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Conviction #3 – Upsidedown Economics, Machines, & Organisms
Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

In addition to writing about faith, leadership, and the church, Matt is also the founder of Spiritually Homeless.

This is the third of three articles about the convictions I felt as I looked back on my time in vocational ministry. Here’s a link to the first – Conviction #1 – Complicity, Numbers Games, & Cultural Christians.  Here’s the second – Conviction #2 – I’m Broken, We’re Broken, the System is Broken.

Realizing my own personal struggles in vocational ministry and pausing to reflect on the experiences of many other brothers and sisters who’ve felt called to pursue this path led me to the third significant personal conviction.

The third conviction I cannot shake is that we’ve reshaped church to look more like an organizational machine than the living organism we see presented throughout the New Testament.

Machines manufacture products. Organisms experience growth.

Machines function for efficiency. Organisms function for health.

Machines have parts that can be easily replaced when broken. Organisms need intentional care and healing when damaged.

Machines are man-made. Organisms are God’s creation.

As I think about this shift in the church, I’m reminded of the now oft meme’d quote from Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park – “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” As the American church took in the elusive concept of church growth hook-line-and-sinker, it began pursuing things tangent to the goals and practices of the New Testament. In this pursuit, the question has been “how can we get bigger faster” and not “how can we produce the best Jesus following disciples possible”.

In our pursuits of growth, we have failed to ask if this is even what God intended His church to look like in our world.

The church that we now know and experience is more business-like and success-driven than ever. Some of Paul’s missionary journeys would be seen as failures by today’s standards. If your church sent a missionary or church planter to a new community and he got stoned or put in jail, you’re probably not putting that in next quarter’s newsletter to your top givers. According to nearly every modern metric, those outcomes would have been failures. Paul would have been encouraged to go back to tent-making and spend some time further evaluating his call. Clearly he wasn’t called to or fit for vocational ministry. It can be easy for us to overlook the struggles Paul, the disciples, and other early church leaders had in ministry.

We assume our ministry successes to be easier, bigger, and different.

That was then, this is now. We’ve progressed. We’ve modernized. We’ve fashioned the church to look amazingly similar to the culture it’s trying to reach. We’ve created a business model that’s great at providing a family-friendly, PG (or PG13 at some of the more “edgy” churches) appropriate, entertaining, and culturally relevant experiences every seven days. Surely with the time and financial investment we’ve put into this process, it should yield better results, right? What’s frustrating is when we invest an exorbitant amount of resources and we’re not getting the biblical promise of 100x return.

While the church has adapted significant functions and processes from the business world, one thing it still struggles with is the concept of economics.

Machines can be costly to build, maintain, and expand. One of the most basic functions within the business world is understanding profit margins and return on investment. What’s the total cost of an item – materials, man-hours, research, equipment, utilities, etc…? If an item costs more to produce than it is worth on the market to sell, it rarely ever makes it to production. Simple economics. The machine of the modern American church is completely upside down in its cost per item.

Let’s go back to the pretend congregation we attend together which is about 1000 people in average attendance (see Conviction #1 for a reference point to this). For the sake of simplicity and nice round numbers, let’s assume that we have a yearly church budget of $1,000,000. By the way, for the average growing Evangelical church, that’s an average or below-average budget for a congregation that size. If we need to grow by 200 people this year, then we are essentially spending $5,000 to reach each new person.

I know immediately that there is pushback and questions in your mind. What about caring for the existing congregation? What about sunk costs such as mortgage, electricity, etc…? Can you really put a price on reaching a lost person (assuming the new people to your church are really lost… that’s a whole different conversation)? If the church’s primary goal is to grow and growth is measured by adding to its regular weekly attendance, then the real cost of measuring that outcome is everything it takes to produce it. The cost per item, or in this case, cost-per-new-attendee, is extremely high. Even worse, think about churches that are stagnant or in decline – their budgets vs cost-per-new-attendee could be crazy. Most economists would scratch their heads wondering why the church would ever function this way.

Not only is the per-new-attendee cost of modern church extremely high, but it’s also not reflected in scripture.

We don’t read about capital campaigns, building additions, free coffee and t-shirts, sermon series marketing campaigns, or massive benefits packages for staff as we read about the early church. No, just the opposite. Everyone gave and everyone’s needs were met and the Lord added to their numbers daily. They operated in a negative cost-per-convert, growing regularly and giving money away. It’s so easy for us to write that off as a viable example of ministry; It’s in Acts, and that means it’s meant to show the ways God supernaturally started the church, not the ways He intended for it to operate long term. The common argument says that the book of Acts is meant to be descriptive in retelling the story not prescriptive in explaining how things are supposed to work within the church.

Even if you only read the book of Acts and the accounts of the early church as descriptive and don’t see them as authoritative examples for today’s church, they still show us a lot about the effectiveness of an organic model of ministry that looks more like an organism than a machine.

Has God changed between now and then?

Has the story of the Gospel changed between now and then?

Has the power of the Holy Spirit changed between now and then?

No. I think we would all theologically agree that those are all still constant.

What’s changed is the shape of the church and the culture around it. We as a church would do well to spend more time and energy trying to reflect the character and nature of God than continually adapt to the landscape of culture. And can we be honest? Keeping up with culture is exhausting, and the church always lags behind. In much the same way as we’ve picked the wrong competition in engaging culture with entertainment and media (more on this to come in an upcoming article), we’ve picked the wrong model to replicate. We’ve gone all-in on the model of church as a business and even largely adopted that language. Meanwhile, the model that’s presented biblically gets quickly written off as outdated, irrelevant, and ineffective.

It’s also largely unattempted.

There has to be a more economic way to reach people for Jesus, right?

I think there is. It looks like growing disciples organically instead of manufacturing them. Living organisms have an amazing ability to reproduce. It’s built into their very DNA as a survival mechanism. Plants produce seeds that multiply growth. Mammals have multiple offspring each season. Reproduction is simply a part of the process of the health of something that’s living.

The church as the Body of Christ should reproduce disciples because it’s healthy. Not because it’s really cool and attractional. Not because it’s got the best worship in town. Not because they serve great coffee. No, those are all marketing tools and personal comforts, not signs of health. Those don’t produce disciples.

Disciples produce disciples.

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