Big business or church business? Setting priorities for 2006

Dec. 27, 2005 | by Rebecca Barnes

According to a Dec. 20 article in The Economist, modeling church after corporate America has brought success to the United States’ largest congregations.

The article outlines how Willow Creek Community Church has a mission statement, a management team, a seven-step strategy and a set of ten core values. Along with MDiv’s, the church employs two MBAs and several consultants and has been the subject of a Harvard Business School case-study—the "ultimate business accolade," according to the magazine.

Willow Creek is based on the successful businesses principle of putting the customers first, which in Willow’s case translates to a seeker-friendly environment. According to The Economist, customer-service has been to key to church growth for congregations such as Willow.

Consultant John Vaughan, who specializes in mega-churches, says growth in 2005 broke records. It was the first year an American church passed the 30,000-a-week attendance mark when Lakewood Church moved into Houston's Compaq Center. It was also the first time that 1,000 churches counted as mega-churches (those with 2,000 or more people attending).

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. The Economist article asserts that, "rather than making America more Christian, the mega-churches have simply succeeded in making Christianity more American." Whether that’s part of an effort to reach out or simply an imitation of society or business is up to debate.

Author and researcher George Barna, finds that imitating corporate America is not the biggest trend in most American churches, anyway. Church trends range from the spiritual to the technical, as well as age-old battles against materialism, and a changing of the guard in church leadership.

Two of Barna’s identified trends show a clear trail back to megachurches and corporate America, however: Congregations are rapidly incorporating new technologies into their activities; and leading representatives of the Christian faith, such as Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes, understand big business models of communication and organization.

In another move that mirrors corporate America, Church Business is offering a Web seminar on strategic planning for churches. Businesses have long held yearly assessment and action meetings. Now, churches are being offered a chance to do the same with church consultant Ken Godevenos, who will offer 11 Steps to Successful Strategic Planning for Churches, January 26.

Ultimately, whether or not a business model will bring spiritual "success" may hinge upon the priorities of church ministry—something many congregations have wrong, according to Barna. His 2005 trend report also indicates that most congregations have left out critical ministry areas such as children’s ministry, family ministry and prayer. Along with business models, the growth of megachurches may also be traced to their well-developed programs in all three of these areas. Of course the clearest distinction between business and church is prayer—something listed as No. 1 this year in a Lifeway survey of the top 10 issues facing today’s church.

At least one pastor is taking that priority to heart with a New Year’s resolution to cover the country in prayer in 2006. According to Religious News Service, Rick and Jane McKinney will kick off their Walk to Reclaim America in California on New Year’s Day, and will walk across the United States to arrive in Washington, DC, on July 4, 2006. Their purpose? Prayer.

This doesn’t appear to have much to do with adopting business models for ministry, but upon further consideration, Rev. McKinney has already developed a Web site and sent out press releases for the walk—communication that is more big business than church business.

Then again, maybe this is what Thom Rainer would classify as a both/and situation wherein churches can adopt business models and continue to serve as the body of Christ. I just hope prayer becomes a priority on the resolutions list for churches of all sizes in 2006—whether it happens because of a walk across America, a megachurch model, a business plan, or simple obedience.

Check out this New Year's resolutions article by Chuck Lawless.

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