Can we manage God?
So, what’s your personal vision statement for this coming year? You don’t have one yet? But we’re on the brink of 2010!
OK, what about your ministry aims? Can you outline them to me in the space of three seconds without breaking into a sweat? No?! Alright then, let me loosen the noose a bit: can you present the projected outcomes of your personal discipleship programme (preferably using bullet points) for the next three years? What do you mean, you can’t even see beyond the coming week you PowerPointless wonder? Take me to your seminar leader — on the double!
Ministry and business-speak
The above scenario highlights a common phenomenon in the church today: the application of business management philosophy to Christian ministry. It’s easy to see the appeal. Business language conveys a sense of efficiency and purposefulness which religious terminology sometimes lacks. Its streamlined phrases and throbbing buzz words seem perfect for galvanising the people of God. The style it ushers in rids us of that halting, plodding spirit which jars in a culture of progress. Why wait on the Lord when you can project manage instead?
My suspicion is that there may be several routes by which a church comes to adopt the principles of business. For example, it may simply be an outworking of its own social setting. If it dwells in an urban commuter-belt area its membership will reflect this. Many will work in government, finance, education as well as general business. Inevitably this will influence the way members approach church issues.
Or perhaps a fellowship may absorb secular business jargon, and habits, after being influenced by wider trends in evangelicalism. Judging by the teaching of many influential leaders, church leadership is no different from corporate middle-management. Perhaps the motto that best sums up this approach is ‘what’s good for the office is good for the church’.
Asking the question
While the adoption of business ideals in ministry may flow from noble motives, is it ultimately helpful? Is it the case that what’s good for the office is good for the church? In my opinion the answer is no. This is because the conceptual world such jargon inhabits is not spiritually or morally neutral. Often it rests on premises and values which reflect a secularised view of life. Of course I’m not saying that there is absolutely nothing we can learn from the world of modern business. Yet, to uncritically inject its values into the church could run the risk of tempering the gospel with strange fire.
Grace under fire
Take the example of ‘grace’. We readily agree that salvation and perseverance in the Christian life are grounded in God’s mercy not human merit (Ephesians 2.8). Therefore we would expect the realm of business philosophy to conflict with this doctrine at some point. This is due to the latter’s tendency to emphasise human ingenuity as the solution to all problems.
While such a ‘can-do’ mentality does have its merits in the work-a-day world, spiritually speaking it is anti-gospel. You simply cannot manage someone into the Kingdom of God.
For most of us the above should be elementary. But what about the subject of Christian growth? How often do we find ourselves shifting from a grace based view of discipleship to a target driven view? This shift is seen when Christian growth is believed to be attainable by training alone. Thus an approach to ministry is born in which the role of the Holy Spirit is minimised in favour of training manuals and growth planners.
A significant secondary effect of such spreadsheet discipleship is that godliness becomes primarily measured by what a person achieves without reference to what they are becoming in the process. The person who relies on techniques will inevitably stress targets above transformation. But the fact is that God is as much concerned with how we do things as he is about what we do. And how we do things is essentially bound up with who we are: our character and spiritual orientation — something reliance on God alone can transform (Philippians 2.2,13).
For this reason substantial impact in Christian service often takes longer to achieve than it might in an equivalent target orientated industry. In fact, the paradox of biblical spirituality is that you can hit an eye-pleasing target while simultaneously failing miserably before God (1 Corinthians 3.13-15). Yes, progress in the Christian life is always necessarily connected to growth in Christian godliness — and that takes patience and time. Hence, in the Old Testament, many of God’s great leaders Ð such as Abraham and Moses Ð were old men by the time they entered effective ministry. What the modern workplace would write off as past peak-performance potential, God saw as just about ready to leave the starting blocks. Would the modern church share his view?
A further way in which management culture can be spiritually unhelpful is in the premium it frequently places on vision statements and purpose plans. Of course there is nothing wrong with being focused and driven in the Christian life. Yet, the basis on which a church is galvanised into greater action needs to be thought through carefully. Otherwise God’s people may be driven into adopting a grand design that is spiritually superficial.
Phil Vischer, creator of the popular Christian animation series Veggie Tales, has a sobering story. After experiencing phenomenal growth with his venture he slowly shifted from viewing it less as a ministry and more as a business. In an effort to grow he turned to a bestselling business book for help. The book stated that all great businesses are motivated by a ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’.
Vischer later said: ‘I didn’t think God had given me one, but the book said I should have one. So I made one up — one I thought God would like’.1 He then set out to make his Big Idea company one of the top four family media groups in the world. Eventually he was to discover that, while his big, hairy, goal was certainly audacious, it was not divinely inspired. Consequently his company overstretched itself to the brink of collapse.
Actually, an excessive emphasis on programming and ‘visioning’ could itself be the source of a growth problem, not the solution to it. This is because it may reflect diminished trust in God for his provision and leading; a frustration that his timetable doesn’t match ours. If left unchecked, such a disposition may harden into a form of idolatry in which our personal goals replace God’s revealed will. So, if we are more prone to speak about targets, programmes and vision statements than faith, obedience and the great commission, perhaps its time for some soul searching.
A final danger with applying a business-like approach to church and ministry is the way it can so easily down-size faith. Because ministry is rooted in faith it is often difficult to quantify in terms of success. Indeed Christian service may involve persevering in one place for several decades before visible results appear. A classic example of this would be the work of William Carey. The conventional wisdom of the day was not in favour of his mission to India. His move involved a tremendous upheaval for him and his family. He then had to labour for several years before seeing even one convert.
From a business point of view Carey’s initial approach was dubious. Yet the Lord used him to lay a foundation for future mission which continues to this day. And Carey’s experience was not spiritually abnormal. Hebrews 11 reminds us of those spiritual giants who launched out in obedience to God with little physical capital to bank on. Many seemed to gain little short-term return for their obedience, yet they were commended by God.
If the burden of reasonable faith is not respected when it comes to gospel work, opportunities genuinely given by the Lord may be despised and abandoned in the lust for greener grass. Consequently, faith is down-sized in the pursuit of a more immediately successful venture. How tragic if such worldly- wise behaviour unwittingly fostered the belief that people can manage God.
A heavenly vision
So, what’s your personal vision statement for this year? You don’t have one yet? How about trying the following? ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold , I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.19-20).
1 ‘No More Big Ideas’, http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2007/spring/9.15.html
pastor of Union Chapel, Bethersden, Kent