Recently I was writing a paper evaluating the contributions of Brian McLaren to the world of church planting and Christian living. (Before you label me as “emergent” or McLaren as a “heretic,” take a minute to breathe. We often learn the most from those we don’t completely agree with, those who ruffle our feathers.) McLaren makes a comment in his latest book that caught my attention. In speaking of how we traditionally talk about the storyline of the Bible he says, “Could this be the story of a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin?”1
Without diverging too far, critiquing McLaren, let’s consider his metaphor. Think UPS or FedEx: labels, boxes, conveyer belts. The shipping business is a unique one. I’m no expert, but I do know I can go to the UPS Store and send a box from New York to North Africa, and it will arrive the next day. Why? I am not sure. I guess my box is important enough to require many employees to work through the night in warehouses, airports, and distribution centers. It sounds kind of silly. The box just has soap in it.
Consider what we want to distribute, what’s in our box: the good news of Jesus. McLaren is asking a provocative question. Have we made ministry and evangelism into a system that reflects the shipping process? I have wondered this for years.
The large lens of capitalism affects my vision in ways I am not even aware of. Capitalism is usually concerned with the bottom line: profit. A business owner does what he can to maximize profit (i.e. ship my soap overseas overnight because he knows I really, really need it to get there and I am willing to pay for it). As ministers, what is our profit? Is it making disciples, seeing people make decisions for Christ? Have we capitulated to the seduction of capitalism using evangelistic widgets to maximize efficiency and “profits?” If so, what is the cost?
It has always interested me that we do ministry so very differently in New York versus, say North Africa. When I hear stories from missionaries in North Africa, they are pregnant with language about relationships, process, people wrestling with gospel truths. As I listen to church and parachurch leadership in the US, the language is that of business and economics. The focus is on growth: numbers are plotted, donors are giving to programs with calculated results.
Let me be clear: the leaders I am speaking of truly desire to reach the world with the good news of Jesus -- their motive is not in question. Counting numbers and paying attention to effectiveness is very important. What is in question are the methods and ideologies. I have heard firsthand the following phrases from generous donors:
“Return on my investment...”
“The best product...”
“I only give to the most exceptional of leaders.”
“Time is money.”
“I am looking for efficiency and productivity.”
As I listened to these men (who sincerely follow Jesus and want to invest in the kingdom) I felt conflicted and sad.
This language does not seem to be welcomed when we are talking of the fifty years that missionaries labored in East Asia before the fruit of the harvest started to come in. We don’t hold this language over the heads of our ministers who faithfully labor year after year in North Africa as “profits” are hard to come by.
I am not an economist. I think that I like capitalism, in general. But the wedding of business models and ministry philosophy seems like a slippery slope. If our widget was “the ministry of reconciliation” as stated by Paul in Corinthians, then we would have to work harder, produce less, move slower, love more, be uncomfortable, and spend more time with non-Christians who are far from Jesus. As I write I can’t help but think, “That will be a harder sell to donors.” It is true. It is also true that we, donors and ministers, need to seek wisdom in how we apply business models to building the kingdom. Our primary widget need not be a tool, but living out the gospel in relationship with people.
As I finished my paper I noted many points of conflict with Brian McLaren’s theology and practice. We all need to grow. But I will concede with his call for Christians to continually reconsider how we engage those outside the faith. He states, “We must realize that each religion is its own world, requiring very different responses from Christians.”2
A few good things to learn from UPS:
1. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 35.
2. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 292.
* Photo courtesy of kenjonbro (Flickr Creative Commons).
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