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April 23, 2015Leadership

Border Crossing: Renting to Churches of Other Cultures Part 1

When immigrants need worship space, think twice before renting.
Border Crossing: Renting to Churches of Other Cultures Part 1

A small immigrant congregation seeks space for worship services, and an established host-culture church with ample facilities weighs whether to make room. Should they do it?

Though few realize it, the more important question is why. Not answering it honestly from the start can lead to failure.

Renting is just one of several types of relationships between cultural groups sharing church facilities.[1] Though it lies at the end of the spectrum that least exemplifies the inclusive discipline of border crossing that Jesus modeled, renting can work for certain purposes. It can also disappoint disastrously, pushing partners further afield from their original financial or spiritual goals.

Depending on the answer to the “Why are we doing this?” question, renting can take at least three forms. Today’s post focuses on the first: renting as material gain.

Sometimes, plain and simple, it's all about mortar and money for both tenant and landlord. A declining church may see an immigrant congregation as a source of income or as a stewardship solution for unused space. Immigrants may want affordable access to facilities (usually a sanctuary and kitchen) for multiple weekly gatherings. Some groups want nothing more, and renting may satisfy them.

So what could go wrong? A lot, actually, especially when material aims hide beneath shallow sentiments of brotherhood.

1. Denial of true costs and limitations.

Because tenants can be messy and landlords rigid, potential partners need to assess their readiness for a real rental relationship. Too often, churches forget that the business transaction of renting for material gain differs from the glamorized ideal of a perpetual celebration of diversity.

Hosts should count the literal cost of having others on the property: increased maintenance, janitorial needs, and utility bills, for starters. Hosts should expect decreased freedom in scheduling activities and using rooms—a constraint that most landlords accept as perfectly normal but that often comes as a shock to declining churches accustomed to having exclusive access to an empty building most days of the week.

Tenants likewise must approach the relationship with realistic expectations. Revenue-seeking landlords will likely not provide childcare. They may insist on limits to the volume of the sound system, require deposits, or send a bill if things get damaged. It’s business.

2. Naiveté about communication difficulties.

Cultural differences complicate any relationship, even with a contract. Too often, distracted by the warm fuzzies of diversity, church decision-makers gloss over them, wondering later why the agreement is faltering.

Like air, cultural values and assumptions hide in plain sight. People neither recognize them in themselves, nor anticipate differences in others, so they stumble to make sense of breakdowns in even the most mundane of church tasks.

For example, which party pays for a translator? Who cleans up? Does a written contract count without dinner? Are needy members free to take kitchen dishware home for personal use? Is it rude or reasonable to ask a silver-haired pastor to turn off the air-conditioner before leaving the building on Sunday night?

Cultural differences complicate any relationship, even with a contract.

Unfortunately, such problems are difficult to work out in a money-and-mortar relationship because cross-cultural understanding requires investments of time, humility, and trust. Leaders must acknowledge this limitation.

3. Distortion of the truth.

Sometimes churches characterize a financial decision as something more spiritual. Instead, they should admit financial needs clearly and honestly. Euphemizing legitimate self-interest as benevolence, diversity, inclusion, or outreach is not only dishonest but also bound to backfire in several ways.

It breeds bitterness. Lacking sufficient opportunity to understand one another, groups judge and begrudge from a distance. As disappointments fester, intolerance grows:

“We generously let them worship here,” exasperated landlords seethe, “and they thank us by leaving dirty diapers in the parking lot!”

“They keep gushing about being one family in Christ,” humiliated tenants stew, “but they nickel-and-dime us for everything.”

Hopes deferred—like false expectations about the goals of a relationship—make the heart sick,[2] but honesty about material aims defuses disrespect.

It conceals dishonor. Sometimes people sure of their altruistic intentions fail to scrutinize their ways. Does either party take advantage of the other? Do landlords make unreasonable demands? Do tenants care for the property as if it were their own? Acknowledging true aims preserves honor.

It overstates generosity. A host church is not making great spiritual strides by receiving payment for services rendered. As Jesus said on similar matters, even sinners do that.

It undermines God’s objectives. Should God and his precepts get the blame when things go wrong? People who exaggerate the nature of a relationship also exaggerate the significance of breakdowns. Although landlords and tenants accept difficulties as the cost of doing business, disillusioned church people conclude, “We tried loving the stranger, but it didn’t work,” adding a new layer of resistance to any future efforts to encourage genuine inclusion.

Renting as an exchange of money for space is neither very spiritual nor very meaningful. When necessary, it does not need to cause harm. It can satisfy material needs, grow into something more, and open opportunities for acts of kindness. But for the sake of integrity, respect, and success, potential partners should think twice—that is, address the why—before choosing to rent for material gain.

Next month, I’ll suggest two other forms of renting that move closer to the border-crossing ideal.

[1] Drury, Elizabeth Childs. 2011 Winter. “Leading the multiethnic church: Help from new metaphors and The Leadership Challenge.” Great Commission Research Journal, 2(2).

[2] Proverbs 13:12a, NIV

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Border Crossing: Renting to Churches of Other Cultures Part 1