Why business models don’t work in the church

Skye Jethani interviews business author Jim Gilmore over at Out of Ur. Turns out Jim’s book The Experience Economy has become a favorite for church growth consultants. According to Wikipedia:

Pine and Gilmore argue that businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product – the “experience”. More advanced experience businesses can begin charging for the value of the “transformation” that an experience offers.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how this thesis could easily be applied to churches in North America. The purpose of the worship service becomes delivering an experience that will be memorable for the congregant–religious theater that “adds value” to the life of the religious (or marginally religious) person.

In a sense, a worship service is theatre. The problem with the application of Gilmore’s thesis as I have it above is that it posits the congregation as the audience. Instead, Christian worship is an audience with God–we perform, to the extent that we can use that word, for the pleasure of and to proclaim the worth of God. 

Interestingly, Gilmore himself is aghast that church growth consultants and pastors are flocking to his book. Why?

Because business is the most corrupting influence on the visible church today.

Gilmore contends that in emulating the business world, the church has lost its foundation in the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the administration of discipline:

The talk of “multi-sensory worship,” the installation of video screens, the use of PowerPoint, having cup-holders in sanctuaries — and I’m not talking about for the placement of communion cups — and even more ridiculous applications really took me back. I even read of a pastor who performed a high-wire act, literally–above his congregation. All of this effort to enhance the so-called “worship experience” arose at the same time that I detected a decline in the number of preachers actually faithfully preaching the gospel through sound exposition of the scriptural text.

Gilmore has been influenced heavily by the work of Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. The church acting like a business is misguided because the two occupy different spheres of culture and creation and work toward different purposes or ends.

The church exists for the purpose of rightly worshipping God and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the redemption of humanity. Businesses exist for the purpose of contributing to the common good by creating/facilitating the exchange of goods and services for what is called in contract law “consideration” (i.e., money or other value). The church doesn’t have a product to exchange for money or some other thing of value.

In fact, Gilmore goes so far as to say:

The church does not exist to help guide transformations, and this goes for two types of transformations. The church has no role in guiding personal transformations in individuals, which only contributes to turning Christianity into what Christian Smith has described as therapeutic moralistic deism. Neither should the church see itself as guiding collective transformations–ushering in some new worldwide ethos-system, the kind of “parousia” nonsense that Brian McLaren fantasizes about.

These are strond words and while I understand (I think) why he would say them, I am not sure that I entirely agree. After all, discipleship is one of the purpose of the church and discipleship is marked by growth in Godliness or holiness, which is a personal transformation that happens in the context of community. This is not, of course, the primary purpose of the church. But it is a purpose of the church.

So while I applaud Gilmore’s reticence to apply his work to the church context, I think he may be just a little carried away by defining the church along the narrow lines of Word, sacrament, and discipline. What do you think?