Monday, November 14, 2011

Church: No Longer "Business" As Usual!

Earlier this week I was asked what I think about the upswing in the trend of church mergers. I first responded with a question of my own: Do you want the real answer or the nice one? To his credit he asked for the real one and I gave it. You didn't ask, but here is my real answer...

"Merger" is a business term where two separate corporations consolidate all their assets to form one single and larger organization. Usually, this strategy is driven by greed–for money, influence and greater control of a market.

I mentioned to him that this is actually a symptom of a very serious affliction in the kingdom of God–the view of church as a business. The thinking behind a merger is that the church is a business with assets, employees, a board of directors and a commodity it offers to its constituents. This understanding of church is so prevalent that I imagine right now many are reading that last sentence and thinking it is a true description of what their church is today. Friends, that is how far removed we are from the New Testament.

Delving further into a false paradigm in an attempt to do it better is a bad idea. Why would you want to do something wrong better? I believe many of the new trends in church are just that. Franchising your church brand via multisite is a similar idea. Oops, sorry I just offended a bunch of my friends, didn't I?

But seriously, the idea of multisite is that we have a single church that meets in different locations. Some claim that this is very much like the New Testament. Yeah, that is very New Testament, in fact that is the body of Christ in general, isn't it? "One Lord, one faith one baptism..."

But multisite carries more to it than this. It puts a single brand on the church, usually tied to a dynamic teacher or methodology (usually it's the teacher) and appeals to Christians as consumers looking for that brand of worship service. Sometimes they offer the same preacher but with a different style of music to appeal to a variety of consumers. This again is a symptom of a bigger problem–our view of church is screwed up. In many ways, this is a microcosm of denominationalism which brands a certain form of church and functions as a corporation. Of course denominationalism is not biblical either. Wherever competition exists for a market share we are in business not Kingdom work, and I'm afraid much of what is taking place today is more of the latter than the former.

What I said to the person who asked me about church mergers is that church is not a business, nor a building. It's not a weekly event to attend, nor just an organization or corporation.

In the Bible the church is not defined but instead is described with pictures: a flock, a field, a family, a body, a bride, a branch, a building made of living stones. Never is it described by the pictures we typically have today: a building (w/ and address made of the non-living stones with stained glass a steeple and a sign with a logo), a business, a school or a hospital. We have substituted an organic and life producing view for an institutional one that does not produce life but at best simply tries to preserve it and contain it.

Jesus faced a this same problem. Lets look at his response to a similar situation in Mark 11:15-18:
Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’? But you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.
While examining this passage, my good friend and ministry co-laborer, Paul Kaak suggests we ask, "Why were they so fearful and so murderously angry?" Paul points out that Jesus' words were a double edged indictment. They had substituted their true calling for a false identity. They had become distributors of religious goods and services and had abandoned their true missional identity. Becoming takers rather than givers, rather than propagating the freedom of truth to all people without prejudice, they were now focused on preserving the institution financially and culturally at all costs.

We must be careful to not do the same thing. The predominate way of seeing the church today contains, conforms and controls the people. The biblical pictures of the NT are all about releasing and reproducing the life of the church.

Inorganic things can produce, but not reproduce. As Christian Schwartz points out so eloquently, "A coffee maker can make coffee (praise God), but it cannot make more coffee makers." Jesus intends for his bride and body to be fertile and for his branch to bear fruit. He could have used the pictures of a business or academic institution but he didn't, nor should we.

Jesus has great patience and shows much grace. I believe there is hope for our churches today. I am not suggesting that the vast majority of churches today are all wrong and need to shut down. I am simply stating that we need to stop seeing church through faulty lenses that corrupt our church practices. Lets not function like a business and start relating to one another like a body. Lets move beyond being an academic institution and start becoming a disciple making and reproducing movement. See church as a family on mission together rather than a once-a-week religious event to make me feel better for the week ahead.


Marty Boller said...

Brave words but rightly spoken! A GOOD READ. THANKS!

Dan Benson said...

Your comments on multi-site churches remind me that Crystal Cathedral got started at a drive-in movie theater. Why not just "attend" church on the Internet?

Anonymous said...

"amen" about sums up my response. yes. AMEN

Jason C Dukes said...

Grateful for u bro. Very apt declaration.

Jen said...

This addresses some of the issues and concerns I have been thinking through as I painted a series titled, "The Church". I admit, have more questions than answers. Still, consumerism is an important issue. May we, as the church, courageously embrace our mission to not only make disciples but to make disciple-makers.

bob gilbert said...

what is the difference between controlling a market/gaining market share over reaching the lost?

Mark said...

Another concept in business is economies of scale. I think many "merging" churches are seeking to accomplish this. However, I think a problem arises when we seek efficiency above all else. We are apt to ignore relationships and focus on rigid systems that are inflexible and seek to homogenize everyone for the sake of reaching the masses. By attempting to reach everyone, we don't really reach anyone. That is why the effectiveness and flexibility of multiplication movements is so vital. Good post.

Arthur Sido said...

Excellent thoughts. When we treat local churches as competing entities scrambling for customers and the resources they bring (i.e. money), then using a corporate management philosophy makes sense but it makes no sense when we see the church as a family.

Anonymous said...

Virtual universalism is often promulgated inside churches that profess doctrinal orthodoxy in their written doctrinal statements but regularly assure all attending of the love of God and the benefits of being under grace and part of the family of God. Often, comments from the front of the church virtually assure all in attendance that they are part of the family of God.

Calls for repentance, faith, obedience and asking God to do the supernatural work of the new birth by the power of the Holy Spirit have been largely absent or at least very infrequent.

Congregations are told that God must do the work of sanctification so don't aim to be holy. "You can't do it in your own strength" is a common refrain. You can't become part of the family of God in your own strength either. Fortunately, Almighty God does do supernatural work in His own strength in the lives of individual, it's called the new birth and being born again and when it happens, it is accompanied by subsequent sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

As goes the warning of Jude 1:4, some have turned the grace of God into a call to wantonness and careless learning with the reasoning that "everyone sins". Unspoken goes the implied message that sin is no big deal.

In one area, modern pulpits may ask the congregation to obey God and that is the matter of tithes and offerings. On other areas of obedience, they have become strangely quiet.

God has lovingkindness for people but also important is the love and devotion that we have for God. There is a difference between God's love for us and our love for God. It is good to recognize both.

God makes differences and we do well to recognize them. In the beginning, He made a difference between light and darkness, earth and sky, land and sea, male and female. Among people there are differences in how people hear and how they respond. In evangelism, some are reached with compassion and others with warnings that may incite fear before saving faith. (Jude 1:21-23)

Among people there are differences between regenerate and unregenerate, sheep and goats, saved and lost. A former emphasis upon soul winning is gone. The message of the cross and of the necessity of the new birth, of picking up crosses and denying oneself is offensive and not conducive to large numbers for attendance, collections, and building program pledges.

Statistics have shown that pastors and staff at large churches are compensated more than they are at smaller churches. Salary surveys do get made. Many church staff do earn less $$ in a church organization than they would in another type of organization. When church income and assets grow, it does provide justification for a bigger pay and prequisite package and surely this motivates some.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 is a well-known passage that defines the knowledge of God as knowing his lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness. A form of knowing God and his lovingkindness has been taught. Sin, righteousness and judgment to come have received far less emphasis. You must be born again.

Matthew Berry said...

Great post, Neil. I loved how you said, ""Inorganic things can produce, but not reproduce." So true!

Neil Cole said...

Bob, good question. The issue is competition. The reality is that churches in America are growing at the expense of other churches. According to a recent post from Skye Jethani (editor of Leadership Journal and Author) 50 average sized churches close every week in America while mega churches grow. Other reports indicate that those smaller churches actually have a far greater percentage of growth by evangelism than do the megachurches. So what is actually occurring across this nation is competition for a limited market of consumers. That my friend is "business as usual."

Bill said...

Great blog Neil. Very well spoken Brother.

Mercedes said...

This problem is far too engrained in the Western Church culture and I believe the Holy Spirit moved away from these type of churches a long time ago.

Personally, I no longer go to church as most people understand church today. For me Christian Faith and Church as we Westerners understand it and live it today are two completely different things. One is alive and the other one is dead. One is Spirit the other flesh feeding on flesh. I have just written on my blog about one of the biggest and most influential churches in America which in my opinion has really lost its North. They are now using their small groups to keep each other accountable through a weight loss programme. The mind boggles and the Spirit grieves.

Anonymous said...


I sympathize with where you are coming from, but also feel a deep tension inside.

I am thinking of a pastor of a large church who this article directly applies to... The ironic thing is that the congregation initially started out very organic. However as the church exploded in growth the pastor, (who still has a shepherd's heart) admitted he was in over his head and after much prayer sought advice from business leaders to "redeem" some of their organizational methods so that He could Shepherd the people more effectively.

I am reminded of Exodus 18 where Jethro supplied Moses with an organizational structure that enabled Moses to better utilize his time and resources.

I do agree that we need to be on guard and fight the American idol of consumerism. However I am also concerned with "throwing the baby out with bathwater", and declaring that all business organizational practices and marketing are evil.

Very well written article and thought provoking indeed.

littlewarrior said...

Great post... I was once approached by a larger church as they asked us to 'join them'. I said that that would be great if they took on our name instead of us taking on theirs... I am still waiting for them to get back to me though after 4 years of waiting for answer I guess they changed their mind

Ed Waken said...

To Kevin -
Bro, my 25 cents :-) on your thoughts... Exodus 18 is often cited by churches as an example for a more business structured model (efficient). The problem is that Jesus turned this type of system upside down (made it messy).

The key passage for me is Matt. 20:20-28 where Jesus does away with any notion of leaders in His church being 'over' people. Instead, they are to be 'among' people. Jesus tells us that His leaders are to be servants - those underneath everyone else (not figuratively but literally).

The purpose for them serving is to help them to be healthy so they themselves can hear from the Head of the Church for themselves and respond to Him. Ok - don't want this to be any longer, much is left out but I hope to have made some beneficial thoughts here.


Unknown said...

Faith vs Management - The business model is managing limited resources to gain more resources for itself. The Church model should be relying on God-given resources in Christ through the power of Holy Spirit for the distribution to those who are in need. Faith not management should be our primary mode of living. I’m sure it would be naive to think there is no management in a community of believers. But I would much rather be a part of an assembly that is trusting God rather than “good management” to fulfill the Great Commission. It seems the Apache aren’t the only ones who got the cow (The Starfish and the Spider).

John Wright said...

desticGood article and I would agree with most of what you say, but if you don't feel more prepared to go into the mission field after a time of worshiping God with those of like faith on the Lord's day, there is probably something wrong with your ability to be touched by the preaching of the Gospel as recorded in God's own word, and to hear the testimonies of others as to the working of God in there lives.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your article,but if you don't feel refreshed and invigorated to begin another week in the Mission Field fter worshiping the Lord in his house on his day,and hearing the Gospel presented by one of his choice servants,as well as hearing testimonies of others as to the Lord's working in there lives, there is probably something wrong with your ability to be touched as the Lord tries to minister to you in this way.

Dan Benson said...

"in his house" ... "on his day" ... "his choice servants"

Where are you getting this stuff? Is that what the Bible teaches? There's some unraveling that needs to occur there.

Anonymous said...

Neil, I agree wholeheartedly that church is not a business nor a building nor an event nor a place where the vast majority sits passively and depends on a few pastors. Rather than the current model of adapting "church" to society's preferences, the true gospel brings people to Jesus to be transformed into His likeness.

Erik said...

Neil. I'm not sure if you've elsewhere defined "institutional" or "organic," but it seems that biblically, God created institutions so that life would flourish and God would be glorified. Think of human reproduction. God did not simply want people to procreate with whomever, whenever. He "instituted" a system, a context, into which God honoring procreation was to take place: marriage. Similarly with government (the essence of "institution"). Sometimes Governements stifle life, nevertheless, God demands that we be subject to them (1 Pet. 2:13,14). That does not mean we are to subject ourselves to any particular church blindly, but it doesn't seem God would have us to live anarchically.

Is a family "organic" or an "institution?" Seems to me it is both. It is something "instituted" by God, there is some semblance of order, routine, and an authority structure within a family. Organic and institution are not opposites. Sure there is a delicate balance between godly authority and tyranny, healthy routine and monotony, organization and perfectionism. But, even a healthy institution which causes life to flourish, is still an institution.

If you are not arguing for anarchy, then I would say you are simply arguing for a different type of institution. The argument is not "organic vs. institution" it is bigger institution vs. smaller institution. Institution with more structure vs one with less.

Just a thought.

Erik Fish said...

Erik, (the other Erik)
I'm glad our four kids aren't growing up to see our family or the church that meets in our house as a business.

They see both as a family. There's planning, there's order (in the midst of the messiness of life), but, in the end, they are both family.

Anonymous said...

At what point do we abandon the status-quo paradigm as an "old wine skin"? Isn't the problem with the status-quo a systemic problem?
The Charismatics have been trying to change the system from within since the 60's, but they just became a part of the failed system. Doesn't it require a complete departure or to put it more clearly a new wine skin altogether?

Victor said...

@Ken: I agree. In fact, Wayne A. Meeks, gives a good argument as so does Ben Wetherington on that. In fact there is evidence from the New Testament and Apostolic writings that the development was in formation very early.