“It all comes down to the three ‘B’s — buildings, budgets, and butts.” This is an old saying I’ve heard more than a few times in ministry. American business in the American church can sometimes seem inseparable. The relationship between the two absolutely exerts influence over faith & practice.
Is the Church a business? A quick glance at American Church culture will yield some interesting observations. For one, many pastoral titles mirror American business org charts. Inside, bottomline metrics of attendance and giving often drive ministry decisions. The management and ownership of property further complicates and blurs the relationship of institutional health with spiritual health. These are the practical complexities of modern ministry. No wonder pastors are increasingly getting their MBA. The American pastorate sits at the intersection of American business and the Kingdom of God. The question is, which will influence the other?
The American pastorate sits at the intersection of American business and the Kingdom of God. The question is, which will influence the other?
The danger here is that the corporate existence of the Church can reframe the ministry & work of a pastor away from framework of the Kingdom of God. Somewhere along the way, care for the “sheep” becomes serving the “stakeholders”. We esteem the investors more than the common man. In this way, the power dynamics of the Church rehearses the economic struggle of Labor versus Capital. If the Church is witness to the power of the resurrection, it must not witness to any other power, especially within its own dynamics.
The issue of politics can help us understand the dangers of the corporate practice of Church. Politics serves as a proxy for corporate sensibilities. Churches often avoid politics under the optics of “concern for the sheep”. But occasionally, this can serve as a pious front for protecting the political sensibilities of the stakeholders. Refusing to talk politics can point to a preservation of the gospel, but it can also indicate a silencing of the gospel by corporate sensibilities. Don’t mess with your investors.
Refusing to talk politics can point to a preservation of the gospel, but it can also indicate a silencing of the gospel by corporate sensibilities. Don’t mess with your investors.
We’d be right to point out here that the conservation of the gospel message is threatened when it’s proclamation is inseparable from imminent political partisanship, devoid of the eternal and transcendent reality of the reign of Christ. Yet it is equally unavoidable to imagine Christian faithfulness apart from the specific challenges of the current moment. “We don’t want to be political” can be a conveniently pious way of sidestepping the sensibilities of investors. But the Scripture rightly counters, God is not a respecter of persons.
In the Scriptures, the Church is never defined along lines of corporate existence. For one, the idea of a corporation—which the State sees as an individual with rights—is foreign to the world of the Bible. Using the images of Scripture, we are invited to understand the Church as a “family” (Matthew 28:18-20), an “embassy” (2 Corinthians 5:20), and a “house” (Titus 2, 3). These among others. So, modern business dealings that orbit around land, possessions, revenue & funds, are located in and function by Scripture’s images that fall under the Kingdom of God.
Practically, the American Church has developed itself along lines of enterprise. It did this as a particular American expression. Whereas the Church of England benefits from State establishment, the American Church benefits from a relationship with the State that is mediated by free enterprise. This relationship is currently in flux.
Using the images of Scripture, we are invited to understand the Church as a “family” (Matthew 28:18-20), an “embassy” (2 Corinthians 5:20), and a “house” (Titus 2, 3)
The relationship of the American State to the Church has always been more connected than disconnected. While “separation” was enshrined in the Bill of Rights, it was not until the 14th Constitutional Amendment in 1868 that the principle of Federal separation was recognized at the State level. David Sehat notes that this gap allowed a significant “moral establishment” of Protestant Christians to influence the United States in ways he deemed both “coercive and exclusionary”. As this moral establishment has been reworked & resourced from different foundations not shared by orthodox Christianity, the enterprising privileges of the American Church are in question.
The prevailing nature of the Church has little to do with our economic privilege and everything to do with perseverance and endurance as we share the sufferings of Jesus.
We must take great care to not conflate the loss of enterprise (and the privilege it brings) with the collapse of the Church. When Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, he was not promising that the Church would keep its tax exempt status or its property. This may be a hard word to hear. Harder still when 200 years of church growth has been predicated on the security of buildings, resources, and cultural power.
But if we value fidelity to the word of Christ above all, we’ll be better prepared to understand what is promised, and what is not. With that surety, the Church is less prone to compromise and complicity. Less prone to choosing the stakeholders over care for the sheep. In this way, we reveal the prevailing nature of the Church has little to do with our economic privilege and everything to do with perseverance and endurance as we share the sufferings of Jesus.