JOPLIN, Mo. —
A magazine I read regularly is "The Christian Century," a bi-weekly publication that bills itself as "thinking critically, living faithfully." In the February 20th issue, the following headline jumped out at me: "Lutherans warn Vatican against luring their unhappy members."
The story begins: "Lutheran leaders have warned the Vatican that the creation of a structure to lure conservative Lutherans into the Catholic Church would harm dialogue and damage ecumenical relations."
The fact that one denomination singles out disgruntled members of another, then the offended denomination responds with a warning, is indicative of the pressure churches and denominations feel about the need for membership. Anyone deeply involved with their church can understand the pressure of enlisting new members and the sense of loss when members leave.
Alongside this is the growing concern by some denominational leaders about the trend of baptizing children at increasingly younger ages.
Are these children mature enough, or are they too young to grasp the meaning of exercising faith in God? The fear is that this trend is more about numbers than about ministry. It is one thing to grow an organization; it is another to grow a church.
The more institutionalized a church becomes, the more important its numbers become. Growing an institution involves gaining additional members. It's as simple as that.
Soon, however, as the institutional demands increase, the question becomes "How do we keep the need for members from becoming paramount?"
When membership becomes paramount in the church, bad things begin to happen. It becomes too difficult to lose members, and bad attitudes ease their way into our minds.
We unwittingly increase the pressure on prospective new members to join our church. Often, we resort to gimmicks. Ideals that are uniquely Christian become secondary to increasing the enrollment.
In short, rather than maintaining our identity as a church, we become just another institution fighting for its life, striving to grow, and scheming to compete in the marketplace for members.
The more institutionalized the church, the more important it is for the church to understand its identity, its objective and the measures by which it determines success. This is a difficult and ongoing task.
Rather than accepting the challenge of this task, we borrow from the business world and use numerical and monetary growth as our standard of success. This translates into "bigger is better," and so the bigger the enrollment Ñ plus the budget, the staff, and the building Ñ the more successful we feel.
The church is not alone in making this mistake. Educational institutions have done the same.
The truth of the matter is that neither churches nor universities are businesses.
Their objectives are totally different. There is nothing inherently wrong with starting a business, but not all institutions are businesses and, therefore, should not function like businesses.
Resisting the standard for success offered by the business model requires a determined diligence. We are reluctant to reject it because we are so accustomed to the positive feelings of self-worth it offers us.
The truth of the matter is that the moment we adopt the business model, we handicap the church. The nature of a church and its objective are not the same as that of a business.
The purpose of church is to usher the Kingdom of God into this world. If our church experiences growth while honoring that purpose, then so be it. If our church membership declines while honoring that objective, then so be it.
What should be said of a church cannot be said of business: The will to survive ensures death; the will to serve ensures life.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.