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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Of Whips and Table Flipping  

Written by: on January 19, 2020

In the Gospel of John, we read of a story that many of us are familiar with: The cleansing of the temple by Jesus.  John writes:

 

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:13-16).

 

The notion of the nature of the church is a question that has been burning in my heart since moving to Hong Kong.  The year before I moved, I remember having a strange feeling that something was off about my experience in church.  Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, this feeling followed me across the world to the various churches I attended in Hong Kong.  There was a gradual discontent that grew into a cynicism of the church, but what bothered me most was that I still could not put to words what was bothering me.  All I knew was that something felt shallow every time I sat through a church service.

My revelation finally came on Easter 2017.  As the pastor began his sermon, I realized that this was the first time in years where it sounded like the Gospel was being preached in a church service.  The more I listened, the more I reflected on what “church” had become in many of the other churches I had attended.  My thoughts drifted to Jesus’ words: “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

Church has become a business and a marketplace.

The communal nature of the churches I attended (many of which ironically carried the word “community” in their titles) had been superseded by a programmatic drive that ultimately created a congregation of consumers.  I began to pay more attention to the announcements at churches as they marketed their divorce care groups (“Need help navigating the murky waters of your divorce?  Come join us!”), their prayer classes (“Want to pray with the fervor of David?  We can teach you!”), their retreats (“For $500 HKD, sign up and we’ll give you the time and space to refresh your soul!”), etc.  It was as if the churches were trying to cater themselves to people so that they could keep the “customers” coming back week after week.  This can cause competition among churches in order to see who can attract the most people.

Polanyi talks about how the fictitious commodities of labor, land, and money were the driving forces of the establishing the self-regulating market.[1]  These are considered fictitious commodities because they were not produced for the market, yet they are still bought and sold on the market.  This notion of fictitious commodities is important because in many ways, the church itself markets other fictitious commodities.

When we look at a church website, what are the first things that we see?  A lot of the photos that one can find in the gallery sections offer a window into the experience of that church.  When we peruse these sites, what are we ultimately looking for?  We want to know what we will get out of the service.  Who is the pastor (the more famous he/she is, the better)?  What do they believe?  Is there a small group ministry for me?  Is there a ministry for my kids?  What about the youth?  Are there mission trips that I can go on through this church?  While it is important to know these things about a church, how does a church use these to get people in the door?

At the same time, do the churches see its congregation members as commodities?  During my undergraduate studies, one of my professors used the term “sheep stealing” when we were discussing church growth.  He defined it as churches targeting the members of other churches to get them in their door.  We measure the success of a church by how many people are there, by how many souls are saved, by how many programs the church has, by how many volunteers are active in serving, etc.   Whenever I go back to Kentucky, I ask my family how things are at the church I grew up attending.  The first thing they comment on is how many people are there, who isn’t coming to church anymore, who has passed away, or who had a baby.  The conversation usually stops there, as that’s all they think that’s important to comment on.  To view people as a commodity is an affront to the imago dei in which humankind was created.

The programmatic focus that I’ve seen in churches has been disheartening.  As I reflect on the nature of church in this regard, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like for the church to move beyond the consumeristic nature of programs and into a world of community that seeks to give into the life of other people:

  • How do we move beyond the traditional measures of success within churches (i.e., the attendance, the amount of souls saved, etc.) and stop seeing our congregation members as a commodity?
  • At what point will we turn over the tables of the money changers in our churches and return it to a house of worship?

[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon Press), 75.

About the Author

mm

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

10 responses to “Of Whips and Table Flipping  ”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    It is a good question regarding “some” congregations being distracted by counting and I’m sure others will do the same.

    In my history as pastor, I’ve been in large and small congregations (as lead or other), executive pastor, and more recently a pastor of multi-site. Yes, there was a need to count and it seemed like it was always there. I do think the pastor’s reporting need additional measures. I’m not going to speak to them here.

    However, the need to count as an executive pastor, in my heart, was part of my job to know how to better care for the “numbers.” Numbers are an outcome Better discipled and cared for numbers probably ought to be included. But, the fact is Jesus had numbers grow and reduce (throughout John’s gospel). Bottom line, numbers are people. The motive can be argued addnausem. I work to care for God’s people. And, MANY more do too.

    Very good blog post Dylan!

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Thanks for that, Steve. Keeping numbers in the sense of making sure you’re taking care of your flock is a good analogy. I wonder if numbers matter more to the congregation members than the pastor at times – as if the numbers justify being in the church. A key thing you said is “numbers are people” which is VERY different from the notion of “people are numbers.” The element of humanity needs to be there.

      In your experience as a pastor, how has your notion of “success” in ministry changed over the years?

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    Dylan,
    Having left a mega-church, I am very familiar with the questions you’re asking and the scenarios you shared. It made me feel sick to receive the annual report and see the content be about attendance numbers, budgets, and baptisms. Those in leadership would never say that was their motive. A very gospel-y response would likely be given as to why they do what they do. But I think there’s a breaking point when it comes to a community’s ability to disciple people well. A pastor friend of mine says the breaking point is around 250 members- at least that was what he determined from his years of experience. Makes me wonder how much ego plays into this? Also I think it shows the dark side of evangelicalism regarding many salvations, but shallow discipleship and spiritual transformation. I appreciate your questions at the end. I don’t have the answers, but I think in churches where numbers are people, it’s difficult to determine if spiritual formation is taking place.

    Thinking about your family’s church in KY, I wonder what you’d like to hear when you ask how things are going at the church?

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      A big part of the lack of discipleship comes from the lack of actually empowering leaders within the church. I was thinking this morning about what a mentorship program would like. A question I often hear from leaders is, “Who is mentoring you and who are you mentoring?” What would a spiritual family look like in the sense of an older adult mentoring a middle aged adult, who mentors a younger adult, who mentors someone in the youth group, who acts as a mentor to the children? How would you equip people for such a role?

      I think the things I would like to hear coming out of my church in Kentucky is how the people’s lives are being transformed and how the church is becoming more involved in the community. I see things every once in a while what they are doing in the community on social media, but it’s not something that comes up in conversation when I ask, “How are things at church?”

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Dylan,
    How do we move beyond the traditional measures of success within churches (i.e., the attendance, the amount of souls saved, etc.) and stop seeing our congregation members as a commodity?
    At what point will we turn over the tables of the money changers in our churches and return it to a house of worship?

    These are two powerful questions I often grapple with. There is no easy answer. There is no doubt that there is a business side to any church due to the fact that they hire staff and handle finances. For me the first place to start is to ask: To whom and for whom does the church exist? What is the purpose of the church? Is it to provide its members a series of private membership benefits? In many ways churches have become private isolated societies.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Greg, I’m reminded of the Parable of the Lighthouse (http://www.bible.ca/evangelism/e-parable-life-saving.htm). The “too long; didn’t read” version is that there was a lighthouse on the coast of a rocky shore that was built to guide ships safely into the harbor. Many people were saved by this lighthouse, but as time passed the owners became more and more discontent and wanted to upgrade it. It was upgraded to the point where it lost its focus and mission and turned into a club of sorts.

      I often wonder if in our pursuit of “bigger and better” churches, we lose sight of the original mission that Christ gave us.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Are we getting glimpses into your research question here with the nature of the church? Where the self-regulated market created a heightened sense of commodifying everything, it only fanned into flame that which was ushered in at the fall of humankind. Adam using Eve as a scapegoat; Cain commodifying his offering to God; and the list goes on.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Yeah, this is a glimpse into my research and thoughts I’ve been wrestling with since my “dark night of the soul” two years ago.

      What do you see as the “commodities” within the church? How has your church addressed this issue (if it has)? I’m curious to hear your own experience of it.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    Such an important question. We in the Church strive to reach new people and are often willing to do whatever it takes for the sake of introducing people to a God who loves them and a church community where they can grow as more deeply-devoted followers of Jesus. Then we tell them, “it’s not about you, it’s about reaching new people…!” And at the same time, the church has staff to compensate, programs to fund, utility bills to pay, supplies to purchase, buildings to maintain, etc. and it’s easy for people to get caught up in all of the business and miss the real work. In my tradition, we spent generations defining discipleship as “serving on a committee and attending meetings.” Consequently, the task of reteaching what it means to love God and neighbor is enormous. It’s so much easier to fall back into the old patterns of evaluating success on “nickels and noses.” We are what we count. I wrestle everyday with old habits. I’d love to ask Jesus one day how he measured his own effectiveness!

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      It’s an enormous task trying to rewire our brains and expectations of what we think discipleship and success is. Even when the question of numbers comes into play, there’s always the other question of whether the people our churches attract are simply other Christians from other churches or if they are people who not Christians and are looking for Truth.

      How have you seen the way discipleship is handled in the UMC change since you’ve been pastoring? How do you personally measure “success” in your church?

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