May 17, 2006
Is Ministry Leadership Different 2: a response to Andy Stanley
Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, is interviewed in the current issue of Leadership on his leadership style. Highlights from the interview were posted on Out of Ur in March. Stanley defends the incorporation of secular business practices in the church - a philosophy of ministry that has fueled evangelicalism for the last 25 years and pollinated megachurches across the fruited plains. But church-as-corporation and the pastor-as-CEO have come under increasing criticism, and Stanley has felt this heat.
In the interview Stanley says:
One of the criticisms I get is "Your church is so corporate?" And I say, "OK, you're right. Now why is that a bad model?" A principle is a principle, and God created all the principles.
Honestly, are we really to believe that the mere existence of a principle is the same as God advocating our employment of it? The flawed logic here reminds me of Greg Fokker's assertion that "you can milk just about anything with nipples," and Robert De Niro's rebuttal, "I have nipples, Greg, could you milk me?"
Jesus said, "The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them." That is a principle of leadership, and a very popular one. But Jesus then emphatically declares, "Not so with you!" Simply because a model exists or is popular does not make it accessible to the church. Jesus calls us to lead his church in a manner that reflects his own servant method and the counter-culture reality of his kingdom. In other words, Jesus believes that truly Christian leadership is revealed in both its function and its form. The two cannot be divorced.
This is the primary flaw I see among those promoting church-as-corporation - they wish to disassociate business structures from the fruit they produce. Sure, market-driven business models can create large and efficient ministry organizations, but what is the impact on the lives, spirits, and characters of those immersed in them? After all, the church isn't commissioned to sell a product. We are commissioned to change lives that bear spiritual fruit.
Marshall Shelley, editor of Leadership, tells about Jerry, a pastor who finally told his business-minded elders to stop imposing their corporate models upon the church. With pastoral firmness Jerry said to his elders:
The next time a sentence begins, "In the business world, we?" please know that I'm not interested in the rest of that sentence. The church is not the business world. As I've observed the effects of the business world on people's lives, it doesn't produce the traits that the church is about: joy, contentment, grace, and love. I don't see the business world as a model for encouraging the kinds of lives we're called to live.
This pastor's insights are validated by research done both in Europe and the US. In 2000 a UK study found British professionals to be the most depressed and unhealthy group of managers in Europe. They also have the highest divorce rates. The study, commissioned by a healthcare company, said that a major reason for the poor condition of British corporate workers is that "the UK has Americanized faster than any other country during the 80s and 90s."
On this side of the pond, author Jill Andresky Fraser chronicles the decline of corporate culture in America and the negative impact the business environment has on people and families in her book, White-Collar Sweatshop. Fraser cites a Lexus commercial as indicative of modern corporate culture, "Sure, we take vacations - they're called lunch breaks."
Even if we dismiss this work by sociologists and healthcare researchers, anecdotal evidence suggests that few Americans find corporate environments, or their leaders, admirable. A recent survey showed that only 25% of people trust corporate executives - slightly higher than the 23% that trust used-car dealers.
I don't believe those in favor of liberally applying business models to the church, like Andy Stanley, are advocating cultures of corruption, backbiting, or greed. But one must ask, if the structures that have produced these ungodly qualities in America's most "successful" corporations are worthy of emulation among God's people?
The second reason I believe the corporate model is bad for the church is more straight forward - it hasn't worked. As corporate models have flourished in ministry the church in North America has lost ground both quantitatively and qualitatively. While business models are not solely to blame for this decline they certainly haven't helped. Research done by George Barna and Gallup, disturbingly summarized in Ronald Sider's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, shows "Evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general."
Similarly, many church leaders are lured by corporate structures that promise to generate large ministries with more evangelistic impact. But Outreach Magazine recently published a special report that finds church attendance has been steadily declining for decades despite the increase in megachurches. Just as corporate giants Wal-Mart and Home Depot have thrived at the expense of smaller outlets, megachurches have succeeded primarily by absorbing their smaller predecessors. Dave Olson says:
"Some of the people in those mid-sized churches are the ones leaving and going to the larger churches. There are multiple expectations on mid-sized churches that they can't meet - programs, dynamic music, quality youth ministries. We've created a church consumer culture."
The evidence reveals that the American church is consolidating but not growing. In fact, less than 18% of the population regularly attends church, and if something radical is not done, this number will drop to 11% by 2050. Thom Rainer says, "The failure of churches to keep up with the population growth is one of the Church's greatest issues heading into the future." And the solution isn't a more efficient corporate model, but rather a grassroots movement comprising thousands of church plants.
Unlike the explosive church growth being experienced in Asia, Africa, and South America in recent years, the U.S. church seems to display little spiritual vigor or power. Has our reliance on the wisdom of marketers and business principles displaced dependence upon God's Spirit? The fact that less than 1 in 25 churches ranks prayer as a priority may reveal the answer. Perhaps many pastors can relate to Stanley when he confesses, "There is nothing distinctly spiritual" about his leadership.