Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Church Business

The Church has been using business models for a long time. It has been quite fashionable for church leaders to borrow jargon, organizational structures, mission and vision foci, and leadership styles from the business world in recent memory. In this paradigm, making disciples of Jesus Christ is equated with selling a product or service.

And so I’m wondering, now that GM has gone through bankruptcy and plans to come out smaller, more efficient, more specialized, “leaner and meaner” (whatever that means) will the church follow that model, too? GM is not the only company to realize that being a giganto-normous behemoth may not very well be the best business model to follow, but definitely is one of the most apparent.

GM has decided to eliminate some car lines, reduce its workforce, and close a bunch of factories. So, will the church now eliminate some ministries, reduce its staff, and close a bunch of congregations?

Are we supposed to follow business models when unlimited growth is the goal but eschew them when that goal proves unsustainable?

It seems to me that there may be a pattern that goes something like – a business starts out with a great idea, then people start loving that idea so much that it becomes really popular, so the business grows in order to meet that demand, and as the business grows it adds bureaucracy to handle the growth itself, then eventually the bureaucracy outweighs the idea and the whole mess begins to implode. The bureaucracy, the growth itself has replaced that great idea as the focal point of the business, and lacking that impetus there is no outcome but collapse.

Unless you see the pattern and catch it before the implosion starts.

So what if the great idea in question is God’s love? This is the greatest idea of all! And it’s a pretty popular idea, too, right? So because it is so popular and so many people are drawn to it, the church grows, and some bureaucratic structure has to be created in order to facilitate all of that. I mean, someone has to be in charge, right? So the institution of the church adds a little structure here, a little hierarchy there, all for the sake of encouraging growth. Until eventually we notice that the focus has shifted from the great idea (oh yeah – it’s about God’s love!) to the bureaucracy, to the growth itself. When that happens, it is not long before the implosion starts.

By the way, I think the pattern can be expressed at multiple levels: a congregation, a conference, a denomination. Like a fractal kind of thing.

So what now? Seeing the implosion happen to GM, having followed business models adapted for church growth, are we to continue following them knowing that eventually there will be no way to sustain the unwieldy structure, no matter how great the original idea was?

Are we to take a couple of steps back on the “life cycle of an organization” and rethink vision, mission, and strategies in order to avoid the impending collapse, only to enter into the cycle once again at some time in the future?

Or maybe the problem was when we thought that it would be a good idea for the church to follow business models in the first place. Maybe what we should do is stop trying to be like the business world and start trying to be the church. Maybe God has a better model for the church than a market-driven consultation firm.

Or maybe we just go with it, declare some version of “bankruptcy” like GM did, and come out the other side with the ecclesial version of “leaner and meaner.” What would denominational bankruptcy look like? Tossing the Book of Discipline out and starting from scratch?

What would a simpler, smaller, and less cluttered church look like, and what would we be able to do for the sake of the greatest of all great ideas?

6 comments:

Stephanie Moore said...

Elaine Heath writes, "In the United States the temptation is not so different. We do not think of our neighbors and hear Jesus say, "I thirst." Instead we think of giving units, salaries, health insurance, new sanctuaries, cutting-edge music, and the big church that is taking all our young people with its dynamic youth pastor and exciting trips. How can we ever compete with that? we ask ourselves. We just are not entertaining enough.

Bro. Dave said...

I agree with your assessment of the situation. And I think, yes, we SHOULD declare bankruptcy -- perhaps even spiritual bankruptcy -- cut middle managers (even some execs), close underperforming churches of all sizes, rethink the mission, and come out on the other side "leaner and meaner"... and focused on real ministry!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rev Andy
Finally - Yes - That's exactly how it should be, in my humble opinion. And you wrote it so well!
Christine Coble

Stresspenguin said...

Bro. Dave said what I was gonna say.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe the problem was when we thought that it would be a good idea for the church to follow business models in the first place. Maybe what we should do is stop trying to be like the business world and start trying to be the church. Maybe God has a better model for the church than a market-driven consultation firm.

Andy:

Great post. The above paragragh jumped out at me. I picked up a book yesterday that you may already be familiar with that pretty much captured this point in the introduction. It is John MacArthur's "The Book on Leadership" (2004). I have yet to complete this book, but MacArthur's point is that the bible has many examples of successful leadership styles that can yeild fruitful ministries (ie successful organizations - presumably churches); yet many wish to emulate "successful", fashionable models from the secular world.
Just food for thought.

Best,
Joseph

Kyleinkc said...

There are way to many small churches in UMC and many of them are still open because of the politics of the church not because of the mission of the church. The medium to large church is the present and our future. It is time to close many buildings. Notice I said buildings because many of them stopped being a church years ago.