Church Business

There has long been a tension when determining how to run a church, and how much of that should be done as a business. On the one hand, a church that ignores good business practices inevitably becomes unsustainable. On the other hand, a church that operates too much like a business risks losing its identity as a mission-oriented charitable organization.

To be overly simplistic, there are evangelical churches that function like pyramid schemes, and the entire focus is about bringing in new members. There are traditional churches that operate more like banks, with their focus generally centered on stewardship of money and continuing to do things “the way we’ve always done them.” There are newer, progressive churches that are like local bistros; they have a focus on just being the alternative to these other churches; they trust that word of mouth will be enough to get new people in the door, and the experience will be enough to get those people to come back.

None of this is a new thought for me, but I read two articles today (both articles had links from friends on Facebook) that made me think even more about church as business.

The first, which my friend Todd R linked, is this: http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/story/2012-04-01/burger-king-makeover-reinvention/53935172/1

The second, which my friend Chris N linked, is this: http://techcrunch.com/2012/04/15/an-open-letter-to-those-not-employed-at-instagram/

The difference between Burger King and Instagram is that in order to continue utilizing the services provided by Burger King, you have to keep paying. If people were charged per use of Instagram, it never would have survived.

Burger King is renovating in the hope of re-identifying itself and attracting a wider market. If they fail to do this, the company is in jeopardy of fading and dying. If they succeed with this, they will have succeeded as a business… but they will have done so by killing the heart of what they were in order to evolve into something new. It is unavoidable that some percentage of their customers will be disenfranchised (ha?) by this move. Churches often have to do this to stay alive. Many of us have been to a church — often our grandparents’ churches — that have a population dwindling in number because they haven’t changed a thing in sixty years. Change makes sense.

But as my friend Chris pointed out in his link to the Instagram article: “users are not customers.”

(In case it takes you a moment to get that, think of it this way. A customer pays you. A user does not.)

This is where churches run into issues. In order to survive, churches need customers. Churches need donors — both those who give a lot of money and those who give just periodically. Every church has more users than customers.

In order to survive as an organization, churches need to maintain at least a minimum level of income. Churches that do not change face extinction.

Churches that do change face alienating their current base of both users and customers. And this is where churches diverge from typical businesses. Churches aren’t supposed to just bring in new congregants. They are supposed to support the existing ones as well… not just as a good business idea, but as the whole goal of being a church in the first place. If it were exclusively about bringing new people to become believers, there would be no need for a regular weekly service. We go to church to be refreshed, and to refresh one another. The social aspect of churchgoing is not just enjoyable, it is important for maintaining faith.

Ultimately, my thought process for today is this: when a church changes in an effort to ensure economic sustainability, the hope must be that after they lose people who resist the changes while gaining new members of the congregation becauseof these changes, they will effectively have a net increase in customers (or, to be more precise, a net increase in income… which presumes a net increase in customers and not just a net increase in giving). But what happens to those users and customers who are put off by the changes? With a business like Burger King, if you don’t like the changes, you probably still have a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, a Hardee’s — a place where you know exactly what sort of experience you’re getting before you even walk in the door. With a church, alienated congregants can waste months and even years trying to find a place that has the fellowship they’ve lost.

Many stop looking.

I don’t have a solution. Just pondering.

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5 Responses to Church Business

  1. Chris Power says:

    Well written, and interesting point of view. I know I have struggled with this on a even more simplistic thought. People of the church should be given enough to live a humble life. When your religious leader drives a BMW (even if the church has thousands of followers and has for a hundred years) I have issue with it. On the other hand I have issue with too modern, too relaxed churches as well. I have sampled a lot, and can say that the level of business versus faith can be tricky for sure

  2. Kendra says:

    I thought a church was supposed to be more like a family than a business.

    • strangedavid says:

      It depends on who you ask, and how you define “family” and “business.” If you can answer the question, “How does a family operate successfully?” and include the too-real economic factors, I’m all ears. Or eyes, considering this is text online.

  3. no name, please says:

    When we left a congregation, I was stunned when no one asked us why. On the one hand, it was kind of nice to not go through an awkward round of 20 questions, but we were consistent mid-level givers. We had had our weekly offered debited from our bank account, and we had given significantly (for us) to a new building fund. We were part of steady flow (more than a trickle) of similar members leaving the church. Surely It is harder to convert new members into mid-level givers than to simply talk to the exiting members and find out WHY we’re leaving?
    I continue to feel convinced that our contributions were valued only in the monetary sense, despite being active volunteers during our 5+ year time in that congregation.

    The more we committed to the congregation (time, money, emotional commitment), the more I realized that our input for the overall direction of the church was never listened to. I expected to be able to comment upon and eventually maybe even help guide the church’s direction. We discovered that there was no way to formally comment on the church leadership’s decisions or give feedback on large changes. There were no minutes of meeting to read, and congregation meetings were for delivering information on plans (to rubber stamp decisions already made by leadership).
    If they can survive on the few top-level givers, and whatever new attendees choose to toss in, they are welcome to it, I guess. But with only a top and bottom, they will end up with an empty core.

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