[Paleopsych] Economist: Churches as businesses: Jesus, CEO
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Churches as businesses: Jesus, CEO
Dec 20th 2005 | SOUTH BARRINGTON, ILLINOIS, HOUSTON, TEXAS AND
America's most successful churches are modelling themselves on
VISIT Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, an
upscale exurb of Chicago, and you are confronted with a puzzle. Where
in God's name is the church? Willow Creek has every amenity you can
imagine, from food courts to basketball courts, from cafes to video
screens, not to mention enough parking spaces for around 4,000 cars.
But look for steeples and stained glass, let alone crosses and altars,
and you look in vain. Surely this is a slice of corporate America
rather than religious America?
The corporate theme is not just a matter of appearances. Willow Creek
has a mission statement ("to turn irreligious people into fully
devoted followers of Jesus Christ") and a management team, a
seven-step strategy and a set of ten core values. The church employs
two MBAs--one from Harvard and one from Stanford--and boasts a
consulting arm. It has even been given the ultimate business accolade:
it is the subject of a Harvard Business School case-study.
Willow Creek is just one of a growing number of evangelical churches
that borrow techniques from the corporate world. Forget those local
worthies who help with the vicar's coffee mornings and arrange
flowers. American churches have started dubbing their senior
functionaries CEOs and COOs. (North Point Community Church in
Alpharetta, Georgia, even has a director of service programming. Can
Chief Theological Officers be far behind?) And forget about parish
meetings in which people bat about random ideas on how to keep the
church going. America is spawning an industry of faith-based
consultancies. John Jackson, the senior pastor of Carson Valley
Christian Centre, a "high-impact" church in Minden, Nevada, has taken
to describing himself as a "PastorPreneur" and has published a book
with that title.
Willow Creek is based on the same principle as all successful
businesses: putting the customer first. Back in 1975 the church's
founder, Bill Hybels, conducted an informal survey of suburban
Chicagoans, asking them why they did not go to church, and then
crafted his services accordingly. He removed overtly religious images
such as the cross and stained glass. He jazzed up services with
videos, drama and contemporary music. And he tried to address people's
practical problems in his sermons.
An emphasis on user-friendliness continues to pervade the church. Mr
Hybels's staff try to view their church through the eyes of newcomers
(or "seekers" as they are dubbed). This means dedicating themselves to
"total service excellence". The grounds--"the path of first
impressions"--are kept impeccably, with the lawns mown and the car
park perfectly organised. It means being welcoming without being
over-the-top ("evangophobia" is a big worry). And it means having lots
of "hooks" that help to attach seekers to the church.
Willow Creek has dozens of affinity groups for everyone from
motor-cycle enthusiasts to weight-watchers. The church provides social
services, from counselling for drunks and sex-addicts to providing
help with transport. It has a "cars ministry" which repairs donated
vehicles and gives them to needy people. "Cars", of course, stands for
"Christian auto-repairmen serving". The church also lays on
entertainment, from sports to video-areas.
Willow Creek is particularly careful to ensure that everything is
suitably tailored for different age-groups. The church provides
child-care for thousands of children every weekend: this started out
as a necessity (parents will not come if their children are not taken
care of) but has become a hook in its own right (parents can relax at
the service while children are royally entertained). The church also
has a youth auditorium. Willow Creek's adolescent members have taken
over a hall, tearing up the carpet to expose the concrete floors,
painting the whole thing black and littering video-screens all over
Mr Hybels's emphasis on user-friendliness is now commonplace in the
Evangelical world. Rick Warren is a fifth-generation Southern Baptist
who was raised in a faith that is both austere and emotional. But when
he moved to Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Southern California, he
realised that Baptist staples like altar calls--in which worshippers
come to the front of the church and accept Jesus--would not go down
well with his prosperous and laid-back congregation. So he packaged
himself as a relaxed Californian: bearded and open-shirted, he served
up a diet of contemporary music and self-help tips.
In their pursuit of "total service excellence" America's
pastorpreneurs do not just preach on Sundays and deal with the
traditional "hatch, match and dispatch" rites of passage. They keep
their buildings open seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, and deliver
a truly catholic array of services. Some mega-church complexes house
banks, pharmacies and schools. Counselling and guidance groups are
routine. So are children's ministries.
The Second Baptist Church, in Houston, Texas, has a huge football
pitch. The Phoenix First Assembly of God has a medical-equipment
lending closet. The World Changers Ministry in Georgia offers help
preparing for tests, filling out tax forms and buying houses (it even
has a network of mortgage brokers and real-estate agents). Lakewood
Church, also in Houston, puts on one of its Sunday services en
español. Carson Valley Christian Centre (motto: "friends helping
friends follow Christ") offered sermons on how to slay the "Goliaths"
of procrastination, resentment, anxiety, temptation and loneliness. It
also offers classes in martial arts: "the Christian warrior way".
This emphasis on customer-service is producing a predictable result:
growth. John Vaughan, a consultant who specialises in mega-churches,
argues that 2005 has been a landmark year. This was the first time an
American church passed the 30,000-a-week attendance mark (it was
Lakewood, which earlier this year moved into its new home in Houston's
Compaq Center). It was also the first time that 1,000 churches counted
as mega-churches (broadly, you qualify if 2,000 or more people
attend). Willow Creek has seating for 7,200 (comfortable chairs, not
wooden pews). The fastest-growing church in the country, Without Walls
in Tampa, Florida, added 4,330 new members in the past year alone.
Let there be lighting
This sort of rapid growth brings all sorts of advantages. The most
obvious is that it lets churches put on extravaganzas. Willow Creek
regularly invites celebrities such as Randy Travis, a country singer,
or Lisa Beamer, the widow of Todd Beamer (a hero on one of the
hijacked aircraft on September 11th). Lakewood has a 500-strong choir.
Westlink Christian Church put on an outdoor display of extreme sports
that includes skate-boarders jumping over a fire to illustrate
Growth also allows pastorpreneurs--empowered by a combination of large
cash flows and economies of scale--to exploit every available channel
to get their message across. Joel Osteen, the chief pastor of
Lakewood, has a television-ministry, which reaches 7m people around
the world, and a best-selling book, "Your Best Life Now". Rick
Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" has sold more than 25m copies and
spawned a follow-up industry of books, tapes, courses and CDs,
including a selection of songs. Bishop T.D. Jakes, the chief pastor of
The Potters House, reaches 260 prisons a week via satellite.
Most successful churches are humming with technology. Willow Creek
sports four video-editing suites. World Changers Ministries has a
music studio and a record label. The Fellowship Church in Grapevine,
Texas, employs a chief technology officer (and spends 15% of its $30m
annual budget on technology). Worshippers in such churches do not have
to worry about finding their place in the hymn book or that they will
catch cold. Computers project the words of the hymns onto huge
screens, and the temperature is perfectly controlled.
But this rapid growth brings problems in its wake too--problems that
usually end up forcing churches to become yet more business-like and
management-obsessed. The most obvious challenge is managing size. You
cannot just muddle through if you have an annual income of $55m (like
Lakewood in 2004) or employ 450 full- and part-time staff (like Willow
Creek). Such establishments need to set up a management structure with
finance departments and even human-resources departments. They also
need to start thinking--like Mr Hybels--about the relationship between
the religious leadership and the management team.
Another problem is subtler: how do you speak directly to individual
parishioners when you have a church the size of a stadium? Some
mega-churches have begun to see members drift away in search of more
intimate organisations. And many mega-preachers worry that they are
producing a flock who regard religion as nothing more than spectacle.
So they have begun to adopt techniques that allow churches to be both
big and small at once.
One ruse is to break the congregation into small groups. Most big
churches ask members of their congregation to join clutches of
eight-to-ten people with something in common (age or marital status,
for example). A second is to segment the religious market. Willow
Creek has two very different services. The Sunday one for new
"seekers" is designed to exhibit the Christian faith in a "relevant
and non-threatening way". Willow Creek estimates that over half of the
people who come to its Sunday services would otherwise be
"unchurched". The Wednesday service for people who are committed to
Christianity is designed to deepen their faith.
A third technique is to set up satellite churches--a form of religious
franchising. Willow Creek has set up several satellite churches in the
Chicago area so that nobody has to travel more than 50 miles. Life
Church has franchised five campuses in Oklahoma, two in Arizona and
one in Texas.
Growth in religious organisations is proving just as addictive as it
is in corporate ones, and successful churches are reaching deep into
business theory to feed their habit. They use strategic planning and
strategic "visions" to make sure they know where they are headed.
These pastorpreneurs are committed not just to applying good
management techniques to their own organisations but also to spreading
them to others. This is, after all, the world of evangelism. Willow
Creek has a consulting arm, the Willow Creek Association, that has
more than 11,500 member churches. It puts on leadership events for
more than 100,000 people a year (guest speakers have included Jim
Collins, a business guru, and Bill Clinton) and earns almost $20m a
year. Rick Warren likens his "purpose-driven formula" to an Intel
operating chip that can be inserted into the motherboard of any
church--and points out that there are more than 30,000
"purpose-driven" churches. Mr Warren has also set up a website,
pastors.com, that gives 100,000 pastors access to e-mail forums,
prayer sites and pre-cooked sermons, including over 20-years-worth of
Mr Warren's own.
Indeed, in a nice reversal businesses have also started to learn from
the churches. The late Peter Drucker pointed out that these churches
have several lessons to teach mainline businesses. They are excellent
at motivating their employees and volunteers, and at transforming
volunteers from well-meaning amateurs into disciplined professionals.
The best churches (like some of the most notorious cults) have
discovered the secret of low-cost and self-sustaining growth:
transforming seekers into evangelicals who will then go out and
recruit more seekers.
The Lord helps those who help themselves
There is no shortage of criticisms of these fast-growing churches. One
is that they represent the Disneyfication of religion. Forget about
the agony and ecstasy of faith. Willow Creek and its sort are said to
serve up nothing more challenging than Christianity Lite-- a bland and
sanitised creed that is about as dramatic as the average shopping
Another criticism is that these churches are not really in the
religion business but in the self-help trade. Mr Osteen and his
equivalents preach reassuring sermons to "victors not victims", who
can learn to be "rich, healthy and trouble free". God, after all,
"wants you to achieve your personal best". The result is a wash:
rather than making America more Christian, the mega-churches have
simply succeeded in making Christianity more American.
Moreover, it is a wash that is extraordinary good for the
pastorpreneurs themselves, who prosper by preaching the gospel of
prosperity. The wonderfully named Creflo Dollar, chief pastor of World
Changers Church International in Georgia, drives a Rolls-Royce and
travels in a Gulfstream jet. Joyce Meyer, who promises that God
rewards people with his blessings, counts among her own blessings a
$2m home and a $10m jet.
Yet three things can be said in the mega-churches' defence. The first
is that they are simply responding to demand. Their target audience
consists of baby-boomers who left the church in adolescence, who do
not feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread
turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist
mentality to spiritual life as they do to everything else. The
mega-churches are using the tools of American society to spread
religion where it would not otherwise exist.
The second line of defence is that they are simply adding to a menu of
choices. There is no shortage of churches that offer more traditional
fare--from Greek Orthodox to conservative Catholic. The third defence
is more subtle: these churches are much less Disneyfied than they
appear. They may be soft on the surface, but they are hard on the
inside. The people at Lakewood believe that "the entire Bible is
inspired by God, without error". Cuddly old Rick Warren believes that
"heaven and hell are real places" and that "Jesus is coming again".
You may start out in the figurative hell of a Disney theme-park, but
you end up with the real thing.
The other common criticisms of the mega-churches--and the marriage of
religion and business that they embody--are practical. One is that the
mega-churches are a passing fad, doomed to be destroyed by a
combination of elephantiasis and scandal. Another is that they are an
idiosyncratic product of red-state America: amusing to look at, but
irrelevant to the rest of the world. Again, neither argument is
The marriage of religion and business has deep roots in American
history. Itinerant Methodist preachers from Francis Asbury (1745-1816)
onwards addressed camp meetings of thousands of people, and often
borrowed marketing techniques from business. Aimee Semple McPherson,
one of America's first radio Evangelists, built a church for 5,300
people in Los Angeles in 1923. (She had none of Mr Hybels's worries
about religious symbolism: she topped her church with an illuminated
rotating cross that could be seen 50 miles away.) And the gospel of
self-help and prosperity is as American as apple pie. In his 1925
bestseller, "The Man Nobody Knows", Bruce Barton, an adman turned
evangelist, pictured Jesus as a savvy executive who "picked up twelve
men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an
organisation that conquered the world". His parables were "the most
powerful advertisements of all time".
The mega-churches are also on the march well beyond red-state America.
America has an impressive track record of exporting its religious
innovations. Pentecostalism, which was invented in a Kansas bible
college in 1901, currently has well over 100m adherents around the
world. Even Mormonism, that most idiosyncratically American of
religious faiths, has 6.7m followers outside the United States. There
is no reason to think that the latest style of marriage between
religion and business is an exception. Rick Warren has inserted his
"purpose-driven operating chip" into churches in 120 countries around
the world. He and his congregation have also set themselves the goal
of eradicating poverty in Africa. The Willow Creek Association has
4,700 member churches abroad; a meeting in the staid English town of
Cheltenham recently attracted almost 3,000 people. The merger between
business and religion has been fabulously successful in America. Now
it is starting to do battle with the "evangephobia" that marks so much
of the rest of the world.
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