Rethinking the Church and its Professionalization

The modernization of our Western society has led churches to become more professional. Indeed, many churches now have a vision statement, organizational diagrams, congregational meetings where budgets are discussed, reporting, operational teams, concert-like worship, websites, and even social media groups where church leaders can promote activities and news. Doing church has become a major subject of discussion for pastors. The impact of companies has influenced pastors to run their churches alike in order to be more efficient.

The professionalization of the church is not only the result of the cultural influence on pastors, but also on church members. Resources must be used efficiently. Building must look nice and clean. Worship teams follow the latest releases from Christian artists. Screens display fancy backgrounds and sermons are accompanied by nice and fun slideshows.

Professionalization is not intrinsically evil. Some of it is actually required because of growing needs. For example, incomes and expenses must be tracked. Pastors need to eat and buildings need to be paid. Church people should be accountable to how they spend church money. Moreover, professionalism seeks to make the church more efficient in its use of resources whether financial or with manpower. Formal processes usually increase control and productivity. However, professionalism can be an issue when it takes away biblical values. Performance is valued rather than faithfulness. The church “brand” can become more important than people. People with titles are privileged by the church leaders.

Therefore, this business-like church leads to many questions. Is efficiency effective to mature Christians? Has church members become customers? Is compartmentalization healthy for church members and pastoral staff? Has professionalism rendered the church shallow? In summary, should a church run like a business?

There is an incredible number of resources to help pastors and church leaders to run a church. Books, websites, blogs, podcasts and conferences are now readily available. It reflects a real need and desire for pastors to be able to lead a congregation faithfully. Though this process is a necessity, it can also distract the church from reaching out its goals. It may become an end in itself. A great amount of time and effort can be put in organizing and make things look nicer. Staff and volunteers can be drained by all the work needed simply to run the church. Time outside of the church with unbelievers shrinks. Even time with church people shrinks. Eventually, volunteers “burn out” and church becomes a painful experience.

In light of all these issues, it is crucial to review the way we do church. The church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). It needs to be encouraged to grow. The church is what Jesus left on earth to accomplish his great commission (Matt 28:18-20). It needs to focus on its mission. However, we would be simplistic to believe the church does not need anything from the business world. There are good practices that can help church organization. Running a church effectively is, therefore, of primary importance.

Surveying Historical Data

It is difficult to compare church administration with business throughout history because of the limited professionalization of businesses in the past. The modern companies are the result of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the church started to get organized in the end of the 2nd century and copied the Roman Empire’s organization (1). Bishops had authority over clergy in churches of the same cities. Bishops of more important cities started to have authority over other bishops (2). This hierarchy enabled them to gather to discuss about doctrinal and policy issues. Laity was separated from this professional clergy which was in charge of spiritual matters. This structure surely helped the clergy to maintain a contained doctrine and avoid the development of heretical doctrines. Moreover, the Catholic Church actually had major and minor orders of offices already in place in the third century (3). Minor offices were acolytes, exorcists, doorkeepers and readers. In The Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus of Rome mentioned the appointment of readers and sub-deacons (4). Readers were responsible for reading aloud Scripture or liturgy (5). Sub-deacons were helpers for deacons (6). The Catholic church was well organized, and could probably boast to be the first multinational “business” in history.

This hierarchical structure seemed to be contested by Luther who viewed the community as a priestly people of God. The separation between laity and clergy created in the lay people’s mind a gap between God and His people, but universalist priesthood points out that  “access to God is no longer controlled by a hierarchical priesthood” (7). Though what the Catholic Church’s organization had positive effects, it also pushed  people away from God. 

Examining the Biblical Data

The word “church” is used to refer to the people of God (1 Tim 3:15), which is why the New Testament uses it in various ways whether it refers to a small group of believers in a specific location (ex: house church Rom 16:5) or to groups of the same city (1 Cor 1:2), of the same country (Acts 9:31), or of the whole world. It can even point to the all the believers from all time (Mat 16:18; Eph 1:22-23; 5:25). 

The purpose of the church is to worship God (Eph 1:12; Col 3:16), to mature believers (Col 1:28; Eph 4:12-13) and to display God’s glory in Christ to the world by spreading the gospel (Matt 28:19) and showing mercy to all in need (Lk 6:35-36). The means through which the church reaches those goals are the teaching of the sound doctrine (Tit 1:9), prayer (Ja 5:13-18), worship (Eph 5:18-20), right practice of the sacraments (1 Cor 11:17-34), fellowship (Heb 10:24-25), church discipline (1 Cor 5:12-13; Matt 18), biblical church leadership (1 Tim 3:1-13), evangelism (Matt 28:19-20) and care for the needy (Gal 2:10).

The Bible does not define an exact structure of a local church to follow, but just like any other group of people, the first churches had leaders. The New Testament consistently describes elders and deacons. Elders have governing (Acts 11:30, 16:4; Heb 13:17), shepherding (1 Pe 5:2) and teaching (1 Tim 3:2, 5:17) responsibilities. Qualification to be elder is clearly define in 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Tit 1:5-16. They must be faithful men of God who behave according to the sound doctrine and who are able to handle their own family. Deacons seem to have more administrative roles (Acts 6:1-6) though the qualification to be deacon is similar to elder (1 Tim 3:8-13). The process described in Acts 6 is actually interesting. “Deacon” simply means servant. The apostles decided to appoint seven servants who would deal with the daily distribution of food to the church of Jerusalem. There was a problem between Hebrews and Hellenistic people  concerning food distribution for the widows (6:1). The apostles saw it would not be beneficial for the church that they themselves spent time dealing with the issue. Rather, the solution was to find the appropriate people and for them to continue to preach the Word and pray. The result was a more effective ministry of the Word and more disciples (6:7). The appointment of deacons was occasional. The church needed to hear the Word and develop prayer. The deacons were a support of that function. 

In the Old Testament, Ex 18 records an organizational approach among Israel. Moses was the leader. He spent his days judging people and teaching God’s laws. His father-in-law, Jethro, gave him an advice that he followed for his own sake and the good of the people (Ex 18:23). He gave some of his responsibilities to the leaders of smaller divisions. In this case, the leader rearranged the functions among the leadership recognizing his limits and the need to serve others better.

Indeed, God’s people have been given ministries and gifts by the Holy Spirit to build up the local church (1 Cor 14:12). It was also the case in the Old Testament with the construction of the tabernacle for example (Ex 31:1-7). Among the gifts cited in the NT are apostle, prophet, teacher, pastor, evangelist, miracles, healing, help, administration, tongues, interpretation of tongues, wisdom, knowledge, faith, discerning the spirit, serving, encouraging, contributing, leadership, mercy (1 Cor 12; Eph 4). This list was probably not intended to be complete though. The diversity of gifts is the answer to the different needs of God’s people for the fulfillment of His purpose. 

Formulating an Evangelical Position

Church is not a business. It is the gathering of a people who seeks to glorify God through a life of obedience to His will. Therefore, the church must demonstrate values that reflect God’s own character independently from its own organization. Holiness, love and grace must be exercised within and without the context of a local church. The church has also been given a mission which is basically Jesus’ “great commission” from Matt 28:16-20. The making of disciples has been made possible through the different means of grace given to the church such as the teaching of sound doctrine, prayer or fellowship. They should be the primary ways the local church uses to reach its goal. 

The Bible does not define an organizational structure churches should exactly follow. Instead, Acts 6 and Ex 18 validate the fact that local churches are free to organize their structure for their specific needs as long as it serves God’s purpose and encourages the use of means of grace. Indeed, these passages do not only allow but also advocate for a better use of resources whether time or manpower, which is what professionalism seeks to do. 

The challenge of professionalization is to make the church more effective by simplifying “doing church,” not by making it more complex. Professionalism often comes with tools and principles that can easily lead to multiplication of activities, documentation, teams and meetings. Busyness may look productive, but it goes against what Moses and the apostles sought to do: doing less to be more focus. In his book Brothers, we are not professionals, John Piper highlights the importance of not making all this central to what pastors do:

“Ministry is professional in those areas of competency where the life of faith and the life of unbelief overlap. Which means two things. First, that overlapping area can never be central” (8).

The church is distinct from a regular company. Most people have jobs. Church activities come after days of work and care for family. Adding busyness may push people away from the simplicity of Bible study, prayer, fellowship and outreach. Therefore, leaders should ask themselves: what is worth doing so? What is the focus of our church? How can we simplify what we do to reach our goal? Unessential activities should be suppressed. In Acts 6, the apostles saw the food distribution to widows important enough to appoint people to this ministry. By reducing “nice-to-have” activities, church members can focus their efforts what the church seeks to do and avoid being burned out. 

Doing church is also a teamwork. One lesson that we can take from Moses and the apostles is delegating work to trustworthy people. Pastors should not try to manage everything, and congregations should not expect that either. Instead, the work should be  distributed so that everyone’s workload is bearable. This lesson also reminds us we need each other. Church is more than a business. It is a group of people where each member is connected organically. The community of believers should live and work together for one purpose.

Confronting Special Problems

Through professionalism, “worldly” values can be imported into the church. Church can become a brand, pastors CEOs and people numbers. Professionalism can frame people, instead of encouraging them to worship, to grow spiritually and to make disciples. It can be the case when leaders mainly view the church as organization instead of people. The apostle Peter actually reminded elders they were to be shepherd of the flock (1Pe 5:2) not domineering over people but showing examples. Leaders can easily fall in the trap of ruling over the church when they behave like bosses. They command ministry teams to do something but are rarely hands in the mud. They blame instead of correcting. They value people with skills and credentials, and look down on others. They worry more about the church brand than being transparent with church members. The board of elders is rather an executive board than a shepherding board. To all those issues, Mark Dever exhorts pastors to make efforts to rethink the church as a gathering of people instead of organization even in the small details:

“That’s why the church I pastor starts its Sunday morning gatherings not by saying, ‘Welcome to Capitol Hill Baptist Church,’ but ‘Welcome to this gathering of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church.’ We are a people who gather. Yes, this is a small thing, but we’re trying to point to a big reality even in the words we use to welcome people” (9).

He also reminds pastors to consider their responsibility as shepherds:

“I pray that we pastors would increasingly recognize our awesome responsibility for the particular flocks over which God has made us under-shepherds” (10).

Another characteristic of professional churches is performance. Just like in companies, church leaders can push people to perform in their ministry. Performance is actually good. For example, a worship band should be performing well on stage, but problems appear when the “do your best” theology is not taught with the right motives for performing and not demonstrated with grace and affirmation when people fail. Some church members can strive in this environment but with wrong motives such as self-promotion. Others can lose their joy and love for the local church. They feel inadequate for the church, and they eventually leave the church bitter. It clearly goes against the Gospel values. Sometimes, performance should not be the primary aspiration. It can be better not to be efficient in order to grow people who will surely fail at some point. For example, a young man feels the call to ministry. He can be given to preach to college students. Leaders know he will struggle to be clear and coherent, but it is better to give him the opportunity to learn than hiring a college pastor. Therefore, leaders must be careful to create a culture of “performance” in the church, but encourage people to serve as for the Lord. It is the remedy to selfish performance. We do our best with the desire to be one day called “good and faithful servants” by our heavenly Master (Matt 25:21). Church leaders need to thank God for the good work of church members just like Paul often did in the introduction of his letters. Members are not flattered by compliments but at the same time, they feel affirmed in their ministry and gifts. Similarly, leaders will seek to discipline idle members to work for the Lord. Those members feel rebuked as well as being reminded to learn faithfulness to the Lord, and not so much to bosses or a church brand.

I also believe mega and multi-site churches may also be a “negative” result of professionalism. Megachurches are not intrinsically bad, but what they prevent can be. We may overlook this problem, but when churches become mega, they can stop church multiplication. Mega churches usually have charismatic preacher and a good “brand marketing.” Of course, we should not stop anyone from coming to church. But leaders should think about multiplication rather than “mega-ization” because the size of the church creates more distance between people. Members do not really know their preacher. Mars Hill Church is very sad example. Members did not know about Mark Driscoll’s bullying behavior. Moreover, “mega-ization” and to a lesser extent, “multi-site-ization” prevent the rise of new leaders and preachers. Instead, multiplication of churches should be encouraged. Recently, Matt Chandler and the village church demonstrated a good example of multiplication (11). One of their sites became an independent church. We are not in the competitive domain of business, but rather in the cooperative work for the kingdom of God. 

Communicating the Truth in Cultural Context

First, local churches work for the Kingdom of God. Contrary to businesses, local churches are not about self-preservation but self-denial for the cause of Christ. So everything must be done for that purpose. For example, vision statements must ultimately fall under Jesus’ vision statement for His Church. The leaders should not think about making “their” church different from others, but rather, how it can contribute to the overall work for the Kingdom of God in their local situation. 

Second, local churches must seek to grow people by serving others with their gifts and skills. Professionalism can be a tool for that purpose though we need to be careful not to categorize people. For example, people can easily be labeled as administrative, and be framed in that role. There is certainly a need for specialization since the Bible teaches it (1 Cor 12, Eph 4), but we must not limit people to their dominant traits. For example, an executive pastor does not have to be limited to administrative tasks. A preaching pastor should not seek to “dump” all the tedious work on the executive pastor. Rather, he should be willing to do some of that in order to give the executive pastor the chance to grow through preaching as well. The idea is to encourage the church to be “organic” rather institutionalized. Of course, it is a challenge for leaders who generally want to have a certain level of control and decisions over what is going on in the church, but it is better when church people do and organize events according to their gifts and passions. Leaders need to think empowerment rather than power.

Finally, church members need to be taught to be counter-cultural. Maybe churches have become professional because of the surrounding culture and its influence on members. Believers need to learn to fight their desire to see everything “well done” and nice looking. A nice looking and smooth service is certainly pleasant, but we should not be offended when things do not go as well. Yes, the speaker’s wireless microphone can be out of battery during the sermon. The worship leader can make mistakes during a song or the audio-visual team can unplug the wrong cord during service. All these examples are of course distracting, but they are not intolerable. Professionalism does not make the church more appealing, but seeks to help people focus on Christ more. When people get upset with unexpected failures, the professionalization of the church has failed to reach its goal. People have learned to love “professional Christianity” rather than to love Christ “professionally.” May we – especially church leaders – continue to seek to accomplish what Jesus has called his Church to be and to do.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Catholic_Church
  2. Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954, rev. 1967, reprinted 1978, p. 124.
  3.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minor_orders
  4. Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr. London: Alban Press, 1992, Chap. 11 & 13
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reader_(liturgy)
  6.  Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Chap. 34
  7. Gonzalez Justo L. The Story of Christianity, vol II. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, p52-53
  8. Piper, John, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, Updated and Expanded Edition, 2013, Kindle Locations 80-82
  9.  Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007. pp. 34–35
  10. Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? pp. 37-38

 

Bibliography

Articles:

Books:

  • Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. 1954, rev. 1967, reprinted 1978
  • Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr. London: Alban Press, 1992
  • Gonzalez Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Vol II. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2010
  • Piper, John. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. Updated and Expanded Edition, 2013, Kindle Edition
  • Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007
  • Welch Robert H. Church Administration: Creating Efficiency for Effective Ministry, Nashville, Tennessee. B&H Publishing Group. 2011
  • Lukaszewski, Michael. Streamline: How To Create Healthy Church Systems. Caufield & Finch. 2016
  • Rainer, Thom S. & Geiger Eric. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. Nashville, Tennessee. B&H Publishing Group. 2011
  • Scazzero, Peter. The Emotionally Healthy Church. Updated and Expanded Edition: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. 2003

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