money to other charities (an anonymous "soup kitchen" is cited as an example), I could not find mention of a single in-house operation that I would define as "benevolent."

Meanwhile, much smaller churches all around the country are playing a mean David to this Goliath, not only through their benevolence but through inspired innovation. It is not unusual to find tiny parishes running community job-training programs, health clinics, free or low-cost day-care centers, or chemical-dependency units. These operations sometimes require the greatest part of a small church's resources.

Sadly, like any typical corporation, Bellevue encourages and may even donate money to certain causes, but is apparently not itself in the business of charity. So why is Bellevue, and the many churches like it, tax-exempt?

These modern mega-churches don't deserve Senator Ashcroft's grant money. For churches like Bellevue, the beatitudes have been largely overcast by a notion of "if you build it, they will come." Fortunately there are thousands of tiny congregations out there toiling day in and day out to take up at least some of the slack.

(Nathan Haney is a freelance writer and lifelong Memphian.)


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