The Corporate Captivity of the Church

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The church in the United States is in decline. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about this. It is reported nearly everywhere on a regular basis. In my corner of the Bible-belt, the reasoning that is often given for this is the increasing cultural secularization and pluralization. This, of course, likely has something to do with it, but this is certainly not the only reason.

I wonder if we have actually done this to ourselves.

The church has largely become another organization amongst others. We are another organization which can provide goods and services to people who want them. We have professionalized clergy and have set clergy as simply another specialty amongst others — when you are sick, you go to the doctor, when you are in legal troubles you see an attorney, when you need insurance you go to an agent, and when you need Jesus you see the minister.

We have stopped talking about stewardship in all areas of life and have begun talking about money (and why you should part with it), we have joined our faith with politics and nationalism in and unholy union which places our national ties in a stronger tether than our religious ties. We have functioned as though we are in competition with one another, and we have placed our hope and faith in strategic planning.

In my corner of the Bible belt, we prize large churches with large budgets because we assume that they are doing something right, and look down upon small churches with smaller budgets and assume that they are dysfunctional and even unfaithful. We have bought into the lie that numbers (both heads and dollars) are the most important thing. We have largely abandoned governance by assembly and have clamored for a king (or in this case, chief executive).

Above all, though, we have made the church a nice thing, but not an essential thing. We have made the church a voluntary association rather than the essence of who we are as Christians.

I wonder if we are missing the point

When I attend assembly meetings, so much time is spent discussing how we innovate, how we meet new challenges, how we do something new. But I do wonder if we miss the point of this all. Is it possible that the decline in the church is a result of trying to find the next hot thing? Have we missed the point, focused on the wrong things, and are now reaping what we have sown?

We assume the corporate structure and function of the church, we assume that strategic plans are our salvation, and we assume that the next program will cause us to grow. We assume that we must continue to discover new products to peddle and new ways to market those products.

But what if this is not the essence of the church? What if instead of a corporation we are the pilgrim people of God?

This, however, is not to be anti-institutional, this is not institution versus non-institutional but rather how we view the institution.

Are we a corporation or are we the pilgrim people of God? Are we a business or are we the Body of Christ? Are we to come up with new things, or do we simply strive to tell the same old story over again into all aspects of our life together?

***

Rather than trying to find something new to emphasize, what if we find something old to emphasize? What if our future is not in the new and innovative, but rather the old and time-tested? What if the future of the church is not in big buildings with complex multi-media experiences, but rather simply in the body of Christ?

What if our future is to be found in seeing ourselves as the body of Christ, and allow our ministry to flow out from that rather than a corporation with a chief executive?

Until we remember who we are, who we are to be, who we are called to be — until we remember that we are children of a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) — I an doubtful of whether we will find our center, our purpose, our calling. And if we do not find these, we will never find growth, be it in depth or in breadth.

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3 thoughts on “The Corporate Captivity of the Church

  1. My question: just where is the decline? Is the reduction in numbers a “decline”–certainly it would seem that in a corporate sense–and, if it is, was Jesus bad a church? After all, he had huge crowds when he fed everyone, but drove them all away with his “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow” talk. The passion, from a corporate church perspective, would seem to be a terminal strategic error.

    Or is our decline found in the muting, even loss, of Christ’s voice of radical discipleship in the name of not offending anybody, in the name of trying to package ourselves to attract certain target demographics? We need to change, we need to innovate in order to allow the gospel to be heard by new ears which may not share our own cultural biases. But anything which leads to exclusion is not that sort of innovation.

    I like the pilgrim people image. We are not meant to be slick and polished and shiny; we are called to be motley and ungainly, with many contrasting views that, we hope, inform each other, all doing the best we can in God’s name, holding hands as we disagree, and bound together by love. This means our numbers will ebb and flow, but we follow along as best we can. It gives us very little to quantify, however, and makes it hard to live up to modern ideas of objective success.

    • I think that the true decline is in the second thing you mention, but in my experience, the concern is the former, the numbers.

      I agree we need to change, my rub (and I wasn’t very clear about this in the post) is when we spend all of our time and energy changing our organizational structure, gutting our theology and polity in the name of innovation, trying to find new solutions to perceived new problems (although, many time the problems are not all that new), I have to ask, are we any closer to heeding Jesus’ call to a complete and all-encompassing discipleship? Are we closer to loving God and others and helping others to do the same? We are not trying to do and say new things, but effective (and perhaps new) ways to say the same old thing that we have been saying for thousands of years.

      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts, James!

  2. Your post reminds me of something I heard someone say before. (How’s that for vague?) It was something along the lines of: “People will only come to church if we offer something different from everybody else. You want community? Join a card club. You want to take care of your emotional health? See a psychologist. You want to sing? Join a band or turn on the radio (or Pandora).”, and on down the line. The person’s point is that people are no longer part of the church because there’s nothing distinctive about us. Everything we offer, they can get somewhere else, with far less radicalism and commitment.

    I know that the sacraments distinguish us, and this was one of the things the person lifted up, but I wonder what some other things are? I’m not talking about filling another’s needs and offering this or that new thing, but what are the things you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else. This is an honest question for me. I’m not asking because I hate the church–I totally love it–but because I’m having difficulty articulating what makes the Church, Church.

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