in the public interest
Why should the public pay for our
europe is filled with beautiful historic churches, from Iona to Istanbul, from St. Peter’s to St. Paul’s, from Gaudí’s to St. Giles. Too many of them, alas,
are now empty or close to it, even on Sunday mornings.
Most have stood for hundreds of years, but this next
century will see many more of them succumb to acid
rain, deferred maintenance, urban renewal or a vanished
Tourists often confront a collection box at the back of
such churches with a sign eliciting help from the public
for the church’s upkeep. Having toured an architectural
wonder, or perhaps at least a curiosity,
What, however, can be said on behalf
of Canada’s churches? What argument
can be made for public support for them?
A few warrant preservation for historical
or aesthetic reasons, important elements
of our cultural heritage. But most don’t.
Evangelicals like to say, however,
that the church isn’t the building – it’s
the people. And most Evangelicals build
churches accordingly – not as enduring
monuments of faith, nor as richly endowed encouragements to worship, but
as functional auditoriums, educational
facilities, social rooms and the like.
That’s fine by me. Such buildings accurately represent our priorities, just as
the churches of Europe’s past centuries
represent the values of their sponsors.
Yet many of us want public support for our church
buildings in Canada today. We want favourable tax codes,
zoning and parking regulations. We want to be free to
serve the hungry in our kitchens and the homeless in our
gymnasiums in whatever way we think best.
As Canada continues to move away from its Christian
century (1860-1960), however, many Evangelicals are still
not prepared to make a public case for this public support.
Growing congregations complain they can’t get approval
for the bigger parking lots they want, but also can’t articulate
why their neighbours should put up with dozens or even
hundreds more cars moving through residential streets.
Socially minded churches want to care for the needy
of their cities, but then complain about complying with
civic codes of health and public safety.
Worship leaders whine about persecution from “the
world” when area residents insist noise bylaws be enforced as the worship band kicks it up to jet engine levels.
Street evangelists claim the protection of free speech
when they set up anywhere they like – including leafy
residential blocks or quiet city parks – with amplifiers
blasting sermons into the ears of fellow citizens who didn’t
sign up for a gospel rally.
And Christian organizations feel the financial bite of
their employees failing to qualify for clerical allowances in
income tax when few or none of their employees actually
work as pastors.
As Canada approaches its 150th birthday, we Christians need to work with our fellow citizens to forge the
bonds of a better multiculturalism, to
shape a new community of diversity that
will keep the State from over-regulating
our lives while allowing it to do its proper
job of framing a context in which we all
can flourish. Certain groups such as The
Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (the
publisher of Faith Today) are already hard
at work in that regard, and we need to
support their efforts.
Let’s all of us, and particularly leaders
of Christian organizations, keep learning
how to think publicly. Let’s keep putting the shoe on the other foot, turning
the tables, making sure we are not asking favours for ourselves that we would
not grant fellow Canadians of a different
There is often much to be said for public benefits to be given and allowances to
be made for Christian churches and other
organizations. So let’s offer such an argument whenever
we can. Few of our churches are lovely relics of a bygone
time, but most are vital sites of important community life.
If we can’t come up with a good reason for the public
to support what we do, we should no longer expect public
support. It’s as simple as that. FT
build churches –
not as enduring
of faith, nor as
to worship, but
rooms and the like.
JOHN STACKHOuSe holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee
chair of theology and culture at Regent College,
Vancouver. He is the author of Making the Best of It:
Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford, 2008).