Entrepreneurs and the Church: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The movements seem to come in waves. They differ in name and in practice, but they all hold out the promise that they will save the Church. The was the youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Charismatic Renewal movement, the Church Growth movement of the 1980s and 1990s, the Emerging Church movement and, now, the Missional Church movement. All of these movements have left their marks upon the Church for good and ill, but none have proven to be the promised panacea for the revitalization of the Church.
I think there is a reason why that is the case and it has to do with the single common feature that appears to run through all these movements to a lesser or greater degree. They are, at heart, entrepreneurial. Indeed, most of the movements listed above would fit into the economic description of Joseph Schumpeter who described the entrepreneur’s role as “creative destruction”, that is, launching innovations that simultaneously destroy old industries while ushering in new industries and approaches. The entrepreneurial model involves developing a business plan, hiring human resources, acquiring financial resources, and providing inspired leadership. Moreover, it is widely accepted that such entrepreneurial enterprises will, for the most part, partially or wholly reflect their founders’ perceptions and identity.
Additionally, entrepreneurs seek to exploit a gap, or perceived unmet need, in the market and to develop products, services or industries to meet the unfulfilled need and thereby create wealth and stability for the new enterprise. As the core entrepreneurial business grows, the “inspired” leader of the enterprise looks for the opportunity to create off-shoots or satellites. These subsidiary organizations support and feed the central enterprise while retaining and expanding the entrepreneurial culture of the parent body. This includes the unique jargon and vocabulary of the entrepreneurial enterprise… we are “forward thinking”, “responsive”, “encountering”, “engaging”…
Now, if this sounds to you like the program for a new missional church plant, or perhaps what you heard in a Church Growth seminar from the 1990s, or the conference you attended on the Emerging Church ten years ago, you would not be far wrong. While often wrapped in the language of Scripture or, conversely, motivational/self-help jargon, most, if not all, of the recent movements in the Church eventually end up following a secular entrepreneurial model, even engaging in “creative destruction” of what has come before. Owing to the risk factor in entrepreneurial enterprises, large sections of such movements fail. For those that succeed, however, the end goal of a full parking lot, a new building, or a place in the national spotlight, justifies the means.
Yet, there are other matters to be considered and, at least in my opinion, they are important.
In almost all the movements of the last fifty years, one or two things tend to happen. The first of these is theological. When the youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s emerged, the underlying premise of the movement was that, somehow, we were first century Christians. That is, there was an underlying assumption that the intervening 1900 years between the time of the Apostles in the Middle East and 1967 in Southern California, nothing happened that required our attention. Now, this is true of all the movements to a lesser or greater degree, but it was profound in the Jesus Movement and, might I say, it was arrogant. It was as though we discovered what had been lost and we were the only ones to get it right in two millennia. As I said, there are echoes of this in the other movements as well. Indeed, the Missional Movement with its insistence on being contextual, tends to look only at the contemporary zeitgeist and largely ignores history and tradition as being irrelevant to the current context. In the worst examples of this, the arrogance of “we” (those who contextualize ministry) is set over against “them” (mainline denominations, middle of the road evangelicals, etc.), failing to recognize that, of course, the others are ministering in a context as well, simply without reference to a label.
The second thing that tends to happen is a lack of connection. In the case of the Emerging Church movement, it became clear that what took place in a conference was unlikely to produce a lasting connection among participants as they engaged post-modernity in their separate places of worship. Indeed, it was much more likely, given the entrepreneurial model being exercised in these churches, that they would be chiefly known by and organized around the personalities of their leadership – such as a Mark Driscoll or a Nadia Bolz-Weber. This also took place in the Jesus Movement and is currently the challenge of missional churches, as “missional congregations understand that they are contextual and thus also particular”. That “particularity” will, in time, express itself in entrepreneurial leadership issues and medium/long term sustainability.
The one movement that seems to have survived, is the Church Growth movement, even if it has morphed into what we now define as mega-churches. It works largely because it is entrepreneurial and, to a certain extent, mechanical. I wrote an article for Eternity magazine in September of 1986, and said the following about the then emerging Church Growth movement, stating that it,
”…fits right into the consumerism that so characterizes American religious life. Church-shopping has become common. A believer will compare First Presbyterian, St. John’s Lutheran, Epiphany Episcopal, Brookwood Methodist, and Bethany Baptist for the ‘best buy.’ The church plant, programs, and personnel are scrutinized, but the bottom line is, ‘How did it feel?’ Worship must be sensational. ‘Start with an earthquake and work up from that,’ advised one professor of homiletics. ‘Be sure you have the four prerequisites of a successful church,’urged another; ‘upbeat music, adequate parking, a warm welcome, and a dynamite sermon.’ The slogan is, ‘Try it, you’ll like it.’”
Little did I know when I wrote this what the future held. (Now I would probably add other necessities such as, screens, licensed child care, praise bands, and smoke machines.)
Yet, it remains to be seen if, in the long term, any of these entrepreneurial models will benefit the Church as we move through the coming years, decades, and, should the Lord tarry, centuries. The Youth Movement of the 60s and 70s bore fruit. We must admit, however, that it was mainly in the lives of those who, in time, left that movement behind and moved forward. Certainly, that was my experience, as well as the experience of numerous others. In the end, I suspect that all the entrepreneurial models have within them a fatal flaw. It is the basic inability to theologically understand the nature the Church through time as an extension of the Incarnation of Christ. The Church is to be conformed to Christ as his body – not to a temporal context, or a mechanical template, or even a post-modern culture. If anything, the nature of the Church in Word and Sacrament requires faithful pastors and priests… not entrepreneurial personalities.