Friday, October 05, 2012

Another Reason That "Church As An Organization" Is Fatally Flawed

On my way to work this morning NPR had a story on hunger efforts in Haiti and the upcoming decision by the UN to decide if the UN peacekeeping mission will continue for another year or not. The segment on trying to provide what is quite literally lifesaving enriched peanut butter was very interesting; not least for the broader implications we can draw from it. The title gives you a hint of the gist of the story, In Haiti, Aid Groups Squabble Over Rival Peanut Butter Factories.

The story a fascinating look in general at the effort to provide emergency, lifesaving nutrition support to Haiti and how sometimes we trip over ourselves in trying to help people. What the report exposes is the common issue we see in places like Haiti, namely a lot of different organizations trying to help the populace but doing so with competing priorities and methods. At any given time, there are a myriad of organizations ranging from very small Haiti Orphan Project that I support to massive groups like Samaritan’s Purse, religious groups and secular, the UN, the Red Cross, etc., etc. All have the same basic goal and all are trying to do the right thing but different priorities and methodologies mean they are competing for funding. A dollar sent to the Haiti Orphan Project is probably a dollar not sent to Samaritan’s Purse. So the end of the story about two “competing” organization both making this enhanced peanut butter really grabbed my attention. Read below….

Manary doesn't really take sides. But, he says, looking at the situation from the outside, it does seem like a waste of money. "It seems like [having] two factories isn't appropriate for Haiti."

This kind of thing happens, he says, because nongovernmental organizations end up behaving like all other organizations. They compete; they try to attract recognition and funding, and to promote their own brand.

"Unfortunately, branding is a powerful force among many NGOs," he says. "And it is basically true, I think, that once an organization exists, it tries to survive." But that can prevent it from cooperating with other organizations, or stepping aside to let another organization thrive.

Manary says he understands that impulse, because he has tried to build an organization, too. But it can distract an organization from the people it's really trying to help.

Wow. I can go through and replace “nongovernmental organization” with “local church” and many of the things he says hold true.

We have tried for, quite literally, centuries to operate the church as an organization. For a long time it was a monolithic and frankly tyrannical and corrupt institution that was eventually broken up into a fractured and ever expanding pool of competing organizations.

Like Haitian aid groups, local churches, para-church ministries, mercy ministries, missionaries, denominations, seminaries, etc. are all competing for a limited pool of supporters. Brand becomes critical. Who we are and perhaps more importantly who we are not has an enormous impact on fund raising and sustaininability for churches and ministries. Anyone who is familiar with Reformed theology knows what Ligonier is all about. Many Christians recognize John Piper and Rick Warren and know that one is the Desiring God guy and the other is the Purpose Driven Life guy. The thing is that all of these competing churches and ministries, in spite of their vary disparate priorities, have the same basic “big picture” goal in mind. So why don’t they cooperate more since we all have the same Great Commission and same Great Commandment? The answer is above:

"And it is basically true, I think, that once an organization exists, it tries to survive."

Survival is perhaps the main driving force behind an organization. In order to survive an organization needs money, more so as the organization builds more and more infrastructure. A Bible study meeting in a home doesn’t have much in the way of infrastructure but once you start to add property, staff and money you create an incentive to survive. There is a reason that these organizations are seemingly always looking for new ways to spend money: hiring more or better staff, updating the physical property, rebranding themselves by changing “worship style” or altering the name of the group. This church is Reformed and holds to the Three Forms of Unity, that church has a contemporary worship service and a traditional service. This one has a great youth program, that one has the best audio visual equipment around. The church over there is a “conservative” Anabaptist congregation and that one is seeker friendly.

When you get right down to it, local churches and the myriad ministries around the world don’t cooperate because they see each other as competitors at a fundamental level, at least in a practical sense if not in a global “we are in this together” sense. Local churches, denominations, ministries of all shapes and sizes function as organization and as organizations have adopted an organizational mindset even if we dress it up in religious language.

This model of local churches and ministries as organization simply doesn’t work. Sure it “works” from the standpoint of creating sustainable, self-perpetuating institutions that gather and retain assets and influence but from the standpoint of reaching the lost? Not hardly. The vast majority of giving in the local church, even at “missional” groups is absorbed in maintaining the organization. Until we abandon the notion of “church as organization” we will continue to see duplicative efforts, wasted opportunities and unreached people.

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