The Business of Souls: When Experts Attack, Part II

Aaron D. WolfHere’s what I can’t figure out: How in the world did Saint Patrick evangelize all of those Druid priests and clan chieftains without a mission statement? After all, history and tradition tell us that he walked around preaching and performed an occasional miracle. But how did he know what his mission was?

And then, there are purpose and strategy and vision—all three of which cannot be left to chance, if today’s business and Church-growth experts are right. (“Christ before me, Christ behind me”—what does that mean, practically speaking?) If you want to be effective, if you want to achieve success, if you want your enterprise to grow, you have to be on top of these things, or else you will simply stand still. And, as we all know, there is no such thing as “standing still”: If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling backward.

A leader moves forward and induces others to follow him into the future. He does this by casting a vision—by explaining, concisely and concretely, where the organization is heading. (If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time!) This vision helps to define the mission, which must also be articulated and repeated, mantra-like, in order to give followers a sense of identity and purpose. Imagine what Patrick’s success would have been, had he and his merry band recited, as the road rose up to meet them, “Bog Ulster Ministries (BUM) is a loving, caring family that earnestly desires to help tree-worshiping spiritual seekers become transformed believers who model Purpose Driven lives.”

What, exactly, drew the Irish to Patrick? Was it the thrilling promise of a miracle? Did Patrick pass out vellums advertising a Three Night Life-Changing Crusade? “Watch Snakes Vanish, Before Your Very Eyes!” Did he carefully compose relevant, contemporary music (so as not to frighten away the hipster Celts) for singing “The Breastplate”? “Ooh, ooh, ooh, the splendour of fire! / Whoa, oh, oh, the flashing of light’ning! [Repeat 6x’s.]” Did he speak to their felt needs, urging them to trade in all of their cares, their anxieties, and their depression for a relationship with Christ?

And how did he ensure that those he persuaded to make Life-Changing Decisions would keep coming to church? Did he create special ministries for Celtic youth, for young Irish families, for the Mothers of Preschoolers? “Today, after Mass, Pastor Pat will be talking with the Nifty Fifties about living with osteoporosis.” Or “Irish Youth In Service (IRIS) will be having its annual God-Hain bonfire this Saturday night. (Parents, please: No devil masks.)”

No, Patrick preached. He evangelized (“gospelled”) as he went, wherever he went. He did not have a mission statement: He had the Great Commission. He did not have marketing techniques: He had the Holy Ghost, the Word of God, and his ordination. He did not have slick music or a “relevant message”: He had the Body and Blood of Christ, the stern rebuke of God’s Law, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins.

That is all very high-sounding and wonderful, but the fact remains that we do not live in the same world that Saint Patrick (or Gregory the Great or Thomas Aquinas or take your pick) inhabited. The past century has witnessed the complete transformation of Western society: the destruction of communities, cities, farms and the small towns they supported, small businesses, jobs in general, the social order, etc. What is left of public Christian morality is quickly vanishing; divorce is universally accepted; contraception, abortion, and sodomy are rights by default; and those who argue against them are immediately branded as sinister “phobes” of some sort who wish to impose their own morality on, and enslave, others. In this era of MySpace and e-mail and cell phones, the old method of walking around and talking to people, sharing the Faith as one goes, inviting unbelieving friends to church, and even impromptu preaching seems impossible, outdated, even insincere. Every seminarian knows that modernity brought specialization, which brought isolation, which brought alienation. Modernism has made us all naked individuals, and postmodernism has made everything relative. No matter what ism we slap on the problem, however, many of us arrive (enthusiastically or reluctantly) at a similar conclusion: Since the world has changed, the Church must change; we must adapt, or die. And the fact that our churches are dying means that we must not be adapting enough.

Few of today’s Church-growth experts would call the Gospel a product, but that is, in essence, how it is treated. And, as one great business guru said, half a century ago, “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.” Unbelievers are treated as customers, consumers, “seekers” with identifiable needs. Thus, many American churches have adapted themselves, in varying degrees, to a business model. The extent of this adaptation is significant: How many churches today have mission/vision/purpose/strategy statements? How many of them have added a “contemporary” service, or transformed their “traditional” service by including various modern trappings (video projectors, “praise bands,” psycho-babble sermons, a general air of informality)? How many of them anguish over advertising campaigns designed to bring in more people on any given Sunday?

Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Church and pastor of one of the largest megachurches in America, Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California, is the guru of the hour when it comes to Church growth. Because of his success, he is a highly-sought-after consultant, speaking to assemblies of clergy on the principles of effective leadership and sustainable growth. And, given the fact that so much hangs in the balance, when it comes to the business of souls—Heaven and Hell, life everlasting—shouldn’t we listen to the experts, to those who are sowing more seed for the Great Harvest? And shouldn’t Warren, blessed with success and the knowledge that brought it to him, be eager to share it with others, to the glory of God?

Perhaps we should say “to the glory of G-d.” For Warren does not limit his consulting to evangelicals, Protestants, or even trinitarians. In June 2005, he addressed Synagogue 3000, an alliance of Jewish rabbis in Orange County who want in on the success that Warren has achieved. Synagogue 3000’s desire to help Jews “to be center stage active players instead of disengaged spectators” led them to contact Warren for a “pathbreaking” meeting. Of course, a good portion of Warren’s shtick (the need to use creative methods to attract today’s young people and to do away with boring old traditions that drive them away) is nothing new for evangelicals—or the Jews of Synagogue 3000, for that matter. (In their literature, they cite examples of Jewish leaders who are already combining “traditional beliefs with personally meaningful practices,” including a “young female rabbi” at the Mid-Wilshire Ikar Synagogue who is “attracting crowds of next generation hipsters to Yom Kippur yoga and disco breakfast.”)

What was unique about Warren’s long series of presentations to Synagogue 3000 was his emphasis on relationship-driven, goal-oriented, decentralized leadership. “We are in an increasingly fragmented and lonely world,” he told the rabbis, because “Americans have taken individualism to such an excess.” A successful, growing “ministry” will not attract and keep new people through gimmicks: The real attraction is a “sense of community”—the opportunity to be not just a believer but a “belonger.” To create this sense, Warren insists that leaders refuse to dictate new teachings from on high: “You need an Aaron,” a spokesman in each age and socioeconomic group, who will tell his fellows, “You know what, she’s right, [or] he’s right.” These “Aarons” can, in turn, serve as the heads of small groups—little conventicles where believers become belongers, and where the lead leader’s vision is recast.

Warren understands that the individual needs a sense of parameters in order to belong, a clear definition of what makes an “outsider” and an “insider,” which means knowing that “we believe this is right, and this is wrong.” Therefore, “You need to decide what the parameters are in your particular congregation, and stick with them.” This is important, because, as the “sociology” data have proved, “congregations that grow have clearly defined parameters . . . whether they’re right or not.”

Warren, trained as a Southern Baptist pastor, did not come up with these ideas on his own. He, too, had a leader: the late Peter F. Drucker, who, in his obit in the Washington Post (November 12, 2005), was described as “the world’s most influential business guru.” The author of numerous books, Drucker is credited with single-handedly transforming corporate America by redefining the role of management and exchanging the “command and control” model for a decentralized small-group approach befitting the “corporation as social institution.” For 20 years, Warren sat at Drucker’s feet, in extensive private meetings at least twice per year, in which Drucker helped Warren to reconceive the local church according to his own relationship-oriented business model. So close was their relationship that, in late 2004, Warren was able to coax Drucker into granting Forbes a rare interview (Drucker had retired from the public spotlight because of his declining health), in which he said that “Leaders communicate in the sense that people around them know what they are trying to do. They are purpose driven—yes, mission driven.” Indeed, Drucker’s business-school concepts—“management objectives,” “knowledge workers”—were baptized by Warren and became the essence of his approach to ministry, so much so that Warren became chief among Drucker’s disciples. As Warren told a meeting of the Pew Forum in May 2005,

I spoke at Harvard last month. I did a series of lectures for the faculty in the Kennedy School and also in the law school. I spoke to several groups of faculty and several groups of students and I started with this quote from Peter Drucker: “The most significant sociological phenomenon of the first half of the 20th century was the rise of the corporation. The most significant sociological phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century has been the development of the large pastoral church—of the mega-church. It is the only organization that is actually working in our society.”

It is truly breathtaking that, with all of the degradation that modernity has brought to American society, a man would be so bold as to claim that, by embracing that degradation—consumerism, corporatism, individualism—he has helped to make the Church “workable” in that same society. It is remarkable that he would find his method of evangelization applicable to those who deny the divinity of the One Whose Name he bears. And it is incredible that he freely admits that, in order to achieve success, not only must leaders “define their own parameters of faith,” but the “truthiness” of said parameters is irrelevant to the potential for ministerial “success.”

The hubris that inspires Rick Warren’s approach to ministry is not unique to him; it is a manifestation of the heresy Pope Leo XIII called Americanism over a century ago. The cockeyed optimism that gives birth to this heresy is the uniquely American perspective that we are the terminal generation, that we are special on the stage of world history, that everything must conform to our vision of ourselves. This hubris makes it easy for us to conclude, as Leo suggests, that today, “the Holy Spirit pours richer and more abundant graces than formerly upon the souls of the faithful, so that without human intervention He teaches and guides them by some hidden instinct of His own.” Our problems are so great that, unlike the saints of old, we require the wisdom of Rick Warren or Peter Drucker—wisdom derived not from Sacred Scripture, the Church Fathers, or tradition (even our own Protestant traditions) but from some inner voice called “God”—if souls are to be saved. It is the Americanism embedded in our souls that causes us to wonder whether plain old preaching, whether old-fashioned evangelism, backed up by lives of obedience to Our Lord’s commandments, is enough.

Against this heresy, Saint Patrick’s ministry is a witness. For he sowed his seed in the face of danger, against all odds, and in ground recently polluted by Pelagianism, another heresy that exalts the will of the individual at the expense of divine grace. Thus, Leo’s question reveals our hubris and alleviates our fear that we must “adapt or die”: “[S]hall any one who recalls the history of the apostles, the faith of the nascent church, the trials and deaths of the martyrs—and, above all, those olden times, so fruitful in saints—dare to measure our age with these, or affirm that they received less of the divine outpouring from the Spirit of Holiness?”

June 2007Aaron D. Wolf is Chronicles’ associate editor.

This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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