It’s not uncommon to hear people make direct comparisons between the church and the business world. Many will look at the practices and trends of the business world and try to adapt those lessons for use in the church. Some will even go so far as to say that the church is, for all intents and purposes, a business.
Naturally, as the title of this article indicates, I disagree. I think that while there are certainly some points of overlap that we don’t want to ignore or deny, there is a fundamental difference between the church and businesses.
That being said, I think that the real problem is not the trendy church consultants who want to turn pastors into CEOs and the church into a marketing agency for Jesus. Rather, the problem is that our capitalist culture trains us to think of everything from a business standpoint. And unless we expose ourselves to these cultural blinders, we’re going to severely misunderstand the calling of the church in the world.
A Caveat: Ways that the Church is Like a Business
Before I move forward decrying people talking about the church like a business, I need to admit that there are some ways in which this comparison is actually justified.
Of course, there are some of the obvious things: the church has to pay bills and salaries; she is an institution with revenue and expenditures and offices and an organizational structure. In this respect she is like a business. It can become easy to overlook these kinds of day-to-day realities, but they’re incredibly important since they support and make possible the larger work of Word and Sacrament ministry.
Then of course there are some not so obvious things. In some of my conversations with people who are in favor of taking lessons from the business world, they will say that when they do this, the point isn’t to say that the church exists to make money. Instead, they make these comparisons because churches are institutions that need to be efficient and organized. In other words, to be business-like is to value efficiency and organization for the sake of your mission or goal. There are very few churches out there that could be accused of being too efficient or too organized.
And I think that this is a fair point. The church has limited resources whether that’s time, space, money, volunteers, etc. It would be foolish to not seek to be efficient and organized in light of our limited resources. And putting the best construction on things, I think that this perspective helps to remind us that churches are not religious country clubs that merely exist for the therapeutic needs of Christians. But the people of God who gather together in churches have work to do. There is work to do and a mission to be accomplished outside of keeping the lights on.
Why the Church is Not a Business: The Obvious Answer
The obvious answer to why the church is not a business is what I’ve alluded to above: no matter how you want to define it, a business ultimately exists to make money and keep up its bottom line; the church does not. Just because the church has a goal/mission and a business has a goal/mission does not mean that the church is basically a business. Lots of organizations have goals, but they don’t all of a sudden become businesses. A non-profit organization may be ruthlessly efficient, strictly organized, and laser-focused on its mission, but none of that makes it a business. It may be like a business in certain respects, but seeking profit is an essential characteristic of a business that automatically disqualifies not-for-profit institutions, including (hopefully) churches.
Now, when I say that this the obvious answer, I recognize that there is probably almost nobody who is going to be so bold as to claim that the church exists to make a profit. There may be several “Christian ministries” who do in fact exist to make a profit, but even they are not as shameless to state this openly.
Of course, this isn’t to deny the legitimacy of fundraising and stewardship. After all, as we recognized above, the church has bills to pay and work to do, and she only has limited resources with which to make all this happen. There’s nothing wrong with teaching people about stewardship, even financial stewardship. There’s nothing wrong with a fundraiser or even a capital campaign. All these are necessary for doing the work that the church has been given to do.
Yet, even in the church we always need to make sure to keep in mind Jesus’ admonition that we cannot serve both God and Mammon (Luke 16:13). This may seem obvious, but money is one of our most natural idols. It’s so easy to put our trust and hope in money. We say to ourselves that if only we had more money, then we could do the ministry we always wanted to do. If only we can complete this capital campaign, then our church’s ministry will be vibrant and flowering.
This is always something we need to guard against.
Why the Church is Not a Business: The Not So Obvious Answer
Like I said above, it can be easy to spot the church business gurus and see how what they’re saying does not match how the church has operated and thought about herself for two thousand years.
However, our American capitalist and industrial society tends to treat everything like a business. For example, think about higher education, something that is supposed to help students to grow in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. However, it’s not uncommon for us to talk about higher education as a business investment. In this mindset you don’t go to school to learn how to think, you go to pay money in exchange for job training. I’ve seen articles that are so crass as to compare the ROIs for various college majors. And while one’s intended career needs to be an important factor in deciding whether one pursues higher education and where/what one studies, this is a depressing view of life. In this view of life you pay money to go to school so that you can get job training so that you can get a job so that you can make lots of money so that you can pay back your loans and eventually make more and more money so that you can eventually you retire and then die. The central end of life becomes economic. Even life is a business.
After a while this kind of thinking becomes second-nature to us, but this is a toxic mindset for the church if she’s not aware of it.
Essentially what I’m saying is that even if you balk at the idea of pastors being like CEOs and shudder at the proliferation of business lingo in the church, you might still view the church as a business in a far more subtle, albeit still toxic way.
I think that we tend to still think of the church as a business whenever we value and evaluate the activities of the church based on their results. It’s easy for us to reduce the mission of the church down to merely “making disciples.” Certainly this is the primary thing, but we can’t evaluate everything that the church does only in term of a result.
For example, I was recently part of a class that had the opportunity to talk to a pastor who had been working the past several years on a congregational revitalization project. The congregation had been slowly declining over the decades and he has now been called in to try and rebuild this once thriving ministry. It’s a tall order and I don’t envy his task. The church is doing a lot, but one of the main focuses has been outreach and service to the community. The church has partnered with a local elementary school to serve the school. People from the congregation help with tutoring and reading with kids. The church helps to put on events like ice cream socials for a particular grade, allowing the parents the time to get to know each other. The school borrows/rents space from the church to hold things like dance classes, etc. These are all things that the school does not have the resources or ability to do on its own. Other programs include ESL classes for Arabic-speaking immigrants, informational classes for parents and retirees and others. It was impressive seeing the wide array of people that this church is able to connect with and serve. The church’s programs are so well respected in the community that there are even non-members and non-Christians who volunteer with the church to help out with these programs.
Needless to say, we were impressed. Eventually, we asked the pastor whether/how many people had been brought into the worship life of this congregation because of all this. Unfortunately, there had been nobody yet. New people had joined the congregation in the past several years since the pastor had started serving there, but nobody who had directly come from these outreach programs.
So then, what do we make of these programs? If we take a results-focused approach, then these programs are failures and should be terminated immediately so that the resources can be diverted elsewhere. Or if we take a reductionist Word and Sacrament approach, then we would say that these programs are a giant waste of time and should never have been pursued in the first place. If it’s not directly about Word and Sacrament, then the church has no business doing it.
But I think that both of these approaches severely miss the point. We can’t evaluate everything in terms of its results. We can’t reduce the mission of the church down to its core and leave out other secondary, albeit still valuable things.
We need to be able to recognize that serving people in need like immigrants and underprivileged kids is a good thing for the church to be doing. If these programs create opportunities where the gospel can be shared or where the Holy Spirit can draw people into the worship life of a congregation, then great. But these are not the only things that give a program value. Even if the congregation never sees a single person come into their church through these programs, they will still have been worthwhile because the church is called to be a resurrection people who live in light of the coming new creation. We can’t help but start to make things new now in our own imperfect way. In other words, these programs are valuable not because they help us accomplish some goal that we’ve set for ourselves, although they can help to do that. Instead, they are valuable because they are a way for the church to live in a way that is consistent with her identity given to her by God through the work of Christ.
The reductionist, results-obsessed mentality we absorb from our culture will blind us to valuable and legitimate ways that we can live out our identity as the peculiar resurrection people of God. This doesn’t mean that we ignore the fact that we have limited resources and can’t do everything that’s valuable. We have to make choices. That’s a reality of being creatures; we’re finite. But even still, we need to have a view of what it means to be the people of God that is more shaped by the hope and witness of the scriptures than the capitalist principles of our American culture.
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