It has been noted that economics is an ‘imperialist beast, claiming the relevance of its general approach … to a very wide range of human activities’.1 Thus economic models and language have come to predominate in institutions previously organised in different ways. The current policy of introducing market forces into the health service is an example of this. Changing the ethos of an organisation like the health service by the imposition of economic models raises concerns that something will be lost. Yet economics often wins out, simply because it has been seen to be effective in so many different contexts.
It would be very surprising if the church was not influenced by this trend. Each one of us is part of the economic system and our lives are profoundly influenced by it. We are as aware of the economic issues as our neighbours, and we have the same range of opinions about them. Inevitably, language and assumptions from the economic world begin to be seen within the church. Often this happens in such a subtle way that there is no outcry as to what might be being lost.
Commenting on one church’s building project a newspaper said ‘a church must pay the price to keep up with the times and better serve its congregation’.2 Here the language implies that the ‘church’ is separate from the ‘congregation’, and is a supplier of religious services to them. This is radically different from the New Testament view of the church as a community of interdependent people.
This language leads to the gospel being seen as a commodity to be marketed, and to individuals being regarded as consumers. Thus the view of the church as the supplier, with a core group of people providing the service for the consumers is reinforced. Consumer spirituality, is of course, attractive in a world shaped by economic thinking. It is a spirituality focussed on meeting the needs of the individual, but is far removed from a gospel which calls for the laying down of one’s life and a life of discipleship. It is also a spirituality which encourages the proliferation of separate churches in the name of choice, but contrary to the biblical view of one reconciled people.
All of this results in a feeling that mission is the church’s task and an inevitable anxiety about how well we are doing. Once again this contrasts with the reality that mission is born out of God’s being and character, and that it is he who establishes and grows the kingdom. The appropriate attitude of the church is neither confidence or anxiety about the task of mission, but faithfulness.
It is impossible to prevent surrounding norms and values affecting the church. The same people who are engaged with the current economic world, with its assumptions and values, sit in pews and are church leaders. We naturally tend to use the same categories of thought when thinking and planning within the church as we do in our everyday lives. Given the success of the economic model in so many areas can it be usefully applied in the church? Or are there are dangers in letting the assumptions and values of our current economic system change how we think about and organise the church? What are we in danger of losing? And, if we are all part of and influenced by the economic system, how do we free our minds?
If you have answers, thoughts or comments about these questions I would be very interested to hear them. Please leave your comments.
1 Harper and Gregg, Christian theology and market economics, p 87.
2 Thomas F Foust et al., A Scandalous Prophet – the Way of Mission After Newbigin, p 97.
Peter is on the board of Contemporary Christianity and is minister of Garnerville Presbyterian church