Do you go to a “real” church?

Maybe not…

A small news item blipped on my radar this week about a federal court ruling that a religious nonprofit organization that primarily conducts worship services via the Internet and radio does not meet the Internal Revenue Service definition of a church (that has 14 criteria), according to a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling reported on by The National Law Journal.

Those criteria include that it has a recognized creed and form of worship; a formal code of doctrine and discipline; a membership not associated with any other church or denomination; ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies; and holds regular religious services.

The organization in question with this ruling is The Foundation of Human Understanding – The Federal Circuit panel deemed the associational test the most important. It agreed with the lower court that the foundation’s “electronic ministry” did not satisfy the test.

As the pastor serving an online congregation that does likely meet the “associational test” I was at first taken aback at a the line of demarcation from our feds. Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t need Rome to validate our little gathering of disciples. Call me old school, but the notion of federal criteria for declaring a fellowship church or not church seems a little hinky to me.

Take a look and see what you think – does your church meet these? How about my emergent sisters and brothers? And what social movements or celebrity fan clubs can you think of that might meet these criteria?

According to the IRS there are 14 criteria that determine whether or not a group is a church:

*Distinct legal existence
*Recognized creed and form of worship
*Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
*Formal code of doctrine and discipline
*Distinct religious history
*Membership not associated with any other church or denomination
*Organization of ordained ministers
*Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study
*Literature of its own
*Established places of worship
*Regular congregations
*Regular religious services
*Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young
*Schools for the preparation of its members

The IRS generally uses a combination of these characteristics, together with other facts and circumstances, to determine whether an organization is considered a church for federal tax purposes.

Just thinkin’ out loud and would love to hear your thoughts. What criteria would you make for whether not a bevy of believers were actually a church?



  1. Sophia

    What the?!?!

    These criteria are especially disturbing …
    *Recognized creed and form of worship
    *Formal code of doctrine and discipline
    What about Unitarian Universalism? For many disenfranchised people, UU churches are the refuge of last resort. They’d *better* count as a church!!

    *Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young
    What if the congregation’s demographic doesn’t have enough children to necessitate such a program? Are such congregations automatically disqualified, or do you just have to have an empty sunday-school class to satisfy the IRS?

    *Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study
    Now, I agree that I don’t see why any church would *want* to ordain ministers who haven’t undergone some study — but I don’t think it’s the place of the IRS to mandate that. And what if the church had an “all of us are equal” attitude, and as such, has a religious *objection* to ordaining ministers — with *or* without a course of study? Is it the place of the IRS to say that such customs are less valid?

    *Distinct religious history
    What? Is this now going to be similar to what they have in some countries, of illegalizing all religions that can’t prove they had a presence in the country prior to a certain year? Seriously — what is meant by a “Distinct Religious History”.

    *Literature of its own
    Not a hard criterion to meet. If I wanted to start a church — I could meet this criterion within weeks — maybe even just an hour if I wasn’t such a perfectionist. Still – I don’t see how it’s the IRS’s place to mandate this.

  2. I have now participated in koinonia…
    I’m not sure where I stand on it. I have to admit that I am surprised by the ‘real’ community & fellowship that I experienced.

    I ‘real’ at some level begining to get in the way of our engaging God’s mission?

    I see that on average US protestants give about 2.6% of their income… of that about 97% stays in the church it is given. I’m guessing to support infrastructure, salaries, and the like.

    So – does then Koinonina then postion the church to ‘let go’ of some of this and look to a new way of being for/with the world? Or is it escapist?


    I’m still wrestling with it…


  3. Kimberly Knight


    Great to hear from you and glad to know you felt a sense of community in your visit to Koinonia. I hope you will come again and experience a growing sense of community as you bring your own voice to the little crowd.

    There are lots of ways that Koinonia for us is of course very real and the deepness that you got a glimpse of is just one of the factors. I do think that the American church, the European church – Catholic and Protestant – well in fact many denominations and world religions suffer from an edifice complex. By that I mean they put so much time, energy, money and self worth in the structure that often the Gospel get lost in the drywall dust.

    I do not believe that online church replaces face to face community but we are under a lot less “overhead” pressure (we do have to pay for server space but that is it right now, no one on staff even draws a salary – most of us are paying to do this).

    There are many things we as still discerning about our life together at Koinonia in Second Life – privileging mind over body, the digital divide that prevents many from participating, what do sacraments look like in a virtual space (but that just asks us to explore our community’s theology of sacraments eh?.

    I hope you will hang around a bit more and think, pray and explore these notions with us.

    Kimberly – Sophianne

  4. Kimberly Knight

    Oh, check out our shiny new web site –

  5. Kimberly –

    Thanks for talking through this w/ me!

    Hmm… I had not thought of the privileging mind over body aspect.

    So how do you counter what seems to be at first blush a “Gnostic” perspective?

    I was chewing on the idea of funerals after attending last Wednesday.

    Although not a sacrament (in my tradition) is does also raise the question of the physical aspects over simply mind… Paul’s idea of sarx vs soma and how do these (or do they) relate to pneuma?

    Since you have been at this for four years, how have you wrestled through these yourself.

    I’m not fishing for something to ‘hook’ you with. I am genuinely interested in exploring these issues. In the realm of the emerging church (which I would include Koinonia in) there seems to be something valid going here.

    I’m still just too new to this to have fully digested it yet, but I am fascinated by the possibilities (and the constraints) 🙂

    • Kimberly Knight

      Sorry to be long in replying – we’ve mostly moved our blog over to the web site –

      The best way I can answer your questions is to invite you to come be a part of our community and see what you experience and what thoughts percolate up for you after you’ve been in world a while. There are so many wonderful and challenging aspect to community online that are best understood through experience 🙂

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