Has the Church Sold Its Soul? (Part 1)

Paul S. Williams

9/28/2008       

There was not much of a cry when Wal-Mart arrived in Dante, Illinois. The people had already seen the handwriting on the wall. No other small town had been able to avoid the arrival of the ubiquitous big box store, with its attendant crippling of Main Street.

The townspeople gave up without a whimper again when, just a few years later, the lords of Bentonville decided a mere Wal-Mart was not enough. Dante needed a mega-Wal-Mart. But the original Wal-Mart building did not stand empty for long. Dante Christian Church, having outgrown its stained-glassed sanctuary, moved into the sprawling warehouse. With just a couple of minor changes to accommodate the children’s department, the building was ready for worship.

Begun just five years earlier, Dante Christian Church had started in an elementary school gym before building a facility of its own. The church started with a senior minister carefully selected from a stack of résumés, based on the specific church planting skills his personality testing had identified. The church was started exactly like eight other churches previously planted in the suburbs of the metropolitan area. After all, once you’ve found a good formula, why change it?

After sending 50,000 postcards three times to the residents of Dante and its nearby, once-rural neighbors, the church launched its first services with 500 people. Barely four years later the new church was averaging 1,200, and even with three Sunday morning services, their building could no longer hold the crowds. That is when Wal-Mart’s move to a megacenter saved the day.

Christian Church, Incorporated

Once the church moved into the vacated Wal-Mart, nothing could stop it. The church did not appoint elders. Instead, staff continued to lead the congregation in accelerated growth. Much of the reason for the growth was the incredible preaching and leadership skills of the senior minister. Had he worked in corporate America, there is little doubt he would have been a successful CEO.

The church continued to hire additional staff, since most of its programs were far too complex and demanded far too much time to be trusted to volunteers. The new staff members, who were already a part of the church, came out of the corporate world. Their transition to leadership positions within the congregation was natural and seamless. Only now, instead of selling widgets they were selling the good news of the gospel.

At last count, Dante Christian Church was averaging 2,100 in Sunday attendance, with no end in sight to its phenomenal growth. Next year they are planning to start another church just like them, in the southern suburbs of the metropolitan area.

A Healthy New Church?

While the above scenario is fictional, every element described has taken place in real time over the past 10 years in Christian churches planted in the United States. While we rejoice at the growth of the kingdom, it should not be overlooked that many of those new churches have unreflectively embraced a number of elements born of the American free enterprise system.

Are those elements scriptural? Do they reflect the teaching of Christ? The argument is made that they are just means to an end. But is it possible for means to have no impact on ends?

In many ways the American corporation has become a model for the 21st-century church. If the church is to keep its soul, it needs to become far more reflective and conscientious in examining its corporate adaptations.

Global Culture Industries

The latter portion of the 20th century brought a new age of capitalism, one driven by information and communications in a global market. We live in an age of corporate worldviews where sovereign states and the church no longer determine culture. Instead, the multinational corporations determine culture.

The culture of these global industries has found its way into the life of the church at a number of levels. The first area is church governance, including hiring of staff, church polity, and changes to the eldership. The second area is church multiplication and uniformity, or the “franchising” of the church. Third is the failure of the church to understand the double-edged sword of church marketing. All three merit further consideration.

Church Governance and Minister Selection

The adoption of corporate practices brings several potential problems with church governance. The first is in senior minister selection. Work with psychological testing tools has identified specific personality types likely to do well in preaching ministries. The DiSC Personality Profile test and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are both widely used in the minister selection process. Extensive studies have been completed (including one by this author) showing a clear correlation between personality type and church size.

But using tools of industrial psychology to choose ministers brings several problems. The most obvious is that no attempt is made to correlate these testing tools to the example of a healthy follower of Christ, as described in the New Testament. Furthermore, the tests are used to identify and hire a single personality type-the senior minister who most closely resembles the profile of a successful corporate executive.

Unless great care is taken to discern the spiritual maturity of the candidates, it is quite possible to hire a minister with extraordinary corporate leadership skills but woefully inadequate theological understanding, leaving the church “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Church Governance and Elder Selection

A second area of concern is the selection of elders in the life of a new church. New churches generally are governed by a management team. In most new churches the senior minister serves as a member of the team, along with representatives from the entities providing funding for the church. As the congregation grows, it is the team’s responsibility to bring on new members from within the fellowship as the outside members disengage. Those internal team members usually become the first elders of the new church when the church is five to seven years of age.

Unfortunately, this transition to eldership often does not occur in a timely fashion. It is not unusual to see the external management team disengage without any kind of internal leadership team in existence. This leaves the staff of the new church as the only overseers of the congregation, with the senior minister serving as de facto chairman.

The reason for the lack of diligence in creating an internal leadership team is understandable. The senior minister has more freedom and control if he functions as the chairman and chief executive officer of the new church, just as he would were he the founder of a commercial entrepreneurial venture. There is rarely an outcry from the congregation. They are accustomed to an environment in which the chief executive maintains a high level of power. The result is a church that reflects the private American corporation.

Issues related to the adoption of secular corporate governance are also reflected in the ways in which staff and elders interact. Many churches have adopted Carver Policy Governance. In a Carver environment, the board (elders) focuses on the ends of the corporation, while the staff (ministers) focus on the means of the corporation. Elders do not become involved in means issues.

Unfortunately, the commitment to Carver Policy sometimes takes precedence over Scripture. Many of the shepherding roles ascribed to the elders in Scripture are assumed to have little to do with church ends. They are seen as means, and therefore become the task of the church staff or volunteers, not the elders.

As churches grow, corporate governance becomes even more pervasive. Most new churches and larger churches invite people onto the eldership who have a corporate background. While the church is diligent to be sure individuals meet the criteria established in Scripture, they add a de facto requirement to the list-a successful history of corporate management. The requirement is not antiscriptural, just extrascriptural, with significant implications for the church. It creates an environment in which leaders either knowingly or unknowingly equate church health with corporate markers of health.

Church governance is not the only area of concern. Next week we will look at two other ways in which the church has unreflectively adopted American corporate practices.

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Next week: Cultural uniformity, church marketing, and how we should respond.

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Paul Williams, president of Orchard Group, is editor-at-large with CHRISTIAN STANDARD.

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