By Scott Bessenecker

The Gospel as Product, the Church as Business and People as Consumers

The capitalist worldview under which most of the world has been indoctrinated for the past 500 years has slowly been shaping our view of people. It has also shaped our view of church and the gospel.

For the first fifteen hundred years, human beings were not, by and large, predisposed to perceive the world in materialistic terms. It is more likely the pre-capitalist and pre-enlightenment mind would view life on earth as a stage upon which powers vied for our allegiance. Humans were primarily spiritual beings, and one came into the church as though coming under a new set of powers, pledging allegiance to a new king and entering a new dominion. Indeed “Jesus is Lord,” was a political declaration as much as it was a spiritual one, defying one’s allegiance to Cesar as Lord, and planting one squarely in the corner of an opposing regime to all other principalities vying for one’s loyalty.

As the lords of political regimes have sold themselves to the lords of corporate regimes, the statement “Jesus is Lord,” stands in direct opposition to the capitalist mantra of “Profit is Lord.” The principalities of profit have come to rule our nations. Everything is a commodity which can be sold; even “time” is for sale as futures are bought and sold on our trading floors. The Church, then, must offer an alternative vision of this world.

When the principality of commerce prevails, then the gospel becomes a product, the church becomes a business and people become consumers. My wife, Janine, recently encountered someone passing out brochures to get people to come to their church. “No thanks,” my wife replied, “I’m already part of a church.” “Well … why don’t you take this brochure anyway,” the woman responded, as if to say “you still might want to consider dropping out of your church and joining mine.” This woman was advertising her church with the help of a slick brochure and a “don’t-take-no-for-an-answer” attitude. She had reduced herself to a salesman and Janine to a customer. This person’s hope was that Janine might “purchase” the gospel through the same outlet where she “buys” the gospel. Her “gospel outlet store” was superior to the church we attend. We even use the term “church shopping,” reducing the Christian community to a product itself as well as the distributer of a product. When we adopt the identical commercial advertising techniques used to draw us to Home Depot or McDonalds, we skate dangerously close to syncretizing the Christian faith with a culture of consumption.

Many churches and most non-profits and mission agencies have succumbed to using the nomenclature and methodology of the for-profit world. Churches have employees, mission agencies are run by Chief Executive Officers, we “brand” our church or mission identity to distinguish ourselves from competitors, 18-22 year olds become target markets, donors are invited to invest in our ministry and the needy become our clients. We think that this dialectic of the business world somehow helps to clarify our mission, but I don’t think this is true. I believe it clouds our vision. Semantics matter. We are shaped by the language we use. To use the language of commerce for God’s kingdom is to commercialize it.

We pedal the gospel in precisely the same way that the corporate world pedals its goods and services. But the gospel cannot be pressed into product form – a privately owned salvific experience. Those in Christian leadership measure the success of the mission, at least in part, by the number of people who “buy” from their particular denominational or mission franchise.

We need to explore the alternatives to this paradigm. Perhaps an agrarian model where flourishing is favored over mechanical growth, or the paradigm of a body or an organizational model that mirrors many family/clan structures will free us from the limited, for-profit worldview in which we find ourselves caught. It's time to unshackle our structural imaginations.

Comments

Thanks Scott for these reflections. This was something I was thinking about during the Trek. The movement of the the New Friars is interesting because it hearkens back to an older "organizational model"--the monastic order--and yet as far as I can tell, the different New Friars agencies seem to draw much of their organizational vision from industrial capitalism. They are 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporations. They have "teams" and directors and staff. They have fundraising, administrative, and programming budgets. Is it a quixotic, or even perhaps a pretentious hope that missional orders could make a cleaner break with capitalistic structures? --Ryan

Hey Ryan: YWAM has made some attempts to move toward a model which is more clan/family based in structure. Servants to Asia's Urban Poor uses a plurality of leaders with no "first among equals" and also embraces consensus decision making. In addition to Catholic and Orthodox mission models (which have their own liabilities as well as strengths), the Quakers and Mennonites have offered different visions for how to structure our churches and missions which depart from the for-profit model. There may be some space for Christianity to contextualize the gospel message in a capitalistic culture, I simply find very few Protestant churches and missions that do not uncritically conform to a capitalist paradigm.

 


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