The church doesn’t compare


Why the private business model doesn’t always work

Recently I read an interesting article about the widespread feeling that government agencies should be run more like private businesses. Unlike wasteful government, the argument goes, the private sector lives by a strict code of efficiency and excellence.

Except when it doesn’t. I always scratch my head a little when private business practices are upheld as the way to run everything. You mean we should follow the example of the famous car company that knowingly sold products with dangerous flaws and covered it up to avoid bad publicity? Or how about corporations that rake in billions, pay their executives millions, yet jack up prices for us common folk? Or perhaps you’re referring to the business owner in my town who took payments to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, then pocketed the money rather than actually doing anything.

Oh, you don’t mean we should embrace those kinds of business practices? OK, just trying to be clear.

My point is that you can find fraud and waste in government, and you can find it in the private sector. You can also find efficiency and excellence in the private sector; believe it or not, you can also find it in government. I hear the scoffing out there, possibly from that guy who once asked me how my government job was going. “We’re really busy,” I replied.

He gave me a double take and declared, “Whataya mean, busy? I thought you worked for the state.” Badum bum.

From my busy publishing office I’ve never witnessed the legend of the nonworking state worker, but I’ve heard stories. Just like I’ve heard accounts from private-sector employees about coworkers who pawn off tasks and try to do as little as possible.

Getting back to the article I read, a point was made that it’s not always helpful to compare government work with private business. There’s a difference between providing services the public needs and offering products consumers might want. Obviously there are cases in which government agencies could manage taxpayer dollars a lot more efficiently. But it’s also true that serving a vast and varied population of citizens is kind of inefficient by nature.

From here we could move into a discussion about what services the public really needs or doesn’t need. But since that conversation would last until the end of time, let’s just move on.

Private business models often get bandied about in churches too. To cite a few examples, it’s said that a church should be fiscally conservative like a business, position itself in the marketplace like a business and give customers what they want like a business. These are pretty good as basic principles. We need to use money wisely, have a relatable identity in the community and be interesting for newcomers. But at some point the comparisons break down.

Once in a church meeting, for instance, I shared my feeling that we shouldn’t cut funds to missions to meet a shrinking budget but instead should reduce some internal support services. I was surprised at the general wave of resistance to that. Someone said it wasn’t good business to stretch our dollars oversees when there were needs at home.

That kind of thing bothers me. The primary mission of a church is not to maintain its infrastructure but to reach out to people.

As for giving customers what they want, that only goes so far. The whole seeker church movement started with this principle—finding out what people liked and didn’t like about churches, then starting a church based on what they liked. The good thing is that it attracted a lot of newcomers; the bad thing is that it created the current consumer church. People shop for a church like a cell phone, then when they get tired of their phone, I mean church, they go out and look for a new one.

Regarding the promotion of our churches in the marketplace through advertising and demographic calculation, well, I don’t know. I used to be into that kind of stuff, but I’m no longer convinced that selling our churches like products is what we really want to do. Product placement is what our culture does, and look at the results. We’ve become a nation of flighty consumers addicted to the short-term thrills of trendy gadgets and TV seasons and YouTube sensations.

When you view those kinds of excitements next to the boring old church, with its unassuming, dedicated, caring people of faith, the church really doesn’t compare. And I thank the good Lord for that.


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