Rethinking Church Part 5: Church Business

Eugene Kim
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“In the beginning, the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”
~ Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate

“[Jesus] scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables… he said… Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
~ John 2:15-16

A strange way to be the Church

I remember years ago when our church planted a satellite campus in the city to better reach students. On one of our first opening Sundays, we were visited by the pastor of another local church. At first, I thought he was just being cordial but soon realized he actually came to intimidate us! In his view, we were invaders moving in on his turf. He literally said to us, “There’s only so much of the pie to go around!”

I also remember feeling irked when a new church plant appeared in OUR neighborhood. Their advertising read something like, “bringing the Gospel to (name of our town).” I thought, um, what have we been doing this whole time? However, I knew right away that this type of church plant had a very low chance of survival. Our church’s footprint was already well established in the area and we had a great children’s program. We “cornered the market” so to speak.

After 25+ years in ministry, I’ve come to see that the American Church has largely become a mirror image of the capitalistic, market-driven culture we live in. We have made “church” into a destination or event we go to, a website to visit, or a name brand to follow. It seems we have adopted a way of being the Church in our day that looks more like franchising small businesses or running companies than being local spiritual communities based on love.

The staff-led, programmatic model we see in many American churches has certainly yielded some good fruit. However, we have tended to overlook the many downsides and problems that also come along with it, and the Church is now facing a time of reckoning. It is becoming increasingly clear that our current form of Christianity simply does not look very much like the way of Jesus. And I believe the commercialization of Christianity is at the root of much that has gone wrong.

It’s not you, it’s the system

My intention is not to blame, shame, or discourage. I know many churches are struggling, pastors and church staff are tired, and some might be wondering if what they’re doing even matters. But perhaps that is all the more reason why we need this conversation. I have spoken with dozens of ministry leaders who sense something is wrong but don’t know what to do about it. They wish for a better way to be and do church but feel captive to the system.

I know how difficult it is to resist getting swept away by the current of the Christian industrial complex of churches, denominations, seminaries, publishers, conferences, music, para-church ministries, celebrity pastors, leadership gurus, consulting services, etc. It’s the water we swim in.

What would it look like if our Christianity was shaped more by capitalism than by Christ?

  • We would be preoccupied with branding, marketing, and production
  • We would use numbers and metrics to measure success
  • We would assume bigger is better
  • We would see pastors functioning more like CEO’s or small business owners than shepherds
  • We would see hype and self-promotion as normal
  • We would see more competition than cooperation
  • We would see some churches and leaders amassing power and wealth while others struggle to survive
  • We would see churches with mostly passive consumers rather than active disciples

Clearly, this description is not just hypothetical; it is our current reality.

Eugene Peterson wrote:

“The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.”

It's not anyone's fault. It's simply the system we've inherited. It's all most of us have ever known!

Church is big business

According to a 2016 study, the religious economy in the U.S. – of which Christianity is a significant part – is worth more than Apple, Amazon, and Google combined! Over one trillion dollars per year! In other words, we as the Church spend tens of billions of dollars each year on buildings, staff, and mostly inward-facing programming and event production. (Not to mention millions of hours of free labor from volunteers) There are, of course, churches doing good work in their communities but it's reported that on average, Christian churches spend only 1% of their budgets on benevolence ministries outside the church.

Given the state of our world right now, perhaps we need to ask ourselves: Are we truly in the business of healing the world or have we become just another business? (Businesses give to charity too!) If Jesus were to appear in the flesh today, would he even recognize what we have come to call "church"? And more importantly, would he approve? Or, would he be flipping tables?

The work of ministry is supposed to belong to everyone, but we have turned it into an industry that markets and sells the religious products, services, and expertise of a select few. In so doing, we have compartmentalized the sacred from the secular in people’s lives. We have turned God into a commodity and created a whole economy based on religious gatekeeping and hierarchy. In many ways, we have taken what is supposed to be freely available and made it expensive and exclusive.

As long as our churches continue to be structured and run like businesses competing for market share, they will continue to be overbuilt and top-heavy. We will hoard and squander resources. We will be driven by power, hierarchy, and celebrity. We will keep people divided and vie for our own interests and self-preservation.

There is no denying the rich spiritual connection and community that can be experienced in a traditional programmatic church. However, we must be willing to see not only the full cost of our way of operating but also who is getting burnt out and left out in the process.

God’s Kingdom or ours?

Church leaders frequently talk about advancing, building, and “taking ground for” God’s Kingdom, none of which Jesus ever asked us to do. In fact, this language is nowhere to be found in the Bible! Christ’s primary message on earth was that the Kingdom of God has already come near. The Bible tells us the Kingdom is something we seek, find, receive, inherit, enter, and proclaim because it is already here and now, among us. God's Kingdom especially belongs to the poor, the persecuted, and little children.

So then, whose Kingdom are we really advancing, building, and taking ground for? Could it be that we’re really just building our own little kingdoms and empires around pastors, churches, ministries, and denominations?

It seems much of the Church has bought into a way of operating that is based on scarcity and competition — a zero-sum game, winner takes all economy where everyone must fight for a slice of the pie in order to survive. It’s a system that favors the powerful and does not reflect the Kingdom of God, nor God’s design for the Church as one Body.

Our business model = our discipleship model

We can speak from our pulpits and platforms about the spiritual dangers of consumerism week after week, but not much will change as long as we are still operating churches like businesses and treating people like audience members and customers. In other words, no amount of preaching or programming is going to address the structural issues that are keeping us stuck in the same old patterns of production and consumption. As they say: "our medium is our message."

The reality is — our discipleship model is often just our business model in disguise.

It determines what and whom we value and drives most of what we do and how we do it. Like a computer's operating system, it runs in the background but has already made many decisions for us before we're even aware of it.

If our business model is dependent on drawing crowds and keeping people loyal to our brand, then we must ask ourselves: what are we truly discipling people into? If our business model is based on competition with others: how are we supposed to be united as the Body of Christ? If we need pastors, staff, and buildings in order to even have "church": then what are we communicating about what it means to BE the Church?

Business as usual?

You might be reading and thinking, “But MY church is great!” That may be true but we must still acknowledge that the system as a whole is not working. Our awkward and unhealthy relationship with money is at the root of all kinds of compromises, conflicts of interest, and disordered priorities in the Church. Many pastors cannot even speak freely about important social issues out of fear that they will lose people, donors, or their job!

The hard truth is — despite all the books, expertise, and resources we have at our disposal, discipleship in America is in crisis. The witness of Christianity (especially American Evangelicalism) in the world is largely ruined. Meanwhile, people are still lonely and hurting, societies are still divided and unjust, and the earth is dying. In my view, we simply cannot afford to just keep doing business as usual. So, what can we do?

Existing churches and institutions will have many difficult questions to wrestle with in the coming years, and I hope to help churches navigate them as best as I can. But for New Wine Collective, our conviction is to step out into the wilderness and margins to begin reimagining things from the ground up.

Change the business model, change the Church

I believe we need to create a new alternative economy for the Church that better reflects God’s upside-down Kingdom of love, abundance, and justice, rather than fear, scarcity, and competition. We need to build a system that is more ethical, equitable, and sustainable for ALL, not just a few. If we change the business model, we change the Church. And if we change the Church, we change the world.

I know it can sound far-fetched but I believe it is possible. Online platforms are completely revolutionizing traditional industries, and there are few industries more traditional, old school, and old power than church! It is time for us to rethink and reboot "church" for the 21st century, and do it in a way that reflects the values of God's Kingdom, not capitalism.

Instead of playing the same old game of competing for a slice of the pie, I believe we can actually change the game by baking a bigger and better pie. We can create new value through an online platform that connects people rather than keeps them in competitive silos. Instead of separate church brands and ministries hoarding people and power, we can level the playing field and create a decentralized and distributed network that shares power and resources so that anyone can do "church" anywhere, with anyone! I believe we can rewrite the rules and design a new system that empowers people to redefine what it means to be Christian in the world today.

To be clear, the goal of New Wine Collective is not to start an "online church" or to plant or franchise New Wine Collective churches, or to be a church entity at all. Our goal is not to get people to "join our thing" but to create a fundamentally different model – a new way of being the Church altogether.

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