The Priority Difference: Why We Cannot Allow Business to Take Over the Church

Every once in awhile I have a conversation with someone where the topic turns to politics, but in particular into what characteristics we should hold highly for the President and members of Congress. Last week, in fact, I had one of these while my wife and I were hanging out at the local sports bar we've grown accustomed to frequenting. (Its great for getting to know people in your community!) The biggest concern for this man about the President is that they needed a businessman pedigree, a CEO-type person, who can make the hard calls to get the government back out of debt, or even into creating a surplus. These decisions were necessary because of the economy and being a prosperous, or dare I say profitable, nation. While I recognize the necessity for balanced budgets and not spending money we do not have (I think taking loans, credit-based spending, etc. is extremely harmful and short-sighted), I remain convinced that it would be a huge mistake to run the government like a business.

My reason for this is straightforward: They have a different purpose. 

Their primary concern is not the same.

But the government is not alone in such a mistaken understanding. I also think that the four original and historic professions, Medicine, Law, Military, and Clergy(Faith communities), also have been susceptible to take-over in practicalities which have changed their primary purpose. Education can also be included. Truly, any organization within them must manage money and run a budget. Yet money is not, or at least should not, be their primary concern.

Being a bit reductionist, any business or corporation's primary purpose for existence is profit. It is making money in order to keep operating to make more money. Business is not evil, and it has its place in the marketplace.

Government, Churches, the Military, Law, and Medicine, however, have as their primary concern of people. These professions and institutions have

Government and Law govern rules, regulations, and ensure rights for all people. When subjected to profit, it becomes not a matter of justice, but of prosperity, which is completely different and can delineate between classes or types of people. It objectifies certain groups as the cause of the problems, unworthy of help, rather than determining the best way forward with the resources at hand to ensure equal protections, rights, and justice for all. Do we allow economics to trump ethics, or vice versa?

I served for several years as an officer in the Army, and I can assure you that the mandate of the Military is not to turn a profit, but to ensure that in the conflicts that arise, that we can fight and win the nation's wars. Even more than that, it is a widely-varied mission which has at its core a focus not on monetary gain but on justice and ethics in preserving and extending democracy. There are entire theories of how to engage in such actions, from Just War to Pacifism to Just Peacemaking. Yet at the core of each of these are ethical and virtuous mandates, not profit. (Sure, we can see how the military has often been used to profit a nation, unjustly, through raids, plundering, etc. yet that is misuse rather than the mandate of the profession itself.) Fortunately, there are still many leaders in the military who lead with character and primary concern for the soldiers, sailors, and airmen and in equipping, training, and caring for them in preparation for their mission.

Close at hand to my calling and purpose are churches. More and more have developed slick presentations and created a consumer culture selling services, beliefs, and wares in order to expand and develop their church into ever larger institutions. While it may be called "kingdom-building" or "participating in a cause bigger than yourself" or even "obedience" the nature of many are to allow their particular church to grow and thrive in numbers (people in seats and tithes donated) yet the engagement into the lives of the people is minimal or superficial. Often, even missions trips or serving opportunities are done for the benefit of creating momentum within the church and not because they are inherently a part of who they are as Christians (they become more about helping those in their church feel good than they are in lasting change or relational concern with those being served). This critique is not aimed at all churches, nor to delineate between mega or small churches. I do not mean to demonize, but to generalize what I see as a negative consequence coming solely out of the structure and DNA of an organization.

Unfortunately, a business model based church inherently presents the budget not as something to manage but as THE primary point of existence. This happens because it is what a business is about. A CEO manages the monetary affairs, and then makes the decisions for its employees and consumers based on what can be afforded. Ethics, rights, faith, and morality often take a back-seat in such an environment. Similar to the military, the church is something which is active and depends entirely on the participation of everyone in the mission of God in the world. (Or at least it should.) I have personally heard and been a part of churches who directed their church like a business and cared not that thousands of members left the church based on their decisions because so many more thousands joined them. Whats more, I know that the vast majority of those who left were not even looked after to see what was concerning to them, or to show care or attempt to reconcile those relationships. I see this as a problem.

In fact, I believe the church perhaps has the strongest mandate to be wary of business-minded approach, in that God consistently and frequently cautions against storing up money, or using your money to reach out to the orphans, widows, and marginalized. God's concerns are for people, and the church as the people of God, are called to equally be so concerned. A church can have no budget whatsoever, or a million-dollar-a-month budget, and yet remained focused loving God and loving people, individually, corporately, and intimately (obviously given enough time). The structure matters. The organization matters. The character and characteristics of the leaders, elders, and members matter.

Because sometimes doing what is right is hard. It is costly, or at least not profitable. Ensuring everyone has something to eat, something to drink, a place to sleep, a shoulder to cry on, or a joyous embrace are all things inherently needed.

Because the ultimate purpose is not profit.

The ultimate purpose is people, and helping them to realize the life they can hope for, and can have, through the transformation of God.

We have to remember what matters, what we are serving, and where our hope lies.

Jesus himself describes such a different way in the famous sermon on the mount. Near the end he said, 
"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." 
(Matt 6:24 - read the context and you will see it means exactly what it reads by itself)

I believe, and is part of the calling and purpose of my life in which I am working on, that we must reclaim such a focus. Budgets must be put in their place, with the will, virtues, and work of God (the Missio Dei) as the thing we serve. Money has a role, but if something is costly but right, it still must be done. The things which truly matter in this world have no price-tag, but they do require our presence.

After all, is this not love, which is the summation of the Law, and in which we find the infinite worth and salvation of a life lived not in slavery to money, but realized in the freedom of the redeemed?

So while the character and characteristics of the President, judges, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and military members continue to be debated in terms of prioritizing economics and ethics, the church is in a unique place in which such an action can be done in its specific context, in a local church, based on the needs and abilities of that community. The church can correct the focus and act. It does not rely on the slow moving bipartisanship and bickering of competing modern ideologies. The focus is there, and the ability to act in the grasp of each local context. The marketing of a consumption-based gospel can be corrected, and people can be cared for in relationship.

People can be loved, encouraged, bearing with one another through the messy burdens and brokenness of life. 

Tithes can be faithful bearing with each other in their needs rather than a payment for services and performances rendered. 

Love can be the guiding principle, in knowing and encountering God and others in the particular context in which you live, yet also with an eye towards all the people of the world.

Hope guides and sustains, in service of God not money. Even if everyone is bankrupt and homeless, you can bear with one another. A church can exist in a refugee camp, a city center, and a high-income suburb if what is served is God, and not the organization's own existence seen through the ever necessary gaining of more and more money. The church as a people cannot be dissolved due to lack of funds, while a business or organization can.

My challenge is to work on living as that people. Serving God and not money. Recognizing the limitation our own society's preoccupation with modern economics (aka Capitalism) has.

Be the church. Serve God. Participate in His work. Use our resources as instruments in this work, not in letting budgets, programs, and the need to spend more money to grow, as the primary goals.

People, not profit, is the priority.

People, not profit, is the purpose.

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(If you are interested in working towards living in just such a church community, or already do, please comment! I would love to hear how things are working out in other contexts, and am myself working on creating and implementing just such a church. Focused on encountering, bearing with, and loving one another and God. Participating in this transforming work "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.")