Numbers, money, sheep and function: a few thoughts on the business of church

Kingdom Grace has been blogging again on Church as Business. A few thoughts.

The corporate model of church permeates the American scene much more than it does here in the UK. There are few, if any, mega-churches over here. That said, most of the people Grace quotes are making the connection between business and building-based churches in general: basically, having overheads (buildings, paid staff) means that you have to play the numbers game. Church becomes about getting (and keeping) a number of people through the door.

Ok, lets have a look at this…

Numbers

I remember having lots of conversations with my pastor about this, back when I was working for the church. He very much saw (and probably still does) church ‘success’ in terms of numbers: preferably people making fresh commitments to Christ, but bums on seats was a good second place. I’ve never been that comfortable with this, but it has to be said that there are few ‘measurables’ when it comes to churches, so how else do you know if you are doing the right thing?

Even if your focus is on building a strong, biblical (whatever that means), open and sharing community, isn’t your measure of whether you are doing that well that other people want to join? And if people are wanting to join, then you are going to grow in terms of numbers.

That was Pastor Matt’s argument, anyway. Although, it has to be said that in pursuing genuine close community the church has actually shrunk numerically over the couple of years. So maybe it’s not a case of numbers being the best measure, but them being the only real measure we have (however imperfect).

Sheep

OK, before talking about money, I want to drop in a quick thought about sheep. Grace’s post is largely quoting others, so I’m not sure if this was a thought from her or someone else, but there was a…

“…[lament] about church pirates who steal sheep, clearly communicating a sense of territorialism about church growth rather than an open and inclusive view of the body of Christ extending the kingdom.

Umm, yes… er… actually, no.

Having worked for a church, I’ve hung out with a few pastors, and pretty much all of them get hung up about sheep stealers. I remember having a conversation with one friend who was hugely against church-planting, because her home town has had a succession of plants that became ‘the next best thing’. Churches would set up, the word would get out, and passionate believers would come along to devote their energies to the vision… until a year or so another new church would be planted and they would head off over there, leaving the church they’ve left raped of the resources it needs to function (we’ll get onto the f word in a bit).

I am absolutely positive that there is tons of territorialism between churches, but I really don’t think that’s the main reason pastors get het up about this issue. Sheep stealing bothers them because they are all, by and large, passionately engaged in what they see as Kingdom work: building community, spreading the Gospel etc. And losing people damages their ability to pursue that work.

Most churches have a limited supply of ‘engaged’ attendees; people who are prepared to get in, get their hands dirty, give time and energy to the work of the church. Most churches, no matter how large or small, or how many paid employees they have, cannot function without that pool of volunteers. And, for some reason, it is that ‘engaged’ minority that are so often tempted away to new church plants down the road, or whatever. When they go off to church B, seeking that ‘calling to a better expression of my giftings’, the pastor of church A is left bereft, unable to keep running the house group or children’s ministry or worship team or whatever that they were involved in.

So don’t be too cynical about pastors who bemoan sheep stealers…

Money

I used to be the finance guy at my church, banking the offering, paying the invoices, doing the payroll etc. I know how much a modern church costs, even ones with limited ‘programmes’ and few paid staff. And I know those monthly meetings with the pastor where we worried why ‘giving was down’ this month, and would we be able to pay all the bills. And, y’know, during those moments you do seriously ponder if this was at all what Jesus was thinking of when he called us ‘church’.

As a church we were proud (still are I think) that we gave 10% of our income to missions. Towards the end of my time there we started thinking about if we could maybe give 5% to the poor as well. 5%! – it leaves you thinking, where’s the other 85% going? But I tell ya, none of us were getting rich on this (I was making around £10k, living in the most expensive city in the world) – it was all going on overheads.

So, most of the voices in Grace’s post are in agreement that those overheads, those building costs etc, are just not what church is about. Well, ok. I agree (sorta). But it is very hard: buildings just cost money, even when you are renting (40% of our costs, buildings rented – more than ½ of that on a venue for 4 hours a week). If you want to get rid of that cost, then you need to get out of the building.

Otherwise, that church is going to need your money. (And going to have to think a bit like a business because of that fact)

Function

So, here’s the rub (as master Will would say). What is the function of church?

The whole emerging/deconstructing conversant crew will argue that church is about New Testament community lifestyle, personal relationship with Christ, engaging with the missional focus of Jesus. Living the life, so to speak.

Ok. The problem is that, when they try to do this, sooner or later they come back to meetings. And meetings, once they are too big to fit in your living room (lounge), need a building. And buildings cost moolah; which brings you right back to the business model again.

There are other ways of being church, but few people escape that focus. And the NT is no help to us here, because the believers clearly met in the Temple Courts in Jerusalem, and in the Synagogue in places like Corinth and Ephesus (as well as in each others homes). Which is fine as long as you have a neighbouring faith community who is willing to share.

The other issue: My contention is that, at this point in our history, most believers want meetings. They want church to be a place as well as a community. Which is why most emergents end up having meetings (even if they start by stopping them).

Instead of being the sacred places they were meant to be, our churches will only become more and more like the world around them; like businesses chasing the latest market niche.

If you start with the intention of being a sacred space, you will end up with a business model. Because you will have to find a way to pay the heating bill. 

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