The Business of Church Part 1 van niekerk

Call it a personality deficiency if you must, but I have always distrusted hierarchies.
It is not in my nature to accept authority. (Isn’t that true for all of us?) Particularly, titled authority that lacks the requisite gifting and intelligence (but more importantly, or less harshly perhaps, the needed capacity to love).

I freely admit this distrust is part of the filter I bring to the topic of church and the way we do our work as the church (and, incidentally, the hermeneutic I weave into the book of Acts and the Epistles).

It is this innate skepticism towards those in charge that is part of the reason I find myself rejecting the leadership movement of the last decade.
(Did it start with John Maxwell* in the 90s? I don’t know for sure. I just know I don’t like it, and it does not appeal to the deeper longings of my soul.)

Additionally, my distrust comes from my personal experience. I have experienced the relentless crush of the ministry machine masquerading as the church. And yes, usually there is a “leader” at the helm cracking the whip for more, bigger, better.
(The fact that the more, bigger, better is tightly connected to their personal goals and finances should not be ignored.)

There has to be a better way to carry out our mission.

What is it I am actually rejecting and what do I see as the proper alternative? I have spent a fair amount of time pondering this riddle.
Criticism of the leadership movement is one thing. Identifying the real issues and proposing an alternative is something else.

In this series of posts I want to peel away all the layers of assumption and build a case for a proper way to think about the business of church, a proper way for business principles to be applied in church (is there a way?), and I hope to make some discoveries along the way.

To think about this well, let’s move behind the layers of thinking to the thought process itself.

The scientific method

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
David Foster Wallace
Kenyon College Commencement Address, 2005

Modern society in the 21st century is the fruit of the scientific method codified in the 17th century. Like it or not, the scientific method is the scaffolding of our thinking process. Our educational system was produced by the scientific method and the products of its output (that would be us) are so steeped in the methodology that we risk not recognizing it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as:  “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypothesis.”

I would contend that both relying on the scientific method for our reasoning and approaching all aspects of life through this matrix has become so natural to us that we hardly even recognize that it is so. Now, this method of acting upon the world around us has become the de facto standard of how we approach church and spiritual development. We run the risk of not even noticing, which is dangerous.

The danger

The scientific method, with its reliance on experimentation and standardization to reproducible results, has resulted in great advances across society, but it comes with a dehumanizing element when applied to living things.**

Consider modern day agriculture as an illustration of both the potential power for efficiency and maximization inherent in the scientific method, and the dehumanizing results. No one would argue that modern advances in breeding and monocultural farming has led to cheaper, more plentiful food. But there’s always a trade-off in the relentless pursuit for greater effectiveness. Agri-business is producing phenomenal yields, but the systemization and standardization has also produced vulnerabilities to disease and parasites. The way animals are pumped full of growth hormones and force fed to shorten the time from birth to table are realities many choose to ignore. It may be disgusting, but it’s efficient.

It’s the continued pressure to move from organization to mechanization—from something inherently organic to something inherently machine like (or mechanical). This is where the power of our systems lie, but it’s also where the systems break down.

The natural world may be described as “red in tooth and claw.”*** The modern world, with its relentless march to always greater efficiency and the objectification of the human animal, is just as brutish. When viewed through this lens, recent world history is a terrifying thing.

The business of business

The scientific method is at the root of modern concepts about business. The two are linked since one is the offspring of the other. Today’s business principles are simply the scientific method applied to commerce. Management and leadership principles are by nature the result of experimentation and standardization to reproducible results. If this were not the case, why would we so gladly consume books about what worked at Business A and automatically try to implement them in our environment? There would simply be no reason for any business book if we did not believe in the power of experimentation and formulation to reproducible results.

My point here is simply that before we can decide if business principles belong in the church, we have to understand the soil in which business principles are planted. That soil is the scientific method. In this series of posts, I propose to look at things from a Kingdom of Heaven mindset using kingdom principles. This will most likely contrast with a scientific methodological mindset and business principles. I expect these worldviews to collide and to challenge our thinking processes as we go.

But please bear in mind that I am not proposing a simple solution here. We could take a stance on dry land and shout the Gospel out across the waters, but if we are going to truly talk to the two young fish of our story, we will have to get wet. Gospel sharing as an amphibious endeavor is an apt analogy. Take it is far as you want, but also remember, amphibians drown if they try to live as fish.

In Part 2 we’ll begin to look at specific business principles and how they are used, or misused, in the church.




*My point is not to disparage John Maxwell. He’s helped a lot of people. My point is that he popularized pastors appropriating business principles. At least in my circles.

**I’m not suggesting that the scientific method (and science by extension) is inherently evil. If anything, I’m attempting to demonstrate that it’s not inherently good. I’m not attempting to rehash a science versus religion debate. I’m talking about the scientific method as a way of thinking about, and acting upon, the world.

***Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 1850
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

It is a poignant poem attempting to reconcile the harshness of the natural world with the belief in a God of love. Incidentally, the same poem contains these immortal words:
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.


4 thoughts on “The Business of Church Part 1

  1. I see you’ve set up the altar to slay a sacred cow or two. I’ll happily hold the scabbard. I’ll even spell you if your arms get tired.

    When choosing our mentors we must get better at seeing (i.e. asking Holy Spirit) the ultimate destination of their instruction. Otherwise we’re caught betwixt continuing on a good path and the upheaval of switching to the best path.

    “Begin with the end in mind” is such great wisdom.

    We’ve so gotten it backwards. Excellent business leaders should not be instructing our Pastors. Excellent pastors should be instructing our business leaders. But such is the outcome when we put Doing ahead of Being.

  2. The scientific method as a manner of analysis, education model or business schematic still has that “new car smell.” The gift of thinking for ourselves is relatively new in the scheme of the world. For example, individuals who seek to “prove” the fallacy of the Bible state that it simply can’t be valid because it was not written in a 3rd person/ scientific/ unbiased format. I would argue for its legitimacy but they are correct. It is biased. Until recent times, writing from a neutral perspective was unheard of.
    Prior to the scientific method being purposefully ingrained into our psyche, individuals determined there presuppositions/opinions from the individual who had the most (natural world) power over their lives.
    It was in their best interest to believe as the king believed. Or because most of the population was illiterate, they were only allowed the knowledge gifted to them by their “betters.” So the business of church was definitely far from scientific. It was decidedly more underhanded and power-hungry.
    So, what is my point… not sure. But the box said “Join the discussion… ” not make a valid point.

    1. Yes and …
      I just recently read that The Enlightenment could be summed up with the phrase, “We can figure this out!” That “thinking for ourselves” is new. Great point.
      The illiterate are at the mercy of those with power.
      Interestingly enough, following up on your point, I would say that anyone who thinks the modern writing standard (in science or journalism, for example) is a neutral perspective is betraying a different kind of illiteracy.

      Using the scientific method to critique the scientific method is its own paradox, I suppose.

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