Something I've struggled with in the ministry is how to deal with the business side of church life. There are two schools of thought:
1) Nonconformity: The church should provide a counter-cultural alternative to the world of capitalism. It goes back to a clash of values. Capitalism pursues customer satisfaction, while the church is about self-abandonment and the cross.
2) Adaptive: The church doesn't succeed in modern world when it doesn't operate like a business. Churches that adopt sound business practices will be the ones that succeed, just like Wal-Mart and Microsoft and other businesses have succeeded.
Obviously I'm much more in line with the first of these two, yet I struggle with the inevitable part of being entangled in the business side of things. There are pressures that pastors face to be successful in accumulating members, buildings, dollars, etc. (Perhaps at times they may be more self-generated than they are imposed, but they are still present.) And the populace often acts like a customer base, looking at the religious industrial complex through the lenses of their consumer interests.
To gain some insight in my summer sabbatical interviews with different pastors I shared a resonant quote from Ed Stetzer as a lead-in to my question: "'Greeks turned gospel into philosophy, Romans into a government, Europeans into a culture; Americans into a business.' Explain your assessment of that quote. And how does that play out in your ministry?"
All the pastors asked me to repeat the quote from Stetzer before they responded. Here are the replies I heard...
Pastor #1 (Methodist - UMC) -- All of that has influenced our thinking, but where does it become a passion? A story? A thing that moves us to action or to change? How do we determine that?
The piece that has most influenced me has been the gospel of John – in how I understand who Christ was and how Christ has been connected from the beginning – the pre-existent Christ. I think that’s a Greek understanding. At that time it was a Hellenistic understanding. But I have to agree that it’s really become a culture, a business, and all that junk. To me it’s political as well, with political candidates, and religious stuff being used as campaign promises. I have a hard time with that. Maybe that’s culture.
Pastor #2 (Lutheran - LCMS) -- In terms of everything in America, we want to do it with a business model. The concern becomes that we often see churches that want to be turned into business. But our mission is to proclaim the gospel. Sometimes people adapt a hire-and-fire mentality, or a 'we have to make a profit' mentality, etc. In reality we are in Christ’s service is to grow up people, to build relationships that lead people to Christ.
I think of the Greeks and their philosophers, the Roman empire and their teaching, etc…But it all comes back to relationships. In America everything becomes a business, but it ultimately has to be relating people to people.
Pastor #3 (Congregational - NACCC) -- My first reaction is that it sounds good but it’s very simplistic. The reality is far more complex than that. We need to be careful. We’re tempted to be guilty of doing all of those to some degree. We need to be careful of one of those being us at any time. Look at our churches: sometimes it’s all culture, politics, etc.
Pastor #4 (Congregational - CCCC) -- Yes, it’s true. I think we’ve commercialized Christianity where it’s all about metrics instead of true spiritual growth. I do agree with that. We have commercialized it. We need to get back to the spiritual essence of Christian thought – almost where it’s more similar to what the Greek and Russian Orthodox would do. They have a spiritual and mystical understanding instead of the consumer mindset.
I have to realize that it’s not about numbers. It’s not about how many souls were saved, or how much the offering is. When you get wrapped up in that you get lost from the fact that I was here for somebody who lost their pet, who was having a hard, day, etc. You may cry with them. Those are spiritual moments; they’re not metric moments.
Pastor #5 (Baptist - ABCUSA) -- Historically that seems to be pretty accurate. It’s a description of how the church evolved going back to the ancient philosophy of the Greeks and the influence in the New Testament. The gospel to me is independent of culture. It’s independent of ways that the culture adapts and bends religion to its own will. The gospel is to be independent of all these things. The gospel gets bent, warped, and reshaped in ways that are worldly. In a real sense the gospel stands alone and should not become captive of the cultures of the world.
A very influential book was this one: H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ in Culture. It has sections about Christ above culture, Christ in culture, Christ against culture, etc.… There are five ways that he looks at the life of Christ.
Pastor #6 (Congregational - NACCC) -- << nodding >> All of that is important, but none of it should be the essence (or all in all) -- but it’s all important. But we should definitely be doing it as more than business. It’s lost some of its power because we’ve turned it into a business. We should not be making budget meetings the center of our conferences. We say: "We can’t do ____ because we don’t have the money." We should do what we’re called to do, and then look for the means to fulfill that calling. God will provide.
Pastor #7 (Methodist - UMC) -- …and Jesus intended it to be a lifestyle. There's a great quote from Shane Claiborne: “Most great ideas have been talked about for too long; they need to be lived.”
Also, it’s not my ministry. It’s the ministry of Jesus, and we’re privileged to be a part of it.