Someone always inevitably blurts the Old Statement: “The church is not a business.”

When a lay person uses a metaphor from the business world in a church meeting, you can count on someone chiding the person with the Old Statement. “The church is not a business.”

When someone suggests the church employ sound–and legal–employment practices, someone eventually resists, announcing that “the church is not a business.”

When people (like me) suggest that the church might learn some helpful leadership lessons from the business world (as I did in last week’s article about the demise of the Eastman Kodak Company), someone predictably drags out the Old Statement. “The church is not a business.”

Well, the Old Statement has become a tired, unhelpful, harmful saying. And the closed-minded thinking behind the Old Statement is part of the reason the American church is stuck. I’m afraid the dismissive utterance of “the church is not a business” has become a lazy excuse for mediocrity. Let me explain.

Of course the church is not a business. Neither is it a farmer’s field. Or a fishing hole. Or a medical office. But that does not mean that the church cannot learn something from those non-church settings. In fact, Jesus used those very settings–and many more–to help people learn about how to be the church.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.” “I will send you out to fish for people.” “It is not the healthy who need a doctor.”

Jesus used parables and metaphors from another setting to help people see things in a new way. He did not cheapen his message by using these metaphors and parables. He did not imply that his church should actually become an agribusiness, a fishery, or a medical clinic. He simply helped people identify with what they knew outside the church–to learn what they might apply inside the church.

But, not everyone appreciated Jesus’ teaching methodology. His detractors found his challenges too uncomfortable and convicting.

Those detractors live on today, attempting to squash discussions with snide dismissals such as, “The church is not a business.” Too often the Old Statement is used as a door-slamming defense of the slothful status quo. “We’ve never done it that way before.”

And, repeating this Old Statement often comes off as a contemptuous slam at those in the congregation who work in the business world. “The church is not a business” sometimes drips with disdain for business people. They infer, “The church should never stoop to the cesspool of the farmer, or the fisherman, or the doctor.” That subtle inference is driving away some of our best lay people, who happen to earn their living in the marketplace. And that is a serious loss. D. Michael Lindsay, Gordon College president and author of Faith in the Halls of Power, has documented that legions of our country’s accomplished leaders with strong Christian faith have fled the church because they feel their real world experience is dismissed and despised by church leaders.

Of course some farmers, fishermen and doctors conduct their businesses in dishonest ways. So do some church leaders. But that’s no reason to categorically throw out everything that a profession may teach us, simply because of some “bad apples.”

And, not everything in one profession transfers to another. Of course the church’s “bottom line” should not be a financial figure. But the church can learn useful lessons about pursuing its true mission from other settings, such as the farm, the fishery, and the clinic.


Recently I received an email from a life-long churchman who read our book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. He wrote: “I decided to visit other churches of all denominations to verify the validity of all I had heard about the demise of Christianity. I found what I was hearing was true.

“I am finding most churches are not willing to consider changes that would bring people to Christ and save their churches from dying soon. I am finding most ministers theologically qualified but resistant to anyone from outside their church suggesting any change. I have 50 years experience in entrepreneurial companies and find it crazy for ministers in dying churches so tied to doctrine and ego that they refuse to explore ways to turn their church around and become a refuge for believers and unbelievers alike.”

It’s literally true. The church is not a business. But that’s no excuse for lazy resistance to ideas that can help the church fulfill its mission. I close with another of Jesus’ business examples: “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”