Part 2: When A Church Is Run As A Business, It Can’t Help But Be About The Bottom-line

A Pragmatic Mindset Derived More From Capitalism Than From Scripture

It is my opinion that the United States became a rich and powerful nation due, in part, to the aspects of capitalism which cater to the ability of humans to self direct their will towards goals, achieving them through determination, discipline and hard work. It is not difficult to find story after story of entrepreneurs who took little to nothing and built empires through their perseverance. Yet, hard work alone was not the recipe for success these people used. There were, and are, plans – business plans, marketing methodologies, sales approaches, growth models, etc.

20101119-_MG_1095 (2) Just about every salesman is schooled on how to entice a potential customer with the product he is selling, convincing the customer that he needs the product – regardless of whether or not the customer does, in fact, need the product. You may have heard the idiom, “He could sell ice to Eskimos!”[7], describing the abilities of a top salesman to sell a product to an unlikely buyer. Or consider the various marketing strategies employed by establishments wishing to get customers inside their stores – all for the purpose of pitching products to them. The “loss leader”[8] strategy stresses the point of selling one product at or below production costs for the sole purpose of being able to put other “for profit” products in front of the customer. It’s a gamble – a bet – that the customer will not leave the store with only the “for loss” product. And who among us has not had product B pitched to us via means of first having product A presented? For example, at a Bass Pro shop I recently had a timeshare presentation pitched to me after being enticed to win a new truck by just “entering a drawing.” Then there is the “bait and switch”[9] approach in which the customer is led to believe they are getting product A when, in fact, they are sold a cheaper product B. It should be noted that one common feature of any sales approach is that the product is dressed up – enticed – to appear as indispensible to the buyer. Is it any wonder, then, that the phrase “Caveat Emptor”[10] – “Let the buyer beware” – came about?

Now, take a good hard look at how twenty-first century Western evangelism typically takes place. And by Western evangelism, I’m talking about the notion of Christians executing what they commonly refer to as “The Great Commission” (ref. Matthew 28:19) by going out into the world and “making converts.” Usually, there is some sort of emotionally tinged presentation, whether it be a “sermon,” a skit, a concert, etc., in which the human condition is proclaimed – with special emphasis on how the individual listener’s life is currently impacted in the negative by culture and how their individual life can be “fixed” or made “better” by their entering into a “personal relationship” with Jesus. Notice, if you’re ever at an event where this type of evangelism is taking place, how emphasis is placed on enticing the unbeliever with a promise of some sort of betterment with very little explanation of the expenditure on their part. Many times I’ve heard it stated that “all you have to do is give your heart to Jesus”, as if an unbeliever actually knows and understands the weight and implication of what those words mean.

At a typical evangelism event theology, of any concrete sort, is usually avoided as the focus is placed on making sure that unbelievers (and believers) will not be confused or bored. Many times one also finds the evangelist emphasizing the urgency of the call to decision – usually appealing to the fact that eternity is in the balance. Indeed, many Christians are of the thinking that every gathering of Christians must include some call for proselytes, lest we run the chance of any unbelievers leaving the gathering and possibly end up meeting the Grim Reaper, thereby sealing their fate to hell.

Adam McHugh authored Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Introverted Culture and describes some of the history of this curiously American style of evangelism,

Scholar Os Guinness explains that the tent revivals, the forebears of twentieth-century evangelical crusades, featured props and other innovations that were indicative of cultural pragmatism. Americans valued “hard work, common sense, ingenuity, and know-how” and did not have room or need for intellectual sophistication, abstraction or thoughtful reflection. American evangelicals applied these pragmatic values to religion and began to focus on the visible effectiveness of their methods – in the form of tangible, quantifiable results. [11]

[emphasis mine]


…Mark Noll summarizes this part of evangelical culture: “To put it most simply, the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”

The pragmatism that we have inherited fosters an action-oriented culture. Evangelicalism values the doer over the thinker. The evangelical God has a big agenda. It’s as if the moment we surrender our lives to Christ we are issued a flashing neon sign that says “GO!” There is a restless energy to evangelicalism that leads to a full schedule and a fast pace. Some have said that, in Christian culture, busyness is next to godliness… [12]

Without realizing it, most Western Christians structure their approach towards the implementation of their Christian walk using the tenets of capitalism, steeped in pragmatism. Keep in mind that capitalism, while an economic system, affects one’s worldview as well. From Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, authors Smith and Denton describe mass-consumer capitalism and its effects,

People normally think of the economy and religion as two separate spheres of life that affect each other very little. In fact, however, American religion and spirituality, including teenagers’ involvement in them, may be profoundly shaped by American mass-consumer capitalism. Capitalism is not merely a system for the efficient production and distribution of goods and services; it also incarnates and promotes a particular moral order, an institutionalized normative worldview comprising and fostering particular assumptions, narratives, commitments, beliefs, values, and goals…

…As an institution with a specific historical and social location, mass-consumer capitalism constitutes the human self in a very particular way:  as an individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer[13]

[emphasis in original]

It seems that American evangelicalism, in its zeal to proclaim the Gospel, has unwittingly succumbed to methods which, by their very nature, help identify one’s view of morality in an manner compatible with Moral Therapeutic Deism and American mass-consumer capitalism. Evangelicals have, for better or worse, become “individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumer[s].” It is somewhat unnerving when one realizes how closely the Western style of evangelism follows capitalistic marketing strategies. Note how the idea of a sales presentation is mirrored in a typical evangelist’s pitch. I’ve even heard, much to my dismay, several pastors specifically tell their congregations that, when “witnessing” to an unbeliever, they must be sure to “close the deal” – a sales strategy term if there ever was one.[14]

Also note how many outreach events, as well as normal gatherings, are structured as loss leader analogs. Churches will devise an event – a concert, a “Harvest” party, etc. – knowing full well that while most of the people coming are simply interested in having a good time, a certain percentage will be fodder for the gospel message.

“Feeling Slightly Dirty”

20091010-_MG_7198 Having sales events designed to draw large numbers of people in the hopes that a certain percentage will buy your product is, essentially, a numbers game[15]. In the business world, such tactics are well worn and will produce results. Business evangelists – salesman – are typically tasked with quotas[16] they must meet in order to advance their career or, at the very least, remain employed. These quotas are many times tied directly to the dollar value or number of items sold, e.g., a quantity of cars sold per month. Such tactics have, unfortunately, not been lost on the evangelical community. I have heard from different pastors of similar quotas being mandated by senior pastors on their staff of associate pastors – e.g., increasing attendance in specific demographic segments of the church, by a specific amount, over a specific reporting period, or else be let go. In 2005 I wrote a blog post titled, Evangelical Capitalism: How the “bottom-line” determines our action. From my post,

The entrepreneur is interested in keeping the numbers at the bottom-line in the black. Profits equal success. Have we let capitalism so shape our worldview that it has also shaped our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus?[17]

Dave Roberts, a former youth pastor in the Seattle area, left the following comment to that post,

I remember interviewing at a large church in Oceanside CA, and the Sr Pastor flat out told me he had a numbers bias. I was asked what I was going to do to increase the numbers in the student ministry department. That was the straw that broke the …[proverbial]… camels [sic] back for me. I walked away from that feeling slightly dirty. It wasn’t about Christ, it was about the bottom line, disguised as concern for the lost. My job would have been on the line if I didn’t produce the numbers needed to satisfy the SP. [18]

[emphasis mine]

Did you catch that? Associate pastors being tasked with producing quantifiable results (i.e., number of congregants) as a means of keeping their position. Let’s see now… exactly which Epistle is that practice found in?

In franchise operations it is common to expect one’s establishment to have jurisdiction over a specific geographical area – to be free from competition within the ranks of the corporate franchise company.[19] In our evangelical counterpart, I have heard of senior pastors requiring that their associate pastors sign statements which state that if they leave the church they will not start a church within a specific geographic area limit of the church the senior pastor shepherds.

Did you catch that one? Senior pastors requiring their associates sign a contract so as to insure those same associates won’t eventually cut into their… business.

Unfortunately, this business-model mentality is not limited to pastoral staff members, but freely flows down into the congregation as well. With a cost-benefit-calculating mindset, how many evangelicals end up counting proselytes at various events held at their churches? How many evangelicals acknowledge that while church programs may be designed primarily to draw people into the building, it’s justified by the fact that the gospel is being proclaimed? How many evangelicals will readily admit to having fooled and / or tricked non-Christians to attend an event, rationalizing their actions by pointing to the “relationships with Jesus” that have been documented (and tabulated)?

What this obsession with success oriented business models has led to, in my opinion, is an evangelical community which caters to the felt or perceived needs of not only new believers, but of non-Christians as well. The reason these demographic groups are catered to is grounded in the fear that, if presented with a message they don’t care for, then they will not stay or return to the venue. In other words, we’ve adjusted our message so as to insure we get the greatest possible return.

Whenever you listen to the advocates of twenty-first century Western evangelicalism, be aware of the mindset which revolves around business growth and success – that of business plans, growth models, franchise agreements, sales strategies, etc. Be aware of the metrics used to measure said success – that of bottom-line profit, return on investment, sales quotas, month-end sales reports, etc. Be aware of marketing methodologies used – that of loss leaders, sales pitches, advertising campaigns (honest and false), bait and switch enticements, satisfying customer demands, etc. It will help you identify what is truly occurring.

I do not believe that the consequences of our continued love affair with capitalistic methodologies can be overstated. Again, from Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,

One of the possible consequences of this capitalistic constitution of the human self is the way it can reshape the character of religion itself over time. The more American people and institutions are redefined by mass-consumer-capitalism’s moral order, the more American religion is also remade in its image. Religion becomes one product among many others existing to satisfy people’s subjectively defined needs, tastes, and wants. Religious adherents thus become spiritual consumers uniquely authorized as autonomous individuals to pick and choose in the religious market whatever products they may find satisfying or fulfilling at the moment. And the larger purpose of life comes to be defined as optimally satiating one’s self-defined felt needs and desires, as opposed to, say, attaining salvation, learning obedience to God, following the Ten Commandments, achieving enlightenment, dying to oneself and serving others, or any other traditional religious purpose. [20]

[emphasis mine]

And from McHugh,

…We invented the religious twentieth-century landmark: the megachurch – an expression of the church that introduced the paradox of people worshiping together in anonymity. At its best, the church growth movement has reached thousands of people with the gospel and shrewdly connected with the surrounding culture. At its worst, it has produced a superficial, consumerist mold of Christianity that has sold the gospel like a commodity. Many evangelical megachurches, in their hope to create comfortable environments for seekers, have stripped their sanctuaries and worship services of any sense of mystery and the sacred. Their fast moving, high production events may entertain us and their avid employment of modern technology may dazzle us, but many times, they cannot help us hear the still, small voice of God.[21]

In a cost-benefit-calculating mindset, a large church, with many congregants, equates to success and, by proxy, also equates to fulfilling the Great Commission. But if the arguments that our twenty-first century culture is made up of autonomous individuals, seeking whatever product fills their specific needs of the moment is correct, then have we not created something categorically opposed to the Bride of Christ? In a sense, we end up administering pain killers while the patient slowly dies without realizing his predicament.

As we consider the implementation of evangelism plans, whatever they may be, we would do well to consider this quote from Mother Teresa, “God doesn’t require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.”[22]

– all photographs © A. R. Lopez

[7] Wiktionary, sell ice to Eskimos,

[8] Wikipedia, Loss leader, (June 22, 2011).

[9] Wikipedia, Bait-and-switch, (July 9, 2011).

[11] Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Extroverted Culture, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 24.

[12] McHugh, 25-26.

[13] Christian Smith & Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 176.

[15] Wendy Connick, Two Strategies to Increase Sales Revenues,, (last accessed July 15, 2011).

[16] Wikipedia, Sales Quota, (April 2, 2011).

[17] Rusty Lopez, Evangelical Capitalism: How the “bottom-line” determines our action, New Covenant blog, (January 19, 2005).

[18] comment by Dave Roberts, Evangelical Capitalism: How the “bottom-line” determines our action, New Covenant blog, (January 19, 2005).

[19] Mary White, About Business Franchises, (eHow, 2011, last accessed July 15, 2011).

[20] Smith & Denton, 176.

[21 McHugh, 26.

[22] Mother Teresa, Quote,, (2010, last accessed July 15, 2011).

Tagged with:

Filed under: CultureEthics & MoralityEvangelicalsRusty

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!