A Model Church
Unexpectedly, I found myself shopping for perfume last week. I had
no intention of buying perfume, but I saw a notice about a new one on
the market made for people of faith, and I wanted to learn more.
Now this is absolutely true, and as my mother would say, you can
look it up. Last week a new perfume was released, if I can put it that
way, and it is called Virtue. On the website it says, and I'm
just telling you what I read, that Virtue is, quote, "scent
from the Bible." Its expressed goal, its essence, if you will, is
to reveal your spiritual self. The spiritual selves pictured on the
website looked pretty physical to me, but that's another sermon.
As you know, Virtue is not alone in taking the basics of Christian
theology and putting them in a bottle. Calvin Klein offers the
inter-religious Euphoria, the para-Christian Eternity,
and the soul-stealing Obsession. As I pondered this, my real
search began. I decided to Google the words "Jesus Perfume,"
and guess what? There is one. And the merchant who offers it also
offers Devotion, Divine, and Heavenly for women,
and men can anoint themselves with Higher Energy, Heaven,
and in a product preparing us for the afterlife, a cologne called Hot.
I wrote a slogan: "Wear it now and bear it later."
Given the world in which we live, I often contemplate the way that
religious notions are presented in the secular world, and I often think
about the intersection and the cross-fertilization of commercial ideas
and Biblical ideas. I think about how the church appears out there, as
well as how it discerns its call and values in here, amidst the push
and pull of capitalism and Christianity. Jesus separated God and
Mammon, God and Caesar, and two thousand years later, we populate
churches with real estate and federal requirements, and it can be easy
to get lost in this mix and hard to find our firm foundation. You hear
me say quite often how Christianity began as a counter-cultural
community. But then the scriptures say to learn the native tongue, and
we're back in this dynamic discernment of our call today.
A few months ago, I heard an article on Public Radio interviewing a
conservative economist from the University of Chicago. He said that the
business model for Public Radio was ridiculous: give away a product and
then ask people if they were willing to donate money for something that
they've already consumed.
He said he would fail any student who brought that to him. But, he
admitted, it works.
That got me thinking that we have a number of economists and MBAs in
our parish and folks who work in corporations, so I sent a few people
an email and asked if they could describe the business model of our
church in a sentence or two. I got back about five pages altogether,
which was even better.
I won't read you everything that they said, and this is my summary
of their words, but here are some of the things that they wrestled
with. One said that altruism is very hard to describe with an economic
model. Why do we tip at restaurants or refrain from littering? Another
said that a strong economic model for churches can be based on the
assumption of guilt, saying that if we're in trouble, then giving can
buy good will and increase favor in the sight of God. Another asked,
what if there is no product delivered by church: how then do we
determine its model? And another asked, how do we determine the value
provided to a customer and, indeed, who is the customer? These are
great questions: I find myself especially challenged by the idea of who
is a customer, and I'll return to that in a moment.
First, here are some models.
- Our church provides inspiration and thought-provoking spiritual
and social interactions with the hope by some of salvation.
- And our church provides community, education, spiritual growth
opportunities, and a prayer connection, among other things, that
improve the world.
- And, our church engages God's favor, religious experience, and
mission activity, for which it asks for support.
And now from the member who talks about customers. This model is to
spread and deepen Jesus' teachings and ways in the world. But our
organization, supported by its members, is not supported by its
customers. Indeed, members are not customers. We are the sales force
who pursue mission by our words and deeds and influence, and the whole
world is the customer, which means that in our business model the sales
people pay for the organization, which is as true to Christianity as
anything I've ever read, and as crazy as can be. Customers get products
free, and let me know if you haven't heard this preached before: isn't
that what we call Grace? Isn't that God's love? But would
it get a passing grade at the University of Chicago?
I mention that, because an economist at MIT, referred to me by Randy
Ellis, wrote a huge paper on Religious Market Structure and Outcomes in
America, and the paper talks about "market density" and
"exogenous predictions," and it says something very simple:
crazy as we are, the more religious institutions or churches there are,
the healthier communities are, even correlating with such things as
higher education, less disability, more faithful marriages, and fewer
divorces. That is, God is good for all of us.
Jim Antal, former pastor here, gave a speech recently where he said
he is still worried about all this. He says that loyalty to
institutions is on the decline, while loyalty to private journeys is on
the increase. Fewer of us learn the ways of caring for these strange
institutions, and often we make the wrong choices in the balance
between what is rewarded and what is needed. Furthermore, he says, so
many of us move so often. At this intersection of popular culture and
historic faith we have some challenges. And some inspired business
There is a consistency in the models that are revealed in the
scriptures. They all have to do with God. God's gift of the Spirit,
Jesus' mission of counter-cultural power, and what Karl Barth calls
God's choice to be God for humanity. There are potential customers, to
be sure, and products of a sort, but the aroma of the scriptures
reveals this consistent relationship and covenant with something
essential for our model. It reveals God.
I've read Psalm 8 for many decades, and I've always focused on that
central phrase that asks, "What is man, and woman, that thou art
mindful of them … (for) you have made us almost gods, and crowned us
with the glorious." I've long pondered that question, but as many
years as I've done so, I've never noticed until I read an article by
Mark Ralls recently that right there in the middle of the poem is a
Buddhist notion that reveals something about Yahweh of the Jews and
Christians. God is mindful. God pays attention to us. God resists
distraction and sustains attention as an act of will, the same as we
would do in meditation. God chooses to cherish, era after era, the ones
chosen from the beginning. And a Psalm that I have often read to be
something about me turns out to be more about God, and my model shifts
a little bit. Because our
God is mindful.
Of what is God mindful? Us. Our needs. Our conditions. Our failures
and successes. Our humanity, like Jesus, and our opportunity -- even
our birthright -- to be godlike ourselves. God is mindful. Love like
that and the grace that attends it is something revolutionary and
amazing in any culture, and that's our business: God's business.
Calvin Trillin, author and frequent contributor to the New Yorker,
writes a lot about his family table and his family, especially his wife
Alice. And Alice, a cancer survivor for many years, died recently, and
he wrote about that, too. He wrote of a time when Alice was
volunteering at a camp for terminally ill children and befriended a
severely disabled kid, whom she thought magical. This little girl was
disabled and dying, and everyone knew it. One day when she was playing
duck, duck, goose, Alice saw a letter from the little girl's parents
and couldn't resist reading the first few lines. Her parents said this:
"If God had given us all the children in the world to choose from,
we would only have chosen you." Alice passed the note to another
counselor and whispered breathlessly, "Quick, read this. It's the
secret of life."
It is also our promise and our product and our model. It is our
message and our mystery and the meaning of our organization. God is
mindful of us and endows us with this message for others. This is the
essence of hope and survival and endurance. God chose us to love and to
share. Virtue. Eternity. Heaven.
Amen.Copyright © 2007
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.