I've read Fast Company magazine for close to a decade. I like its approach to talking about business, and the editors’ slightly but not overly edgy approach in describing the new economy or new technologies or people (and the people are usually different from the ones who find in Fortune and Forbes). The articles lean to the counter-intuitive, pointing to innovators and entrepreneurs who often see opportunities where most people see nothing.
In December, 2010, the magazine had feature stories on the chaos in the advertising industry, Gov 2.0 promoting civic engagement at the local political level, how games are becoming common in our work and life in general – and a story entitled “What Would Jack Do,” with the Jack in the question being Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.
It turns out that Welch, business guru James Collins, Colin Powell and other business, government, cultural and religious leaders routinely speak at annual Global Leadership Summits at Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago, attended in person by 7,000 pastors and church leaders and viewed via satellite by 62,000 people in the U.S. and Canada, and later by videotape by 65,000 more worldwide. The goal is leadership training, absorbing lessons taught by business leaders as well as well known speakers from Christian and other religions.
The idea that the church can learn better leadership skills from business is not new, and Willow Creek hasn’t been the only proponent. The church has been hosting these summits since 1995, and there were numerous consultants and conferences before and since. For more than two decades, the language and practices of business have been absorbed by scores of churches in North America and elsewhere.
As business people (and the rest of us) are fond of saying, you can’t argue with success. Churches – especially large and so-called “mega-“ churches, have employed the lessons of business – strategic planning, vision, mission statements, management, leadership training, and long-term plans.
I don’t argue with the success of using these ideas to maintain and grow large institutions and organizations. But I do have to ask how this changes our biblical understanding of the church.
I've worked in corporate America for almost 37 years, in communication jobs – employee communications, community relations, issues management, media relations, executive speechwriting – that placed me almost at the center of what business leadership is about. The lessons of leadership clearly apply to business. They can apply, in a modified way, to academia and non-profit organizations like foundations and charities.
But the lessons of leadership are largely about the preservation and growth of organizations, like companies, universities, and the United Way. They’re not about spreading the gospel message or making disciples. (To its credit, some years back Willow Creek publicly acknowledged that it had fallen short in the making of disciples – helping people growth in their faith. It had been much more about attracting “seekers.”)
The lessons of corporate leadership do not come free of charge. They carry certain baggage, certain assumptions. Business people are familiar and comfortable with these assumptions, because this is what they know. Assumptions include:
- The utilitarian purpose of all resources –all are to be used, and even overused if considered replaceable, and, if necessary, jettisoned, for the good of the enterprise.
- The structures of governance – like the board of directors, executive teams, chief executive officers and administrators.
- The predominance of one stakeholder group, perhaps two; it’s usually investors for publicly held companies.
- An emphasis upon performance standards, and particular in the area of what sells.
- And measurement – quantifiable, explainable, understandable numbers.
The language and teachings of business are impregnated with these things. They form a kind of structure or business rhetoric for the specific “message” or content, and in so doing they shape both the message and its results. Embrace the teachings of business for a non-business enterprise, and you embrace all the assumptions that come with them.
Years back, I attended a church that was trying very hard to embrace the Willow Creek model. For me, going to church often felt like going to work. At one point, I was asked to stand for the office of elder. And I was told my primary qualification was my background in corporate communications. I said I didn’t recall that qualification from the list in 1 Timothy 3.
I didn’t stand for elder.
We are to be disciples. We are to be salt and light in the community and culture at large.
The process isn’t supposed to work the other way.
This post was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but they revamped the site and the archive disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting a few of the article I wrote.
I always like how you shake my thinking up!
Funny you should write about this today. Just yesterday at lunch I was having a conversation with a young man from the church and we were talking about a certain pastor from the 90s who used business practices in the church. While some of them were good, too many churches adopted the CEO method of operation. That approach was largely one of the reasons I was encouraged to resign my position in the church. Glad you spoke up. Sorry this comment is so long. This has long been a concern of mine.
I find the idea of church-as-business so contrary to what I seek in a place of worship. If there were ever a place where those business assumptions above do not stand, it is church. They are paths to spiritual dead-ends.
I cannot thank you enough for addressing this hugely important issue. I feel like this movement to church-as-business for the last 25 years or so has been death-dealing in so many ways, I can't even begin to list them. I am glad to see more and more people moving away from these lies (that's what they are, in my book) and embracing the truth that the church is not so much an organization but an organism, a living, breathing reality with Christ as its head. Period.
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