Commerce in church: faith-based enterprise or unholy invasion?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

People weary from the holiday shopping blitz and longing for refuge in a noncommercial zone had better not count on finding it in church. These days, along with the usual sermons, places of worship are quenching more literal forms of thirst, too.

Those who crave Starbucks can step over to a kiosk at Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H. At True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., the spot where the choir once sang now sells Subway sandwiches. And in more than a few picturesque meeting houses, hymns and prayers ascend through a steeple that doubles as a leased-out cellphone tower.

For a growing number of churches, the boundary between sacred space and marketplace is coming down, as congregations cautiously warm to the notion of sharing their holy dominion with for-profit business. Purists who perceive an insidious desecration find themselves waging an uphill battle with those who regard the new arrangements as a welcome boost to their core missions.

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"Starbucks has done what churches should have done a long time ago, and that's to become more people-friendly," says the Rev. Peter Bonanno, senior pastor of Grace Capital Church. "It's not so much the coffee as the environment the coffee and the coffee bar create - a relaxed, relational, and fun place. We hope to create an environment that we believe is more biblical than [conventionally] religious."

Parishioners seem satisfied. The kiosk opened in July, and visitors say the building that houses it "feels more like a Starbucks ... than a church," says Mr. Bonanno. Since July, average Sunday attendance has doubled to 550.

But short-term convenience and growth may come at the expense of church ideals, says Barry Harvey, professor of contemporary theology at Baylor University in Houston. In his view, spirituality has been "commodified" in the past quarter-century, in part due to "church shopping" and a hot market for religious merchandise. From there, he says, "It's just one more step to say, 'What's the big deal about bringing in a McDonald's?' "

As churches "come to resemble malls," says Dr. Harvey, "they no longer become communities that try to live differently from the rest of the world and model how life is supposed to be lived... We should meet [others] in a marketplace, but then welcome them into a community that says there are deeper ways of relating."

To this point, for-profit businesses have found their warmest church receptions among highly autonomous congregations, where closeness to God depends more on conversion than sacred space. Evangelicals have led the way in embracing Starbucks, Subway, and, at Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston, a McDonald's.

Meanwhile, mainline Congregationalists have welcomed cellphone towers to many of New England's quaint steeples.

"From our perspective, it's been a rather happy encounter with the world of mammon," says Ronald Rucker, moderator of Middlebury Congregational Church in Middlebury, Vt. Construction on its tower began in October, opening the door to $9,000 in annual rental income - and financing a steeple paint job this spring.

But up the road in Newport, Vt., Roman Catholics have split sharply over a proposal to rent out the bell tower for cellphone service. Lifelong church member Linda Curtis and others have filed suit to block tower construction at their St. Mary's Star-of-the-Sea Roman Catholic Church. They argue the introduction of for-profit infrastructure would violate city bylaws stipulating that no building may have more than one use. Her chief concern, though, is a matter of spiritual principle.

"You're using the church for profit, and that's just wrong," Ms. Curtis says. "That church is God's home.... In our society, we've taken God out of everything, and now we're taking His home, too."

Even those who support a cell tower at St. Mary's are sensitive to the possibility that for-profit enterprise in the wrong location could corrupt what's sacred in their trust. Sales of items from rosary beads to Knights of Columbus raffle tickets occur at the rectory and elsewhere, but never in the church sanctuary. The reason: Members recall the story of Jesus toppling the tables of money-changers in the temple.

"They were conducting business in his Father's house, and his Father's house is for worship only," says parish council chairman Michael Marcotte, who supports putting Verizon antennas in the bell tower. "If [the antennas] were to be inside the church itself, we would have never considered it."

In Protestant theology, the church building holds less sanctity than it does in Catholicism, since Protestants don't regard it as a necessity in the transmission of God's grace. Nevertheless, just as some Protestants cheer the practical value of sharing their space with business, others resist, citing equally pragmatic concerns.

"It's not just about the secular invading the sacred. It's about the formation of disciples and how [retail business] affects it," says the Rev. Gary Greene, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in Merrimac, Mass. "We tell new members to give a portion of their income, but the reality would be that we have coffee hour sponsored by Starbucks, and people love it and it's a real cash generator.... What we're saying is that being a member of a community doesn't require anything of you, so it doesn't mean anything."

Yet where Starbucks flows after worship, the pastor tells a different story. Bonanno says his congregation tithes to support its own ministries. The approximately $500 raised at the coffee bar each month has become extra cash for donation to such causes as the Salvation Army, a local food pantry, and new churches.

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