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Churches Without Buildings in USA Today

Churches without buildings are in the newson the front page of USA Today, no less.

The phenomenon is increasingly common. On Sunday, I humorously blogged on our own experience this week. There is even a book called, The Nomadic Church.

The USA Today story cites some fast facts including:

• A USA TODAY look at the five largest and five fastest-growing school districts in the continental USA found that all 10 had granted permits for religious congregations to hold weekend worship.

New York City, the largest, is typical: Christian churches are the primary clients because Muslims and Jews worship on Fridays and Saturdays, when school spaces usually are being used for student activities.

• Acts 29 Network, an inter-denominational, Seattle-based evangelical coalition that has started 350 churches across the nation in the past five years, estimates about 16% of these meet in school spaces.

“We don’t have a hidden agenda. Our heart is to serve the community just like schools serve the community. … They’re designed for large groups, and they’ve got parking,” says Scott Thomas, Acts 29 president.

• A 2007 national survey of newly established Protestant churches found that 12% met in schools, according to LifeWay, a Nashville-based Christian research agency.

Be sure to read the whole article in USA Today.

More details of the study mentioned can be found in Viral Churches and come from a study we did at the Center for Missional Research. You can download that report here.

There are obviously some legal issues here. I am not a lawyer and have never played one on television, but I think the problem with the NYC school ruling is that it is discriminating on the basis of the “content of the speech.” In other words, they rent to other groups, but want to ban churches because churches talk about God.

A better policy, and one I hope the Supreme Court upholds, is that of equal access. The Supreme Court has a history of upholding equal access in cases such as Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District and Good News Club v. Milford Central School. I’ve written more about this in my book, Planting Missional Churches, but click the links for summaries of those rulings.

Keep in mind that this most recent ruling is not from the Supreme Court, but a circuit court. Thus, it is not the law of the whole landyet. This case may be heard at the Supreme Court level (if it is granted what is called “cert“). My expectation is that the Supreme Court will side with earlier precedents and strike down the ruling of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Real legal experts (unlike me) tend to agree in a helpful Christianity Today story on the subject.

Simply put, I believe that if you rent your public school out to the Kiwanis club, you have to also rent it to religious groups (and, yes, that includes churches and those of other religions as well). Public buildings should be accessible to the publicequally.

The school board is not the place to decide whether or not those renting a school are using speech acceptable to the government. As long as that speech is legal, it should not be discriminated against.

This is not without difficulty, as that means you have to rent to people you might not like or approve, but that’s part of free speech.

My mother, a retired school principal, had a different view. She believes that renting her school to a church means she also has to rent her school to other religious groups that would then become a distraction to her jobeducating children. Thus, she believes it is best to not rent to anyone.

Who is right? My mother, me, the 2nd Circuit, or the Supreme Court? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Reposted with permission from Edstetzer.com. You may comment below or, if you wish to interact with Ed, comment at the original post on his blog here.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.