Culture At Large

The business of the church

Andy Rau

Would your church be more successful if it were run like a business? That's the question posed by a recent Economist.com piece that looks at successful megachurches and the "business strategies" that drive them. While many Christians might find it uncomfortable to use mercantile words like business and marketing to describe their church's outreach, some pastors and church leaders are readily embracing tried-and-true business strategies and putting them to use for their churches:

America is spawning an industry of faith-based consultancies.

Willow Creek is based on the same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first. Back in 1975 the church's founder, Bill Hybels, conducted an informal survey of suburban Chicagoans, asking them why they did not go to church, and then crafted his services accordingly. He removed overtly religious images such as the cross and stained glass. He jazzed up services with videos, drama and contemporary music. And he tried to address people's practical problems in his sermons.

The result in many cases is that elusive holy grail of the evangelical church: growth. The article talks about the many different elements that make up this sort of marketing strategy: social services, child care, community counseling, skillful use of technology, and a general emphasis on "user-friendliness."

The approach isn't without problems, of course:

But this rapid growth brings problems in its wake too—problems that usually end up forcing churches to become yet more business-like and management-obsessed. The most obvious challenge is managing size....

Another problem is subtler: how do you speak directly to individual parishioners when you have a church the size of a stadium? Some mega-churches have begun to see members drift away in search of more intimate organisations. And many mega-preachers worry that they are producing a flock who regard religion as nothing more than spectacle.

Overall, the articles gives us a fascinating look at one of the oldest challenges the church has faced: how do we bring people into the church? Do we eschew "marketing" of any sort and trust that people will be brought to the church by the witness of our lives alone? Do we embrace "business-like" marketing strategies to attract the masses to our church, but run the risk of watering-down or somehow cheapening the Gospel message?

Obviously, there's a point of balance between those extremes, and this article shows how one strand of evangelical Christianity is trying to find it. What balance, if any, has your church found?

(Any time the topic of churches and marketing comes up, I just can't resist linking to the excellent Church Marketing Sucks site--well worth bookmarking.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church