To the degree that we are a group of people organized for a mission, the Church is a business. Every successful business that stays successful does so by repeatedly asking a question. What business are we in?
The story of Railroads in the United States is a frequently used example of how not to address the question. Railroads appeared on the American scene in the early Nineteenth Century. It is hard to overestimate their impact on American culture over nearly a century of unabated growth. The Railroads ability to move people, goods, and information over vast distances in relatively short timeframes both expanded and better connected the nation. Entire cities appeared in response to railroads and vast fortunes were made.
The railroads even changed our perception of time. Until the 1880s each town kept time by setting a town clock to show noon at the high point of the sun. For every fifteen minutes east or west you went, you either lost or gained a minute. Since people throughout history had been unable to travel no more than about 25 miles in a day, differences of a minute or two between towns was not a big deal. As railways expanded it became possible to travel hundreds of miles in a day making stops at several locations along the way. Train schedules had complex time conversion tables because each location had its own local time. It was a logistical nightmare. The solution was the creation of the four time zones in the United States. Four time zones replaced thousands of “local” times. Some people fought this change up to the 1920s. Some even argued that it was sinful as it violated God’s intent for the sun to rule the day as taught in the Bible.
Railroads had been successful because they had created an alternative for moving people, goods, and information faster than most people dare dream in the past. As time went by, the telegraph, telephone, and radio began to decrease the railroad’s importance for communication. Automobiles and trucks came into their own in the early Twentieth Century. Airplanes soon followed. By World War II, it was apparent that the nature of transportation was about to change radically. Railroad companies came to see cars, trucks, and planes as competition.
The interstate highway system began in the 1950s and trucking began to expand rapidly for transporting goods. Increasingly, people used cars and airlines for travel. Still the railroads operated as competitors to these alternatives. The Railroad giants finally sank into bankruptcy by the 1970s as other means of transportation siphoned off their customers. Despite government assistance they have never fully recovered. Why? They misunderstood what business they were in.
The executives of these companies believed themselves to be in the railroad business. They were wrong. They were in the transportation business. What had made the railroads successful was that they offered a far superior means of transportation. The context changed. New technologies and new demands emerged. Railroads were a means to a benefit, not the benefit itself. The right move would have been to expand and integrate into the trucking and airlines industries making transportation of goods and people even more beneficial for consumers. Railroad executives failed to realize that their customers were not buying railroad tickets or freight space. They were buying transportation. The railroad executives mistook a means for an end.
Business types well tell you if you are going to succeed you better know your customer and what benefit they are purchasing, because production of those benefits is the business you had better be in. Once you figure that out, you “simply” have to outperform your competitors by delivering that benefit better than any of the others.
Railroads also gave rise to one other feature of our present existence: corporations. While the basic idea of corporations has existed for a few centuries, railroads elevated them to a place of preeminence in America. Historically, most business enterprises could be financed by one or few individuals. Railroads and similar massive enterprises created a need to amass enormous amounts of capital through equity and debt financing. A new way of doing business was needed. The corporation was the answer in that it created a “fictitious person” in the eyes of the law. This fiction allowed investors to easily amass capital and individuals could lose only what they had invested.
Prior to the Industrial Age, what enterprise can you think of that had a mission involving vast amounts of people and resources, and viewed itself operating as one body? Try the Church. “Corporation” has as its root word from Latin “corpus,” meaning body. Curiously, most corporations are learning that the more they function as an organic body the more effective they become, while denominations continue to function more like the mechanistic corporations of a century ago, even insisting that their organizational culture is divinely ordained.
So let’s ask the questions of the church “body” the question the railroad “bodies” should have asked themselves all along. What business are we in? Who is our customer? How will we measure our effectiveness?
For the for-profit business, the last question is quite easy: Financial performance. The better we provide the customers with benefits they seek, the greater our profit will be. When the customer is satisfied, the owners of the body (corporation) get a good return on their investment.
This becomes a little fuzzier for non-profit businesses. The for-profit business offers a product and receives payment from the beneficiaries of the product. In many not-for-profit businesses (not all), the revenue comes from people who are not recipients of the organization’s “product.” The truly defining feature of a not-for-profit business is its ownership. Ownership resides with members or with a board who are prohibited from receiving distributions of any profits (thus the name.) How do we measure success in such a setting? Number of people served? Growth in membership? Improvement in some social indicator? The endless temptation is to perpetuate an activity, rather than achieve an outcome. In essence, perpetuation of the activity becomes the outcome.
Churches usually see themselves as some form of a not-for-profit corporation. Many see themselves as a membership club. The members are the owners who make contributions to ensure the delivery of services to the membership community. They hire an executive director (pastor) to oversee the day-to-day delivery of services. They may do some civic functions and “evangelism” (membership recruitment), but the members are essentially both the owners and the primary customers. They may participate in an elaborate hierarchy above their congregational corporation but the fundamentals are the same.
Other churches see themselves as owners of the corporation but look primarily to people outside the church as the customers. A professional service provider (pastor) is hired to help the membership reach outsiders and bring them into the body (evangelism.) The focus of activity becomes meeting the perceived needs of outsiders.
I have a suspicion that both of these frameworks misunderstand the business we are in. So let me get a little controversial here.
First, Jesus is Lord of the Church. Therefore, the Church is a corporation (a corpus or body) owned by God. We are not the owners of congregations.
Second, God is also the customer for the church, not us or those outside the Church.
Third, and maybe most importantly, we are more akin to a for-profit corporation then a not-for-profit corporation. God the owner has made an “investment” in the corporation and is expecting a return. The corporation must produce a benefit that God the customer finds beneficial or there won’t be a return. This is similar to the first scenario above except instead of us being the owner/customer, God is.
What do you think? What did Jesus say about the talents left on deposit with stewards who did not earn a return? What did Jesus say about the tree that does not yield fruit? Am I overreaching?
Finally, if God is the owner/customer, what business are we in? How do we measure the results? I have some thoughts on this but I would love to hear what others think.