How the Church is, and is not like companies.

I heard on the news this week that Nokia had been sold to Microsoft! Do you remember when all the best ‘phones’ in the world were made by Nokia, and we said ‘Plucky Fins, now they have a technology edge on the rest of us that is making their nation successful in the modern world.’ Butnow Apple and the Koreans at Samsung have so expanded the uses of the ‘Smart Phone’ that being a telephone at all is just one small part of the usefulness that can come from these computers combined with the internet, touch screen technology and a host of very cheap little programmes that will do almost anything.

The success of the ‘Smart Phone’ depends on two things. One is the delivery to us, by Apple and Google of something that we want. Second, by advertising, they create in us the desire for the thing that they want us to want.

I keep wondering, is there anything that we can learn as Church from this? Are we at St. John’s or is the Church in general, the ‘Nokia’ of the world, destined to be taken over by restaurants, theatres or apartment conversions?

So the way to make an evaluation, I think, is  to turn away from ‘The World’ for a minute. That is the first difference between the Church and a company. A company or a political party lives and dies by the market, out there: whether or not it can sell its product to enough people to make enough profit to keep the shareholders happy. Staying in business depends upon consumers of their products.

Now the Church does need enough money to be able to pay its operating costs, and to have some left over to do mission, and to give away. But there are a number of different models for doing this. Some Churches are funded by the state. No problem. Some Churches find a ‘niche’ in the range of ‘ecclesiastical products’ in the hope of capturing enough people to fund their kind of church. This is the way that some Latin Mass congregations have gone, for example. Some Churches opt for looking as much like ‘the World’ as possible, so that the emotional, musical, cultural and even sometimes intellectual distance that people have to travel to be able to ‘get’ church is as small as possible. Some churches do not pay their clergy, but draw all of their ministries, including leadership and priests from the local congregations which are all honorary ministries Some Churches become monastic communities, supporting themselves. Some churches have investments that enable them to survive financially, what ever they do. Some Churches have not had enough money to keep going, and have closed down. But say we do have enough, for the moment, with the model that we have. What ever our model, how we are depends upon how we picture God’s relationship with us and what that might mean.

The first thing that comes to me about that is the line of the hymn: ‘From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride, with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died’. God is a ‘going out’ God. The incarnation is God’s way of ‘going out’ to us. God does not force God’s life upon us, but is gentle, and loving, and God does not ‘huff and puff and blow our house down’ but ‘stands at the door and knocks’. It is easy to forget such a gentle God. It is easy to think that God is not really there, and that we don’t have to be accountable to God, because the gentleness of God’s presence in Christ is so respectful that it is easy to despise such gentleness as weakness. So we always have to ask ‘How are we opening ourselves to God’s ‘knocking’ ?’ ‘How, in concrete terms do we acknowledge the reality of God in our lives?’ What does that look like? This is not like a company. A company’s first allegiance is to the shareholders through the board. A company may have a ‘vision’ or a particular skill set which determines its activity, but it has no ‘transcendent other’ to which it is responsible. If our claim about the reality of God has difficulty in finding  a group of people to give assent to it, then we have to be content to be a minority, rather than to try to be more ‘popular’ in order to gain adherents.

But the Church, also like companies who need continually to engage the world to find a market, is also an ‘engaging’ Church. While ever we are not thinking about how we can mirror God’s gentle ‘knocking at the door’ of the lives of those around us, we become just another club, not the Church.

The other thing that the advertisers do is to ‘create a need in us’. Many advertisements create this sense of need in us by comparing us to some one we admire who has the thing on sale, or by showing little dramas about people who do not have ‘The Ring of Confidence’ and how they need a certain brand of toothpaste to get it.  This is what the ‘Listerine’ people did.  Listerine is basically an antiseptic. In order to induce us to buy it, they invented ‘bad breath’. So then all the advertisements were about people who had ‘bad breath’ and how Listerine was the answer to their problem. But before then, we did not even think that there was such a problem as ‘bad breath’!

Lots of gadgets that contain electric motors are sold to us on the same basis. We are not buying ‘electric motors’ but we are buying stuff for which the need has been created by advertising.

Well the Church has a similar ‘take’ on life. Much preaching of ‘hell fire’ is designed to make people aware of something of which they are unconscious: that is, that life is lived first and foremost before God. Our message to many people is that the running after ‘things’, and the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ ‘ is destructive of true humanity. Much of what many folk take as ‘normal’ we would want to see as idolatry or the placing of something else in the place of acknowledging the one true God. We see consumerism, as a basic stance to life, as opposed to the really satisfying relationship with a God who not only goes out to us in Love, but who calls us to account. We also make people aware of their needs, but this time we claim that we want to make people aware of what their real need is, not some ‘made up’ need.

What we do in Church, the Eucharist is the concentrated form of life where we are brought into relationship with God, for both love and questioning, for praise of the one true God and repentance. It is this two fold movement: our being addressed by the reality of God in Word and Sacrament, and our response to that address that gives us the structure of what we do in Church.

So the Church shares some things in common with the commercial world. WE need to engage the world with our offer of live, lived before God. We also want to bring people to an awareness of what they really need. We need to find a structure that gives us enough money to help us to keep doing this.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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