Rev. Christopher Marlin-Warfield

Bringing People Together to do Good

The Church Is Not a Business

I attend a lot of church meetings. And I’ve been attending these meetings for years. This includes the meetings where we have conversations — sometimes they’re very difficult conversations — about money. We talk about how we’re going to raise the money we need in order to do the things we do, from supporting a local program that provides lunch food for youth while school is on summer break, to sending our adults on mission trips, to paying our musicians, to telling people in our community that we exist. We talk about how we’re going to spend the money we have. And, sometimes, we talk about how we’re going to have to make some hard choices about how we’re going to spend the money we have if we don’t do a better job of raising the money we need.

And, every so often, someone will say something like this: “We have to make these choices. Whether we like it or not, the church is a business.”

And those kinds of statements always bother me.

It’s true that the church is a business in a trivial sense. Churches do some of the things that businesses do and they have some of the concerns that businesses have. Churches raise money and spend money. Churches buy things and sell things. Churches need to deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses also have to deal with. But that’s true of other things, too. If that’s what we mean when we say that something is a business, then libraries are businesses, and cities are businesses, and families are businesses.

If that’s what we mean when we say something is a business, then maybe even individuals are businesses. People like you and me. Little businesses.

But that isn’t what we usually mean by the word ‘business’. What we usually mean when we use that word is an organization whose primary purpose is buying and selling and making money. It might do that in a noble way: many news organizations are interested in making money by getting important information into the hands of as many people as possible. It might do that in a terrible way: weapons manufacturers are interested in making money by making and selling the weapons of war. Most businesses do that in a pretty neutral way. They sell books or bread or bicycles. But regardless of what they do, their primary purpose is to buy and sell and make money. 

And that’s not true of individuals or families. Or churches.

There are plenty of voices that tell us to believe that everything — including individuals and families and churches — are businesses. For example, there’s an entire branch of charity skepticism that tells nonprofit organizations that they need to think and behave more like businesses. And there are many ways that we buy into that idea. We elect business people to public office because they tell us that the government should be run more like a business. We trust business people to propose public policies because they tell us that wealthy people are more innovative. We do things like — and I’m obviously guilty of this — have personal brands and think of ourselves as something like a business. At least, some of the time.

And those voices are the voice of mammon. At least, a little bit.

The biggest struggle in the story of Christianity is the struggle between mammon and the Kingdom of God. Jesus makes the choice clear: “No one can serve two masters,” he says, “for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”1Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13 Or, maybe even more starkly,

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

[…]

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”2Luke 12:16-21, 32-34

The church isn’t just not a business. It is a not-a-business. It is the opposite of a business. 

And, yes, churches raise and spend money. They buy and sell things. They deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses — and nonprofit organizations and families and individuals — also have to deal with. But those are things that churches happen to deal with, because we live in a time when business practices are part of the zeitgeist. They are not what the church is about. The church is about something else.

If I can bold, the church is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor.3Luke 4:18-19 Everything else — including the buying, the selling, the balance sheets, and the income statements, and everything else — serves that purpose.

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