Two Pennsylvania churches cited for zoning violations after serving beyond the city's definition of "church"

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Two Pennsylvania churches cited for zoning violations after serving beyond the city’s definition of “church”

July 7, 2022 - Dr. Ryan Denison

© Monkey Business /stock.adobe.com

© Monkey Business /stock.adobe.com

Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, has a poverty rate roughly 30 percent greater than the average for the state. So when the housing market boomed there in recent years, as it has throughout much of the country, many people were unable to keep up. Nearly half of renters there are considered rent burdened, when housing costs more than 30 percent of one’s monthly income.

As a result, homelessness has become an increasingly large problem. Montgomery County, where Pottstown is located, has seen homelessness rise 118 percent in the last year, and there is little evidence that will change anytime soon.

Fortunately, several churches throughout the county have stepped up, offering support for those in need. Unfortunately, the borough has told two such churches that doing so places them in violation of the zoning code’s definition of a “church.”

What makes a church a church?

The borough’s notice to the churches in question states that “it is the opinion of this office that the use of the property has changed, and by definition, is more than that of a church.” Their definition of a “church” is limited to “a building wherein persons assemble regularly for religious worship and that is used only for such purposes and for those accessory activities that are customarily associated therewith.”

Apparently, that definition does not leave room for ministries like free mental health support and counseling, free food and hygiene products, and weekly meals for the public, all of which were cited as examples of ways that the church was no longer acting as a “church.”

The ministries were given the opportunity to apply for exceptions that would allow them to continue helping their communities in these ways, but they’re hesitant to do so because of the precedent it would set. Clare Schilling is the director of Mission First, which is part of First United Methodist Church of Pottstown. She wisely notes, “If we do it for this, then we would have to do it for every other little ministry.”

And even if they did apply, there is good reason to suspect the borough would not approve it.

After all, several other churches throughout the city offer similar services but have not received any notice of violations. Rather, these two appear to have been singled out because they’re in an area that the borough wants to develop—and making it easier for the unhoused to remain is bad for business.

If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Earlier this year, Al’s Heart Warming Center—the only shelter for the homeless in the area—was located a few blocks away from First UMC until it too was shut down.

To be clear, the borough is within its rights to take these actions. By the letter of the law, it does not appear that they have done anything illegal. Still, as Schilling notes, “it’s a sad state of affairs.”

The churches don’t plan to back down, though, and are prepared to take the borough to court if necessary, noting that “we’re not going to stop doing what we do because that’s just what the church does. . . . We help people.”

When Rome was content

As we discussed yesterday, there are times when Christians will face opposition from other people and from the government because they don’t like what we believe. What’s going on in Pottstown, though, offers an important reminder that far more often that opposition will come when acting on those beliefs gets in the way of how others want to live.

The borough clearly doesn’t mind churches helping the poor, or they would have sanctioned the other ministries who offer similar services as well. Rather, it was only when that help made their own goals harder to accomplish that they began to interfere.

The same principle dogged the early church’s attempts to minister to those around them as well, and there are some helpful parallels we can draw from their example for navigating our present circumstances.

When you think back to the first centuries of Christianity and the persecution that those early believers faced at the hands of the Romans, it’s understandable if your mind is drawn to coliseums, torture, and mass arrests of believers throughout the Empire. After all, those are often the stories that gained the most attention. But while those instances of oppression should not be minimized, they were also pretty uncommon.

Across the first three hundred years of the church, there were only a handful of times when Roman emperors made it a point to actively seek out and kill Christians. For the most part, it was only during circumstances like Nero needing someone to blame for the fire in Rome, Domitian seeing a refusal to worship their gods as treason, or natural disasters making people think the gods were angry and that Christians were really targeted. Otherwise, most of the time the Romans were content to let believers live and worship as they desired, so long as doing so didn’t cause problems for anyone else.

Consequently, those early believers made it a point to live in such a way that the lost around them still valued their contributions, even if they disagreed with the faith that motivated them. As I discussed in How to Bless God by Blessing Others, no matter what the culture at large claims to care about, most individuals still appreciate and value the people who make their lives better.

That’s why, despite the borough’s best efforts, there are still many in Pottstown—both inside and outside the churches—fighting to keep those ministries going. And that’s why it’s vital that we do what we can to be the church by helping people, regardless of whether or not the lost around us reciprocate those efforts.

What the church did is what we will continue to do

There will be times when living out our beliefs runs in opposition to how others want to live. When that happens, we shouldn’t be surprised if it leads to conflict. And the further our culture turns away from God’s truth, the more often those conflicts will arise.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality all of us will face at some point. How you choose to respond in the face of that opposition, though, will go a long way toward defining how others see your faith.

Will you continue to focus on doing God’s work in ways that bring him honor and glory or will you allow that persecution to make you angry and turn your focus inward?

Making the right choice will be far more difficult in that moment of trial than it is today. So decide right now how you will respond and then ask the Lord to help you keep that commitment when the time comes.

Clare Schilling was right: helping people is what the church does, even when others may not appreciate it.

How can you be the church today?

NOTE: I am continually amazed at God’s providence for our ministry: we’ve received a new matching grant of $15,000, which means that any gifts given today will be doubled. Please prayerfully consider donating to Denison Forum so that, together, we can keep pursuing the kind of culture change God calls us to.

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