Facebook has finally figured out what I do. For years my profile cryptically stated that I worked at “DF” and that my role was “keeping the chaos at a manageable level”. But in the last six months they have discovered that I work in the “religious industry” and I have begun receiving targeted ads related to my “profession”. These would be humorous if not such a depressing insight into the hollowed out state of Christianity in America.
The obvious pitches promise proven plans to increase end of year giving, techniques to extract more money from the faithful, and ways to make my teaching more engaging. But it gets worse. Another ad touted technology as a way to engage members and guests. It warned against having a volunteer named “Martha” manning an information desk in the foyer, and instead promoted kiosks and software so guests and members could take “next steps” such as sign up for a small group, join a ministry, or request baptism. Request baptism? Why not have the kiosk administer the baptism as well, a diffuser to mist people with a little holy water while they click on a statement of belief.
Additionally, I have been informed that all successful churches know how to use social media for effective marketing. Examples involved using geofencing to target young mothers waiting in school carpool with ads for the services we offer for children and families. After all, those are the people we are going for and you know they are looking at social media while they wait. There was no suggestion that we use geofencing to target those at the unemployment office, the homeless shelter, or at the courthouse. I am sure that those sitting with a court appointed attorney while waiting to appear before the judge are browsing social media as well, but they are not the right “customers” for our religious product.
Jesus told Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), but some apparently think his statement is a lament. They have been working tirelessly to rectify Jesus’ failure. If only we can reshape the church in our time according to the dictates of the best practices of the corporate world, the attention grabbing techniques of the entertainment industry, and brand building skills of top marketing professionals, then we will be more successful than Jesus ever was.
I am not being critical of any of these practices per se. The aforementioned are helpful and necessary for businesses and enterprises, but they can be downright destructive to the church. The false assumption is that the people of God, the Body of Christ, ought to be managed, structured, funded, and otherwise conformed to a business model. However good these practices might be for a business venture, they are no more appropriate for for the shaping of a community of love and mutual support which seeks to imitate the way of Jesus than as the guiding principles for the healthy nurturing of one’s own family. Dad, mom, and the children will suffer irreparable harm if branded, marketed, monetized, and managed as a corporation. The church is much more like an extended family than a corporation.
The legitimate business objective of producing a quality product or service cannot be likened to the ministry of the church. A business cannot afford to hire unqualified people while a church actively seeks unqualified people. For a church to act as a business, and too often they do, it would not seek out the marginal and hopeless sinners of the world but look for those who can bring their competence and resources for the continued “success” of the religious enterprise.
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:22-25
No competent business owner can afford to do what Paul is saying, to keep employees who are not productive, much less actively hire them. However, in the church we should spend inordinate energy on those who may never “be productive.” To do otherwise is to reject Paul’s teaching and neglect the weak and struggling for the progress of the institution. A church for sinners will fail in worldly measures as surely as being nailed to a cross was a glorious insanity.
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Romans 6:8
For a church pursuing material metrics of success, incrementalism toward glorying in the cross is not possible. Only abject and dismal disappointment and failure will be the medicine of renewal. Overturning the money changers’ tables and declaring the imminent doom of the corrupted version of God’s house is appropriate. We will weep over Jerusalem as it lurches toward destruction. A necessary death, then resurrection.