Corporations now structure virtually every part of our lives. Born from the ideals of free market capitalism and designed to thrive in a consumer society, these massive companies feed us, clothe us, educate us, entertain us, heal us, and increasingly, some would argue, they even govern us. Few doubt the dominance and effectiveness of corporations. For that reason, over the last fifty years, churches—both large and small—have increasingly copied the values and strategies of corporations as well.
Most of us are probably too young to remember a church prior to the influence of corporate values, but there was a time when most churches weren’t program-focused, professionally led institutions with mission statements and HR departments. Throughout most of Christian history, for example, pastors spent most of their time ministering out in the community. They brought the presence of Christ to where their people lived and worked throughout the week—homes, fields, factories, hospitals. Today, corporate values have reversed this pastoral model. Most pastors now stay inside church facilities all week managing programs, and ministry happens when people come to them.
Corporate values have also changed our definition of a faithful church. Corporations are financially and legally compelled by 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; it wants you to drink Starbucks coffee. Converting the world from internal combustion to electric vehicles won’t make Tesla successful. Convincing the world to buy Tesla’s vehicles will. Likewise, we now assume a successful church is a large church. Institutional expansion has gone from a by-product of God’s mission to its central goal. This explains why there were only ten megachurches in the US in 1970 (defined as a congregation with 2,000 or more attenders each week), and today there are approximately 1,750.
This emphasis on institutional church growth has even changed our language. Earlier generations spoke about Christians and non-Christians, or believers and nonbelievers. But in the era of the church-as-corporation, we now talk about the churched and the unchurched. These invented words reveal a shift in our missional goal. It’s no longer to connect a person with Christ; we want them connected to our ministry. The assumption that the church ought to be structured, managed, and measured like a corporation is so widely accepted today that few can imagine anything else.
And yet, Richard Halverson, the former chaplain of the United States Senate, reminds us that the church began as something very different. Long before celebrity pastors, smoke machines, or foyer coffee bars, the church was simply a family:
“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”
Yes, Halverson oversimplifies two thousand years of history, but his observation remains useful. Indeed, in America the church has become a corporate enterprise. But in its pursuit of expansion, influence, and power, has the church lost the essential Christian values of faith, hope, and love? In its desire to efficiently reach more people and grow as an institution, has it lost its original purpose to make disciples who grow into maturity?
What we’re seeing in the church today—pastoral burnout and immorality, abuse and cover-ups, financial impropriety, toxic leadership cultures, and the elevation of effectiveness over faithfulness—matches what we’ve come to expect from giant businesses. It also explains why the age of the corporate church has not only added churched and unchurched to our Christian vocabulary, it has also given us a new word—dechurched. 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 turn back time. There is no way to re-create the church as it existed in the first century, nor should we try. We are called to this time, this culture, and this location. Therefore, we must ask what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ right where we are, rather than in some idealized past no longer accessible to us. I suspect answering that question will result in local churches that are very different from the ones in ancient Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, or Rome.
It may sound inefficient and even quaint, but learning to view the church as a family again may prove unexpectedly relevant for the challenges of our day. Recent surveys have found that young people are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. Despite the endless entertainment and engagement accessible to them via screens and social media, they desperately long for real, incarnate community. Increasingly, they recognize the insufficiency of technology to meet this deep need. This generation is also delaying marriage longer than any previous generation, which is contributing to their sense of disconnection.
A church that embraces the value of being a spiritual family, more than anything else, is equipped to meet this generation’s relational and spiritual thirst. We are called to be an incarnate community in a world of digital avatars, a household 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 Himself. But at precisely the moment when our society badly needs the church to rediscover the value of being a family, it has scoffed at this simple vision to chase after the dehumanizing values of corporations instead.
Whether you are unchurched, dechurched, or someplace in between, my hope is that you will come to understand your valuable place in God’s family and the valuable 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 Intended by Skye Jethani (© 2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.