Editor’s note: Much of this piece is relevant for church planting specifically in the context of the USA. However, there are some general ideas which apply to those of us around the globe, too. Enjoy!
The battle church planters face when they attempt to find a place to worship in urban areas is present and real. In our American context, we see the zoning war as possibly the single biggest obstacle to the creation of urban churches.
You may think that these issues are only taking place in large urban areas. However, cities in smaller suburban communities are being hit hard too. Here are some simple tips that every church planter should know:
- Everyone: contact local officials. Even as the foundation of community service and goodwill, churches are just another “land use group” when it comes to zoning or planning departments. Therefore, it’s important to leave a good first impression by making contact early in the process, with full respect and humility. Today, more than ever, we’ve found that churches face greater challenges. However, contacts with local officials can also provide opportunities for becoming part of the big picture of community development. Using conversation seasoned with grace can yield very positive relations and opportunities for community impact.
- Americans: gain knowledge of the RLUIPA. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 protects churches from discrimination. What this essentially means is that “religious assemblies and institutions” must be treated the same as “non-religious assemblies and institutions” under zoning laws. Anywhere a city permits a civic center, community center, theater, or other facility for non-religious assembly, it must also allow a church. RLUIPA allows a church to recover legal fees from a city acting in violation of RLUIPA. Make sure all parties are aware of this information because that may be a motivating factor in favor of your ministry. In fact, the Department of Justice issued an update on RLUIPA enforcement in July 2016. You can find a three-page guide to Federal Religious Land Use Protections here.
- Have a “zoning contingency clause” in any lease or contract. This will protect your ministry from financial losses if your ministry is not able to obtain the proper approvals and zoning permits.
- Know where to go to get help. There is an army of lawyers who specialize in this area. In America, contact Christian Legal Society to find a law firm who helps churches through zoning problems. It doesn’t hurt to ask if they know lawyers who offer pro bono services to ministries facing this battle.
- Before designing and buying a sign, check the zoning regulations once again. Zoning laws will dictate many decisions regarding your sign, primarily the three big questions of size, site, and set-back.
- Know this is war, and who you’re fighting for. You should know going into church planting that you will find opposition. It will not be all “unicorns and rainbows,” as my daughter would say. The best tools to fight against any opposition are prayer, fasting, and spending time resting in Him. Use the connections you have with other pastors and church planters to ask for prayer and wisdom.
*Bonus Tips: Out-of-the-Box Locations for New Church Plants*
Public Library — A Creative, Low Cost Worship Location
A public library can be a very creative, low cost location to hold your worship service in the initial stages of church planting. They often have banquet style rooms that seat up to 200 and some have theaters that seat 230 plus. You will also find that most have projectors in all banquet rooms and sound equipment if you book the theater space. Most do not charge nonprofits for use of the facility and usually have an abundance of free parking. The ministry can most likely place marketing material in the entrance of the library, with some libraries even allowing materials to be placed in every entrance.
Fire Station or Township Hall — Location, Location, Location
A Fire Station or Township Hall can offer a great location for your church plant as most are located on main roads. Often times, in a more rural setting, the Volunteer Fire Station and Town Hall are connected. We have found a few churches that have gone this direction and have been able to seat 120 plus with opportunities for Kid’s Ministry space. Most Stations only charge an administration fee for cleaning and upkeep, keeping the cost low for your church plant.
Roller Rink — Cool Atmosphere, Kid’s Ministry Space, and Good Sound Quality
What an awesome place to plant! You can set up worship in the center of the skating rink, offering enough seating for over 100. In addition to cool lighting and good sound quality, most rinks have party rooms that can easily be turned into a very cool Kid’s Ministry.
If you have any questions or requests, feel free to reach out to us by using our contact form.