My wife has just joined the staff of our church, which means she now occasionally needs to use the church's tax-exemption number. Like today, for example, when she had to buy some supplies for the office. No big deal; the cashier simply enters the number, assigns the appropriate category and completes the transaction.
The question, however, of which category the purchase falls under is not so clear. Is the church a government agency, or is it a charity?
It struck me as a pretty simple question, actually, but it completely stymied our cashier, which I suspect offers a clue into the church's reputation in the broader culture. "It should be government, right? Because the church is a government agency."
"No, it should be charity, because the church is a charitable organization."
Any self-respecting churchgoing evangelical, such as myself, knows down to the bones that the church is most definitely not a government agency. The government, in fact, is out to get us--stripping away our God-given right to tax-free purchases and scheduling our children's park-district sporting events during our times of worship--all of which complicate our divine mandate to do charitable things like get together and eat donuts while we complain about taxes.
An outsider to the church, on the other hand--who has not been blessed with a parochial education that explains how the government has persecuted the American church and how the church has persevered in its charitable work of televangelism and lock-ins--might be inclined to perceive the church as a government agency, since every time a representative of the church is on TV he or she is telling people what to do and how to do it.
I should mention at this point that the cashier was a lovely young girl, showing no animosity whatsoever toward my wife for daring to work for such an oppressive organization as a church. No, I think she'd just never encountered the question of what a church is, and went with her gut.
I've started reading the book Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, which reports on a broad survey of non-Christians ages 16 to 29. I'm not too far into it, but what I've read thus far suggests that people see the church doing much more governing than charity work. I'm not sure what to do with that information--maybe it comes through in later chapters--but generating more press releases trumpeting the charity work our church is doing doesn't smell like the answer. It smells like something, that's for sure, but it doesn't smell like the answer.
Any thoughts? Read the book; so far it's interesting, and I suspect I'll post more about it before I'm done . . .