This article from the Los Angeles Times reports on how President Obama has responded to assertions that the government should be “run more like a business.” We hear that all the time, but (in my not-so-humble-opinion) it’s a really dumb thing to say. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways that government could be more efficient, but as the President points out, government has deeper responsibilities to society than any business does: responsibilities that are not compatible with a profit-motive approach. As he puts it, government has a “sacred duty” to serve veterans and others for lots of reasons, but even for some practical ones: you can’t write off whole groups of people and leave them behind without facing consequences as a society.
“Yada yada yada – we get it, Ben, you’re politically liberal, why are you infecting the church page with your views on government?”
Because it struck me that the same argument has been made for over a century about the Church. Sometime in the 19th century, though it really starting taking hold in American Protestant churches in the early 20th, people starting looking at the roles of churches and thinking – “This would work a lot better if these churches were run more like a BUSINESS.” The pastor as CEO. The deacons as board members. The currency and bottom-line as actual currency or butts-in-pews. I’m not saying that there weren’t good things to come of that, just as President Obama is not saying there is no value in the private sector. It’s the mentality that is deadly because it’s a lot easier to keep a church going if it isn’t really a church at all. If it has no sacred duty to waste energy and money on serving poor people without thought of reward or profit. If it expends social capital on justice for people who are never going to become customers — er, members — of the religion. It seeks out the wealthy because what do the poor have to offer, really?
That paradigm has become so convincing that it’s almost hard to imagine church as something other than a business (that thinking and language is all over even the best church organizational structures) — which is why Church seems to be going out of business these days. But we have and have always had a perfectly good metaphor — church isn’t a business, a separate organization, it’s a Community. Like government, it has a sacred trust. Unlike government, its trust goes beyond “duty” and “responsibility” and into “Hope” and “Love.”