I really want to blame it all on Zig Ziglar.
Actually, it’s just the name that gets me right here in the epiglottis. Mr. Ziglar was not the one who first perpetrated the idea of “The Business Church,” though. So let’s zag instead of Zig and take a look at the reasons that Church and business converged.
In the #6 installment in this series, I pointed out that an ad man, Bruce Barton, published a little book in the mid-1920s that went on to bestselling status: The Man Nobody Knows. This book took the Christian triumphalism and postmillennial viewpoint that grew in the Industrial Revolution and brought the growth of business in the first quarter of the new century in line with the Faith of Our Fathers. It was a perfect melding in a day when Christianity was beginning to fall prey to higher criticism of the Bible and to Darwinian thought. Those heady days after WW I and before the stock market crash made business almost as big as the Church of Jesus. Syncretism was inevitable.
The problem for the Church, though, was that it simply did not understand the cultural changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution enough to quarrel with them. The result was tolerance and accommodation. In fact, many of the entrenched ministries we see today are a result of the Church attempting to minister around the fringes of the changes brought about by the new business landscape. Unable to establish a Christian center in this new world, Christianity became susceptible to being incorporated by it, just as one business swallowed another.
The World Wars played their parts in keeping us preoccupied while the world changed around the Church, so it is hard to blame it all on sleeping sentries. The Church was fighting on more fronts than it knew how to control. Still, no one raised a cry when barbarians appeared at the gates. Eventually, the question of “Can we run the Church like a business?” became moot.
At this point, we must diverge for moment to go down another track. A missionary named Donald McGavran, having seen sporadic success on the mission fields of India in the 1930s, began to hammer out theories as to how to better make disciples by asking why some evangelistic crusades worked and some didn’t. His conclusions eventually took him to Fuller Theological Seminary where The Church Growth Movement began.
The Church Growth Movement basically says—and this is a truly simplistic explanation—that the most important thing you can do to have an effective ministry is to grow the number of people in your church. This theory rebuffed Jurgen Moltmann’s idea that the best church is one that is heterogeneous and instead sought to appeal to a homogeneous “tribe.” In the United States, this tribe took on the form of middle to upper middle class white suburbanites gathered around a common set of needs. In order to best determine how to reach that tribe en masse, the Church Growth Movement searched for catalysts to growth. They found those catalysts in business models.
The hope for the Church Growth Movement was to incorporate the same kind of customer modeling that companies like Procter & Gamble had perfected. P&G became the number one consumer home goods company that it is today by extensive studies performed on customers. Why does the housewife prefer that brand over ours? P&G labored to know. Their example became the rule at companies all over the world.
With the taboo of mixing Jesus with big business long ago removed during the era of Barton’s book, the Church Growth Movement saw that business practices like P&G’s could work in Church circles, too. By identifying the unchurched as a consumer of a specific product, it was possible to craft a Church from nothing that met the needs of the tribe targeted for evangelization.
With Church Growth, the ends of growing a church numerically justified the means. As the movement grew in power in the late 1970s, the language it chose was that of business marketing. A phrase like “target audience” or “demographic niche” could come either from a marketing manager at IBM or a pastor of a church following Church Growth principles. Churches also began to see that business leaders could do more than be deacons or the private bank of a church—they could even be pastors.
Who better to be a pastor of a church than someone who already understands business practices and what makes business tick? To this end pastors talked like CEOs. In fact, church leaders started to quote from bestselling business books as if they were deuterocanonical. In more than one church, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was drummed into the congregation in multiple messages. Human Potential Movement speakers who traveled the business circuit showed up in pulpits and preached a nebulous convergence of business and watered-down gospel that was little more than “me-isms.” And countless churches were told by their pastors that success and leadership were all that Jesus was about. (I wonder if anyone ever questioned why the most successful Christians in history were routinely martyred for the Faith. But then, I was always a troublemaker.)
New Christian leaders rose up that resembled nothing like them in history. Bill Hybels filled the role of America’s pastor. George Barna became the thinker of the hour (Note: I think Barna’s studies on the state of Christianity are vital and I highly support his polling, but I do not support at all his business model solutions to addressing the issues his surveys raise.) In the quest to reach a church perfectly modeled on business practices, churches leapt into Total Quality Management principles—ironically, as Francis Schaeffer had noted before, even as the secular business world was abandoning those practices as flawed. Churches excitedly pointed out that their staffs were now loaded with retired business leaders or, better yet, those who had heard the call of Church Growth and left the business world to “heed the voice of God.”
Church Growth principles and the business models that drove them have created for us the landscape we see today in modern Christianity: megachurches, church planting demographics studies, the addition of retail stores within churches, and that “cloned” atmosphere found in churches across North America.
The problems with Church Growth and its reliance on business models are legion. The cross does not exalt one’s business acumen, but calls people to die to self. Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and such are explicitly off message and Church Growth leaders are told that this social outreach aspect of the Gospel is a waste of time because it doesn’t translate into growth. Progressive growth in discipleship is scorned since numbers are all that matter, not the depth of the disciples being made. Spirit-filled Christians gifted by God are rejected for leadership if they call Church Growth principles into question or do not have the prerequisite business world curriculum vitae as proof of potential ministry success. (Certainly, anyone reading this could add dozens more abuses.) In the end, it’s a bitter twist that the very problems that show up in Barna’s surveys of American Christendom are largely the result of the failures of the Church Growth Movement that idolized his findings.
Today’s vast wasteland of churches that have driven themselves into the ground is proof of the stark failure of the Church Growth Movement and its dalliance with business. It will take years to root out all the unbiblical business practices from the Church in North America and fix the damage they left in their wake. In the end, the syncretism of Church and business broke pastors, churches, and families. One must even question if the people who came to the “Christ” preached in churches adhering to Church Growth principles actually met the Lord Jesus at all. Only Judgment Day will tell.
Giving people what they want works for diapers and deodorant, but it doesn’t make disciples of any depth.
Where does it all lead then? In the next installment in this series, The Christian & the Business World #12: The Redemption of Corporate America, part 5, we’ll examine what steps Christians and businesses can take to realize both of their potentials in Christ through a fully holistic Christian worldview.
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