Friday, September 30, 2011

Commercialization of Ministry

I am a terrible salesperson.   When I believe in an organization, I readily participate in it and support it, share its value with others, and ask them to support it as well, but I am not naturally inclined to push people to buy or invest in something.   An entrepreneur must be able to do this—not only to envision and create but to market or “sell” as well.  As I have written in other blogs, I have a great respect for entrepreneurs and I believe that the future belongs to those organizations and individuals who can create and provide quality services and resources for the churches.  Those who provide such services and resources will (and to some extent already have) replace traditional denominational structures.

Even so, I often find myself concerned about the commercialization of ministry.  When I walk through an exhibit hall at a religious gathering and hear comments like “But this is where our product is better” or “You don’t want to deal with that company because . . . ,” I react negatively.  These are the marks of a competitive spirit borne out of crass commercialization.  This is the same kind of rhetoric we hear applied to automobiles, tennis shoes, cell phone service, and insurance policies.

Is such competition becoming to those who are representing their work as a ministry intended to further the Kingdom of God?  Undoubtedly, it is natural for entrepreneurship to lead to competition.  If we believe in our product or service, we want to convince others to take advantage of it.  This religious marketplace is unfamiliar territory for both service providers and purchasers and the secular marketplace offers little guidance on how to proceed.

 In this competitive environment, how does a church go about choosing the organizations with which they will partner or which group’s resources or services they will purchase?  Here are some suggestions.

First, what is the vendor’s theological perspective?  Are you comfortable with their stance?  Do they clearly articulate their understanding of God’s work in the world, the nature of humankind’s relationship to God, and the role of individual believers in ministry?  For example, many of us will be concerned not only about a group’s attitude toward the role of women in ministry and the church but the language they use in their materials.  Are they gender inclusive in word and deed? 

Second, what are the core values of the vendor?  Is there clarity about their reasons for existence?  Do these reasons extend beyond the motivation to make a profit?  Certainly, those who provide a service or resource should be properly compensated, but does the organization exist just to provide jobs for its employees or to serve some worthy ministry objective?

Third, what are the value-added aspects that the organization brings to table?  This includes things like quality presentations and materials, clear experience and expertise in the field, a proven track record, and exemplary customer service.  With so many vendors offering similar services, customers (including churches) have a choice and the “little things” mean a lot.

New paradigms bring both new possibilities and new dangers.  As churches make decisions about those with whom they will partner or from whom they will buy services or resources, they will have to walk a minefield that is often covered by the fog of “hype,” taking careful and thoughtful steps.


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