An excerpt from “What If Jesus Were Serious About the Church?” by Skye Jethani
Companies now structure virtually every aspect of our lives. Born from the ideals of free market capitalism and designed to thrive in a consumer society, these big corporations feed us, clothe us, educate us, entertain us, heal us and increasingly, some would say, even govern us. Few doubt the dominance and efficiency of corporations. For this reason, over the past fifty years, churches large and small have also increasingly copied corporate values and strategies.
Most of us are probably too young to remember a church before the influence of corporate values, but there was a time when most churches were not program-oriented institutions, led by professionals, with mission statements and human resource departments. Throughout most of Christian history, for example, pastors have spent most of their time ministering in the community. They brought the presence of Christ where their people lived and worked throughout the week: homes, fields, factories, hospitals. Today, corporate values have overturned this pastoral model. Most pastors now stay inside church facilities all week to run programs, and the ministry happens when people come to see them.
Corporate values have also changed our definition of a faithful church. Corporations are financially and legally constrained by their self-interest. Success is measured by the growth of the institution itself, not how it benefits a community or even its industry. Starbucks doesn’t just want you to drink coffee; he wants you to drink Starbucks coffee. Converting the world from internal combustion to electric vehicles will not make Tesla successful. Convincing the world to buy Tesla’s vehicles will. Likewise, we now assume that a successful church is a large church. Institutional expansion has moved from a by-product of God’s mission to its central purpose. This explains why there were only ten megachurches in the United States in 1970 (defined as a congregation with 2,000 or more attendees each week), and today there are about 1,750.
This emphasis on the institutional growth of the church has even changed our language. Previous generations spoke of the Christians and non-christiansWhere believers and non-believers. But in the age of the corporate church, we are now talking about the at the church and the without church. These invented words reveal a shift in our missionary focus. It is no longer about connecting a person with Christ; we want them to be connected to our ministry. The assumption that the church should be structured, run, and measured like a society is so widely accepted today that few can imagine otherwise.
And yet, Richard Halverson, the former Chaplain of the United States Senate, reminds us that the church began as something very different. Long before famous pastors, smoke machines or home cafes, the church was simply a family:
“At the beginning, the Church was a community of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then he moved to Rome, where he became an institution. Then it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, eventually, he moved to America, where he became a business.
Yes, Halverson oversimplifies two thousand years of history, but his observation is still useful. Indeed, in America, the church has become a corporate enterprise. But in its quest for expansion, influence and power, has the church lost the essential Christian values of faith, hope and love? In his desire to effectively reach more people and grow as an institution, has he lost his original goal of making disciples who grow in maturity?
What we see in the church today—pastoral burnout and immorality, abuse and cover-ups, financial irregularities, toxic leadership cultures, and the elevation of efficiency at the expense of faithfulness— is what we expect from giant corporations. It also explains why the corporate church age has not only added at the church and without church to our Christian vocabulary, he also gave us a new word—off hook. Some church members now feel more like replaceable cogs in a ministry machine rather than essential members of the body of Christ.
Obviously, we cannot go back in time. There is no way to recreate the church as it existed in the first century, nor should we try. We are called to this time, this cultural, and this location. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ where we are, rather than in an idealized past that is no longer accessible to us. I suspect that answering this question will result in local churches very different from those in ancient Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, or Rome.
It may seem inefficient and even quaint, but relearning to see the church as family can be surprisingly relevant to the challenges of our time. Recent surveys have revealed that young people are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Despite the endless entertainment and engagement available to them via screens and social media, they desperately yearn for a true embodied community. Increasingly, they recognize the inadequacy of technology to meet this deep need. This generation also delays marriage longer than any previous generation, which contributes to their sense of disconnection.
A church that embraces the value of being a spiritual family, more than anything else, is equipped to meet the relational and spiritual thirst of this generation. We are called to be an embodied community in a world of digital avatars, a home of healing amid a culture of division and anger, and a surrogate family where a generation of spiritual orphans can find the love of Christian mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. , which ultimately points to the love of God itself. But just when our society badly needs the Church to rediscover the value of being a family, it has mocked that simple vision to chase after dehumanizing corporate values.
Whether you are churchless, churchless, or somewhere in between, I hope you will come to understand your precious place in God’s family and the precious calling of God’s family in our world.
Adapted from What if Jesus was serious about the Church? : A Visual Guide to Becoming the Community Jesus Wanted by Skye Jethani (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.