Business models: great for business but not always good for the church


Wherever we look, be that politics, third sector, health or the church, we are told that business principles can help us. As leaders, we are urged to read the memoirs of CEOs. As organisations we are encouraged to work smart, to prioritize, maximise and streamline.

In the last five minutes, I have just watched Farage suggest that his grouping will offer the UK populace a contract that they will deliver. Business is best is the underlying message that pervades our country.

Well, I would like to say: rubbish.

I could talk about education, health and the third sector, where I think this approach really is rubbish.  But my world is the world of the church and so I offer a few reasons why we need to jettison the notion that business principles always help us.

Competition is not Community

Businesses are predicated on the basis of competition. Find a market, grow share of market, build loyalty, move into new markets, repeat. In a saturated economy, businesses succeed at the expense of other businesses. That's a tempting prospect for the church. Certainly, individual new churches have thrived as they soak up local market share.

But, in my view, this has three weaknesses: first is that it's not missional. We can end up shuffling Christians to a 'better' brand rather than reaching beyond ourselves.

Second, it doesn't create disciples. It creates consumers. Business-based church runs the risk of creating a product from which users can switch when it gets uncomfortable. That's the antithesis of a discipleship that is predicated on the idea that we take up our cross and follow.

Thirdly, these models lead to competition - and that is not what the church is made for. Richard Rolheiser suggests that the gift of the church is to be a community of vulnerability in a competitive world. When we compete, we somehow deny Jesus' invitation to be as one. We also fail our church communities. We don't model vulnerability.

Ann Morisy suggests that the church has always been at its best when it is at risk of being overwhelmed. Competitive models thrive on the idea of strength but at the heart of the Christian faith is a God who is vulnerable to the point of death and who loves us in all our vulnerability.

(Photo: Unsplash/Mad Fish Digital)

Volunteers Are Not Employees

I talk with a lot of church leaders who are constantly disappointed by the actions or inactions of their volunteers. Those volunteers have not got worse (sometimes), but I think our expectations have been conditioned by leadership books and teaching that is about employees.

Business principles can bring us good practice in terms of role descriptions and opportunities for review and encouragement, but they fall short when we are working with people who are giving up their time with no reward other than the great well done of faithful servants.

The Race To The Top - whatever the top is

I grew up in a town that for many years was considered 'not posh enough' for a Starbucks and that has little chance of a Waitrose. Business principles match investment to potential markets and identify markets based on potential spend. It breaks my heart to say that the church does the same. When we unthinkingly absorb business principles we subtly shape to be more interested in those we identify as having the most to give.

A few years ago, I talked with the leader of a large church in the city who openly said that their strategy was to get university students who would stay and be around as young professionals. This approach means that huge swathes of our country misses out.

There are some recent encouraging signs in terms of planting in less affluent areas, but I fear the end game is still to disciple people into the middle-class market.

Faith is Not Contractual

Those of us from an evangelical tradition may need a moment to hear this. We have often talked about faith in such simple terms and on one level the truth that our trust in Jesus ensures an eternal connection to God is an unbreakable contract.

However, we have blasphemed. Whether consciously or not, we have begun to peddle the idea that if we do this (repent, pray, give, serve at church) then God will reciprocate with some form of material blessing (security, health, children, wealth). That is dangerous, unscriptural and harmful to the long-term health of the disciple and of the church. How dare we suggest that God can be roped into a contract of giving us what we want if we do the right thing. It doesn't work like that and we have failed to serve our world by suggesting that is does.

Redeeming Business

So where does that leave us? Well, business is not all bad. We can be grateful for some of its good practice and there are emerging business models which can offer us some better examples in terms of work and wellbeing. But it's not best and our churches will do well to remember that and to hold out our own best models of being.

Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar