Church
Vincent V. Marshburn, Homestead Mennonite Church

Vincent V. Marshburn, Homestead Mennonite Church

In our current cultural environment of social distancing and remote gathering, valid questions might occur to individuals who are inclined to assess the relevance and effectiveness of Christianity and the Church, especially considering that in some cases congregational services these days may not resemble traditional or conventional expectations. Scrutiny sometimes leads to hesitation, and many congregations find themselves facing some distinct challenges regarding funding and resources. While this may not be particularly unusual even during ordinary circumstances, there may be more of a sense of urgency when contending with conditions such as pandemics and political anxiety. Congregations may be compelled to contemplate their approach to fulfilling the Great Commission of spreading the Gospel, and may wonder if they ought to borrow strategies and methodologies from secular sources, such as sophisticated marketing programs, innovative product packaging and delivery, or client-centric management models.

It seems natural to wonder how the Church ought to be structured and administered as an association of individuals committed to a common set of objectives. While congregations typically deal with financial and human resource concerns and issues that are very similar to what most businesses face, it should not be surprising that we are advised to rely on the Spirit and Scripture to help guide our approach to such matters, rather than on strictly secular axioms or philosophies. This becomes quite pertinent when considering some of the negative connotations associated with the perceived suspicious relationship between religion and money, which is something the Church often struggles to overcome in its attempts to surmount the fundamental strictures of religion.

The Scriptures do not necessarily prescribe a specific financial strategy for every local congregation to follow, but they do tend to focus on certain spiritual principles when addressing monetary concerns — concerns which every social entity, including the Church, must contend with while operating among this earthly sphere. Scriptures also urge us to rely on spiritual truths and insight with regard to staffing interests when attending to the needs of a congregation. Like a business, the Church does deal with various kinds of operational preoccupations and organizational objectives that drive much of the decision-making. However, Christianity should ideally be able to transcend such mundane matters by defining its identity and functionality on a more spiritual — and indeed, theistic — premise.

Certainly, for any kind of Christian organization there is a fair amount of actual work involved in ensuring that bills are paid, events are organized, schedules are managed and maintained, and individual needs and contributions are accounted for. Some would say that the Apostle Paul's mention of the gifts of "aid and support" and "administration" in 1 Corinthians 12:28 refer to those who are able to help sustain such institutional capabilities of a congregation. When we delve further into Scripture to identify the spiritual principles upon which the Church should base its operational mandate, we tend to see that the emphasis is on responsibility, integrity, accountability, stewardship, and even honor and trust.

For example, with regard to income, the Church is portrayed in the New Testament as relying on generosity and blessings from God through its members (2 Corinthians 8:3-5, 2 Corinthians 9:7). With regard to expenditures such as compensation, we read that it is not objectionable to pay those who perform work for the benefit of the Church and the Kingdom of God, including teaching and sharing the Word (1 Corinthians 9:14, 1 Timothy 5:17).

With regard to providing services and promoting the mission, we have examples of counsel to use Godly judgment in evaluating and prioritizing such matters (Galatians 6:10, 1 Timothy 5:16, 3 John 6-8). And with regard to general management of funds, we are exhorted to prove ourselves trustworthy

(2 Corinthians 8:20-21).

All of these appeals could easily be interpreted as professional advice for maintaining a profitable business through sound fiscal and personnel policy, but of course as believers we recognize there is more to it. God seems primarily interested in developing relationships among the members of the Body that demonstrate our reliance on each other and the Spirit as we strive to live out the truth of the Gospel.

Again, the Church — and in this context, each local congregation — is not typically portrayed in Scripture as being patterned after any kind of worldly business model.

The pastor is not the CEO with a portfolio and church staff are not company employees with quotas. All members of the Body, whether paid or not for their roles, are under the executive leadership of Jesus himself as well as the corporate yet personal guidance of the Holy Spirit. This may seem counter-intuitive or even inhibiting to a natural, human-centric mind, so it is no wonder that many of us do not fully grasp some of the subtle yet sublime idiosyncrasies of The Church and its capacity and potency. This is not to say that the Church should not embrace effective business practices, but only that we should ensure that such practices are aligned with a Godly and Biblical understanding of the role of the Church and its members and our effective use of the resources we are granted.

Incidentally, I have no issues with capitalism as an economic system or with corporations focused on profit and performance (so long as such focus is not based on thoughtless or shameful exploitation).

However, I don't believe that it was intended for the Church to be constrained by such limited and temporal concerns and incentives.

Perhaps more than any other iteration of "Star Trek," the spin-off series "Deep Space 9" (or "DS9" for short) features characters that vividly illustrate some of the more creative representations of severe fervor based on exaggerated assumptions, including extreme theories of business and religion. For instance, the show prominently features an alien species, the Ferengi, whose entire foundation of civilization is predicated on perceiving all of life as representing business opportunities to be exploited at any cost.

The entirety of Ferengi society and culture is based on the drive toward accumulation of wealth through any means necessary or available. The principles of this obsessively materialistic conviction are often expressed in the form of highly institutionalized "Rules of Acquisition" regarded as virtually sacred.

Some typical Rules of Acquisition include: "Money is everything"; "Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity"; "There's nothing more dangerous than an honest businessman"; "Learn the customer's weaknesses, so that you can better take advantage of him. "; "Feed your greed, but not enough to choke it." It can be readily concluded that, essentially, the Ferengi philosophy of business IS their religion — they literally worship money.

At first glance, we might find some of these Rules rather amusing or even ironic, but in many ways, they reflect certain realities of how some individuals or groups might rationalize their organizational procedures and policy. As a mechanism for story and character development in the "DS9" series, the portrayal of Ferengi culture offers various opportunities for conflict and reflection throughout the ensuing storylines as notable individual Ferengi contend with some of the dilemmas that such a cultural premise presents when interacting with others who do not necessarily share those ideals (or at least, not to the same extremity as the Ferengi).

The Ferengi end up being some of the most entertaining characters to observe on the show. Their entirely pragmatic perspective and passionate dedication to avarice is fascinating to behold and, as with much of good fiction, offers intriguing insight into our own motivations as human beings.

One Ferengi character in the series, Quark, the owner of the bar and lounge on the titular space station, is particularly fond of quoting various Rules of Acquisition when attempting to justify many of his potentially questionable decisions or actions. As infuriating as this can be, over the course of time one cannot help but find his single-minded acquisitiveness and opportunism to be almost endearing, humorous, and even occasionally poignant. Two of my favorite bits of dialogue with Quark are included in these scenes from separate episodes:

[conversation between Quark and the "DS9" space station science officer]

JADZIA DAX: And as the 34th Rule of Acquisition states: "Peace is good for business."

QUARK: That's the 35th Rule.

JADZIA DAX: Oh, you're right. What's the 34th?

QUARK: "War is good for business." It's easy to get them confused.

[conversation between Quark and his brother Rom]

QUARK: Must I remind you of the 76th Rule of Acquisition?

ROM: Uh, 76th ...

QUARK: "Every once in a while, declare peace. It confuses the hell out of your enemies."

During the progression of the series, some of the Ferengi characters, including even Quark himself, come to conclude to varying degrees that there might indeed be more to life than just seeking ways to enhance one's net worth, and that healthy, affirming relationships may not always be based solely on profit margins or performance evaluations.

Undoubtedly, there may be something that the Church can learn from the Ferengi's utilitarian and compulsive devotion to the pursuit of business acumen and success — taken with a grain, or probably more appropriately a pound, of salt. Perhaps we could compile our own "Rules of Acquisition" based on truth from Scripture: "It's all God's money, he's just letting us use some of it"; "Current and potential members of the Church are not clients or customers — they are individuals with needs and gifts"; "Bless the workers of the Gospel by paying them fairly — God will provide the means"; "Money is a tool — like all tools, use it safely and correctly." Ultimately, it behooves us to develop a sensible and sober realization that the Church must recognize the nature of its fiduciary challenges and obligations and apply our Christian convictions and faith in addressing and fulfilling them.

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