The “Zoning Zone”

January 9, 2014

Do, do, do, do;

Do, do, do, do;

The well know musical tones from the old show, “The Twilight Zone,” alerted the viewers that they were about to encounter perplexing problems, ironic twists, and unexpected conclusions.

Those musical tones may also work well when a church plans a building project and begins dealing with local zoning officials and zoning codes—as they enter…“The Zoning Zone.”

With all due respect to local officials, churches are often unaware of the challenges that can arise if they want to make changes to their building. But after all, churches are tax-exempt and many times receive streamlined processes as a non-profit organization. However, churches are also buildings where the public is openly welcomed and therefore must comply to safety, accessibility and planning standards of all public buildings.

Certainly, I value the public service of municipal officials and recognize that they are part of governing bodies that God has ordained (Rom. 13:1-7). But the down economy has created new challenges in acquiring municipal approvals. In the past, public hearing schedules were full and caused churches to wait for the next available opening. However, today, schedules are much clearer—so the process should be streamlined, right? Do, do, do, do; remember you’re in “The Zoning Zone.” Schedules are clearer, but now zoning officials have more time to more thoroughly review projects—and they have time to add more comments and guidelines than ever before. All this may be legal and justified as, “protecting the public interests.” But it also creates more time and expense for church projects.

So what do you do when your church is in “The Zoning Zone?” A full answer would require a book, but here are five principles to consider:

  1. Contact local officials early in the process—with full respect and humility. Churches are a foundation of community service and goodwill. However, to zoning or planning departments, churches are just another “land use group.” Especially in today’s politically correct culture, churches sometimes face greater challenges. And as a tax-exempt entity, local officials are not always eager to extend additional “favors.” 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.
  2. Get professional help. It takes experience to navigate the twists in “The Zoning Zone.” To acquire zoning approval, you may need services from: 

    a. ​Architect—to provide site plans, floor plans, elevations and renderings that show what the proposed building will look like.

    b. Civil Engineer—to provide detailed site plans including: site access, utilities, grading and site retention/detention areas (how and where stormwater will flow across the site).

    c. Traffic Engineer—community officials may require detailed assessments for traffic impact.

    d. Project Attorney—depending on the approval process required, it is often worth the investment for a good attorney to present the case. A lawyer can serve as the “gorilla,” that will not allow a municipality to take advantage of a church.

  3. Push back sometimes; yield sometimes; this calls for wisdom. Develop a critical path schedule for your project and discern between crucial elements for success vs. brief sidetracks. While push back may be appropriate at times, always be respectful and remember that those officials hold the ultimate trump card—they can reject your project. I’ve seen multiple churches purchase property and proceed through the zoning process, only to have their project rejected.
  4. Acquire zoning approval before closing on a property purchase. I can’t emphasize this enough. Include zoning approval as a condition for your offer on a property—you can do this! Yes, it may take longer before closing, but in this real estate market, the buyer is in the driver’s seat and you don’t want to be stuck with a property that you can’t develop for your church facility. I’ve seen churches “stuck,” and they talk to me after they’ve made the purchase when their options are limited and they are at the mercy of local officials. However, if you have not yet purchased the property, local officials are often more cooperative.
  5. Pray. Maybe this is assumed, but may we never take prayer for granted—and in light of the first four principles, we can all see the guidance we need through prayer. Don’t “Sample the provisions without inquiring of the Lord” (Josh. 9:14).

Please note—these processes and costs will just allow your project to move forward. This does not include the detailed construction drawings and specifications necessary to acquire a building permit. That’s all part of the next stage as you enter, “The Building Code Zone.”

There may be numerous twists and turns as you enter “The Zoning Zone,” but God remains sovereign. And if you follow these basic principles, you can emerge stronger in your faith and better equipped for the next stages of the church construction process.

Jim Rodgers

Jim works for Church Building Consultants in Wheaton, IL, a firm that provides churches, Christian schools, and ministries the full spectrum of services to assess, initiate, plan, design, and construct ministry facilities. He is also a Visiting Professor in the DMin program at Grace Theological Seminary. Jim has written articles for Leadership Journal, Your Church, Discipleship … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24