Should Churches Ever Go Out of Business?

Erik Cooper —  January 27, 2010 — 18 Comments

As a church leader, the reality is unavoidable. News stories circulate the statistics through Christian networks and publications with great regularity. Western Churches are dying. Closing their doors at an alarming rate.  And my honest, and undoubtedly controversial, question is this:  is that really all that bad?

I’m the co-pastor of a local church in downtown Indianapolis, and I unabashedly believe that the local church is God’s designated expression to bring His hope to the world. But I sometimes wonder if all our efforts to keep churches in business are actually working against God’s designed purposes for those churches to begin with.  Really, I haven’t been drinking.  Let me explain.

We have an undeniable propensity to see the church as an entity instead of a people, an institution instead of a movement. So almost involuntarily over time, our focus turns toward acquiring and keeping resources that sustain the organization. Efforts which may or may not lead to the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

“Preserve and keep builds my kingdom.  Create and release grows God’s.”

In fact, almost without warning, our church and its existence can easily become our definition of God’s Kingdom in its entirety. The complete answer to the question, rather than just a piece of a much larger landscape.

In business school we learned the product life cycleEventually, regardless of longevity, all products become obsolete. It’s inevitable.  But that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the demand for what those products provided.  Cultural shifts or technological breakthroughs may simply create a better way to accomplish the desired outcome.

Let’s be honest, if McDonald’s goes out of business, people will still find cheap, artery-clogging food to eat.  If GM shuts it doors, transportation won’t cease to exist.  If Apple files for bankruptcy, our generation will still create technological tools that allow us to snobbishly mock users of Microsoft products.

“The church is a means, not an end.”

And if my organized expression of the local church ever ceases to exist, God’s Kingdom will still expand (ask any of the skyrocketing number of Christians in communist China).  Because the church is people, not an institution. If what I know as church isn’t expanding the Kingdom, wouldn’t it be best to release those people and resources to start new faith communities that are?  After all, the church is a means, not an end.

City Community Church turns 11 months old this weekend, and I hope with all my heart that we celebrate 10 years, 25 years, 50 years as a local church community.  But only if we’re truly advancing God’s agenda in the world. If not, we need to go out of business and release our resources to those who are. Getting CityCom to its next birthday milestone can’t be our focus.

Preserve and keep builds my kingdom.  Create and release grows God’s. And isn’t that what the Church is supposed to be all about?  Love to hear your thoughts: www.beyondtherisk.com

18 responses to Should Churches Ever Go Out of Business?

  1. Ah, breaking out the b-school terms Coop! 🙂

    Even to simplify this: non-profits go out of business all the time, either through simple lack of interest or because there’s sufficient supply of interest in that specific cause to consider itself obsolete. And just like churches, every non-profit believes it has some kind of competitive advantage over other non-profits to justify its existence.

    Here’s where the schism occurs: church leaders are wayyyyyy too ignorant of the market, instead convincing themselves that they’re ideally serving “the mission”. This is a paradox: why would a business ignore its customer base by delivering on a mission that doesn’t align with its customers?

    Ah, but then we get into an even bigger discussion: “serving the church members detracts from the purpose of the church!” is a common argument. Moreover, “church is not supposed to be a business”. True, but frankly — the American church has done a fantastic, fantastic job of labeling itself as a non-profit organization. And if we’re going to label the Gates Foundation as a business, then the church must be labeled as such too.

    Am I rambling yet? OK. 🙂 Conclusions:

    – The church should NOT operate as a business b/c its role is to serve a mission, not a customer.
    – But, the church in current form operates as a business because of its non-profit status.
    – So, the church itself is all confused as getout.

    (/soapbox)

  2. Erik,
    I always counsel those who get into the alternative church scene to temper their rhetoric on church because frankly the jury is still out on how we do things vs how Dad’s church did things… Bottom line: Dad’s church bore fruit for a (long) season but perhaps now show signs of institutionalism. We need to be careful not brag about our new and improved seeds that we have yet to see the fruit of… Having now a grey beard also allows me to remind you that the deadest, institutionalized church is town, began as commited and well intentioned as the youngest, hippest, alt.church in town. Just sayin’…..

    • Thanks for your honesty Doug. I do think you somewhat misunderstood what I was trying to say. I really don’t think this has anything to do with age. It’s not about new or hip, alternative or trendy. It’s about Kingdom. And Kingdom comes in all different expressions – t-shirts and jeans & suits and ties – rented theaters & traditional structures. My fear is that we easily lose focus on what we’re here for, and that can happen to an 11 month old church or a 80 year old one.

      Honestly, Doug, the one who scares me the most is me. No bragging here…just a lot of fear and trepidation. Thanks for the comment

  3. @ Doug: Wow!

  4. I tend to agree with m@ about the conflict in modern christian ministry when churches operate as non profit businesses. I think the temptation to organize and seek protection from taxation is something interesting that really has only been around for most of the last century.

    Before that, for the majority of the last 1500 years, the church and state were equal. So the organized church didn’t need protection from state taxes because all donations by worshipers went directly to the state through the organized church anyway. Like many things, the creation of corporations that were non profit started out as a way to protect people’s right to express themselves through giving or speaking about certain things but quickly exploded into a way for ministers of the gospel to profit from the massive empires they could build, tax free.

    I agree with you Eric that the Chinese church is a really exciting phenomenon to study because it shows us how when you remove the incentive to build a ministry around a personality or a style that God is still able to reconcile people to himself… which is the whole point. God has never needed a 501c3 non profit to get the gospel message out. Nor does He tell us to make sure we get a receipt on our giving so we get a tax credit at the end of the year against our income. But that whether money or message we are to give freely expecting nothing in return. Not many modern organized churches really believe or live by that principle. (I have no problem with people getting a tax credit, but how many would really give if there was no “incentive”.)

    Glad to see you asking honest and transparent questions. Those that are “sick” will appreciate being ministered to by you. Love reading your thoughts. Always poignant.

    Let’s pray that our modern expectations of “church” will cease and God will start to reveal the real truth of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” A hurting world would be radically impacted by that reality.

  5. You brought that on yourself Erik, you’re out of uniform. Obviously you didn’t SAY anything boastful…but we all know what you reeeal-ly mean. Couldn’t be any clearer than that, could it?

    • Yeah, this is a tough one for me Joe. Not an intended shot at others…quite the opposite I had hoped. Acknowledgment of my own propensity to make a real mess of God’s original intentions.

  6. Hey Erik,

    Thanks for always leading us to solidify ‘why’ we exist as the Church. I was having a conversation with someone who was venting about their church and how their church did things. They didn’t feel like they could recommend the church to someone. I reminded them that they were the Church and maybe they were being called to reach out to the person that needed help. They told me to get off my ‘I am the Church’ kick ☺

    I get what Doug was saying but I agree with you. I think he either misunderstands your heart or simply doesn’t know you very well. There is the school of thought that old is bad and new is good and that’s as flawed as he says it is, but I guess I just didn’t sense any of that attitude in what you wrote.

    Maybe I’m making it too simple (imagine me doing that 😉 but it seems like you’re just saying that we can’t forget WHY we exist, to build God’s Kingdom in the hearts of men, because if we do our focus will shift to maintaining HOW we exist. I think all churches are in danger of this, young or old, traditional or ‘alternative’ as Doug said. (Am I the only one who finds it distasteful that we seem more focused on pointing out our differences instead of what we have in common?)

    But I think that’s what your saying. You realize that in a year you could be an obsolete institution instead of the life giving community you are right now. You want to avoid that by remembering that CityCom is her people and their unique lives lived out for Christ on a daily basis in their sphere of influence.

    You know, Erik, I am personally thankful for the reminder that I’m not on some kick. I am the Church and I’m no longer obsolete, simply waiting in safety for death to come and take me home.

  7. @ Lois
    That is why I “counsel against the rhetoric”. Does everyone who read this “understand Erik’s heart or know him very well”?

    People from my house church OR the traditional church that I help would LAUGH at the way my comments were construed (or misconstrued?). Again that is why I counsel against the rhetoric.

    I have learned that a new church within the Church can be constructed without the de-constrution of the old one…

  8. I’ve never even met Erik, and in this article I see no rhetoric that needs tempering, nor counseling against. Indeed, the article concludes: “I hope with all my heart that we celebrate…50 years as a local church community. But only if we’re truly advancing God’s agenda in the world. If not, WE need to go out of business and release our resources to those who are.”

    Sounds entirely like someone very mindful that all our works are brought to the threshing floor of the Almighty. He is explicitly cautious “not brag about new and improved seeds.”

    The last reaction I’d expect this article to evoke is an admonition against bragging. If in fact you were NOT admonishing Erik against boasting, now would be a fine time to make that clear.

  9. I violated my own cardinal rule of never offering advice unless someone begs for it. I promise, at least in this forum to never let it happen again.

    Joe B- I said “we” so if I admonished Erik for bragging then I was admonishing myself as well. I believe it would do us all good to read from Webster on the that word.

    “Admonish implies the giving of advice or a warning in order to rectify or avoid something.”

    Cautioning someone to not do something is a little different from accusing them of it. I think Erik and I both could use admonishing for a variety of things and would be shocked if he disagreed.
    If Erik can truly find no wisdom in what I said and finds offense, then I offer my sincerest apologies….

  10. @Doug

    It’s good counsel that you give, Doug, and you are right that everyone who reads Erik’s blogs don’t know his heart nor know him very well.

    I think you also inadvertently made another great point in that this mode of communication is fraught with unintentional misunderstanding.

    I also agree with your comment that we don’t need to deconstruct the old to usher in the new.

    I guess I just don’t see the ‘rhetoric’ you see in what Erik wrote. I don’t see him deconstructing anything. I do see him asking hard, sometimes bold, questions. I do see him grappling with what was known and familiar, what we might term ‘old’, as he begins to walk in something unknown, unfamiliar and often uncomfortable. I see a man trying to walk rightly before God and the people he leads.

    Sir, I don’t have the gray beard you have or the years of service in the Church, but as a sheep, I find myself wondering what kind of questioning is okay? What kind of verbal processing is not ‘rhetoric’? Are no comparisons allowed? Why is it not okay to look at what we’ve done and ask ourselves if it’s effective or even relevant to anyone anymore?

    I know that this is all too often done with disrespect and dishonor and I share your disapproval of that. But again, that’s just not even close to what’s happening here and I find myself honestly concerned that if Erik’s processing is offensive, what kind wouldn’t be?

  11. i can vouch that Coop’s an allright guy, despite the fact that he has Colts season tickets. 😉

    • I appreciate the challenge and admonition, as well as the willingness to stick up for my character. 🙂 You don’t write things like this without expecting people to both embrace and despise the position. We all need to wrestle with the hard questions and never settle for anything less than pursuing God’s Kingdom, which will always come with some level of (hopefully healthy) tension (and, of course, unabashedly rooting for the Indianapolis Colts).

  12. Hey Erik,

    I’m a friend of Lois, down here in the WHO DAT nation.
    A couple of years ago God lead us out of a solid, jam packed church to one that had a history of two church splits and about a hundred people in attendance (on a good day) The churches vision is for France, and major changes were occurring. In a meeting, our pastor made a statement that surprised and stretched me. He said that if God closes the doors of this church to pursue the call to minister to the French people, then so be it.
    Thankfully, I get his heart, and I desire a heart like that. I want to be Kingdom minded, and pursue God’s vision and passions without limits. I’m grateful God is stretching me, and He didn’t leave me in my comfort zone. I appreciate your honesty. May God bless you and your family.

    Sorry, but I have to do it: Go Saints!!!!! Black and Gold to the Super Bowl. We will Brees our way to the victory.

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