by Bob Lupton, October 2010 Franchising is a rather ingenious concept. Take a restaurant that has built a reputation for the best chicken sandwich in town. A flood of business motivates the owner to open another location which builds on the success of the first. The second restaurant does equally well and has the added advantage of a proven menu and a working business plan. The third is even easier and attracts investment capital. New openings accelerate as branding is standardized, operating procedures are refined and economies of scale boost profitability. The result is Chic-fil-A – a national chicken sandwich chain. It’s the American way.
It’s what churches have historically done. Create a unique doctrinal recipe, develop an appealing worship style, test the ecclesiastical market, brand it as God’s “authentic” church, unveil an exciting growth vision, sell the vision to sincere members, roll out the replication strategy. We call it church planting. The result is a national denomination.
Is this too crass a comparison? Sit in on a meeting of denominational leaders and you will observe a distinct parallel between the institutional religious world and the corporate business world. At present there is a great deal of hand-wringing in both arenas. In the business sector there is much distress over shrinking profits, declining markets, scarcity of money. In the religious sector there is grave concern about aging membership, declining numbers, shrinking budgets. The solutions being explored are similar. Cut non-performing cost-centers, consolidate functions, hire consultants, re-brand, pursue new markets aggressively. Grow or die. Business is business, whether secular or religious.
Such strategies may be useful in growing businesses and churches. But what about the Kingdom of God? Can this elusive Kingdom be franchised? Churches like to position themselves as the official agents of this Kingdom. But being man-made institutions, they tend to circumscribe the Kingdom with their own doctrinal statements. This way it is easier to determine who’s in and who’s not. But can the Kingdom be measured by church membership? Can it be confined by theological systems or organizational structures?
Jesus, sidestepping the sacred protocol of the religious establishment, advanced the radical idea that his Father’s Kingdom was more about purity of heart than purity of doctrine. He said that this Kingdom belonged to socially devalued people, to the unlearned poor and innocent children. Proof of membership had more to do with caring for a neighbor in need, or turning a cheek to an insulter, or giving a second coat to a coatless person, than being a conscientious Temple attendee. He described the behavior of Kingdom people as those who take little thought for tomorrow, who part easily with their possessions, who practice persistent forgiveness.
Now how do you franchise that? How do you quantify losing one’s life to find it? Or greatness measured by inconspicuous servanthood? How do you calculate wealth gained by giving assets away? Or advertise anonymous benevolence? The Kingdom simply does not fit the franchise paradigm.
Herein lies a major difference between the institutional church and the Kingdom of God. Churches (as opposed to the Church universal) are the localized, organized clustering of Christ-followers. All groups have distinctive creeds and cultures, boundaries and budgets that allow them to compare and contrast themselves with each other. Churches, like all institutions, have an intrinsic imperative for self-preservation. An institution cannot give itself away. If it does, it will go out of existence. Thus numerical and monetary increase, not divestment, is viewed as a sign of God’s favor. Competition becomes the accepted norm. Advertising supplants anonymity. It is the way of institutions.
Which is not to say that the institutional church and the Kingdom are incompatible. Of course not. It is essential for the Church universal to gather locally for worship and teaching and fellowship and service. Supernatural activities occur when the saints come together. How they organize themselves, fashion their creeds, make their decisions (i.e. “do church”) is part of the excitement. The confusion comes when they declare these structures sacred. Sacred implies hallowed, worthy of devotion. When structures become sacred, organizational loyalty is but a short step away. Comparisons begin. Which organization is more sacred, more biblically correct, more doctrinally sound? You see where this takes us. That’s why we have thousands of different kinds of churches, each promoting its brand as the best, each competing for its market share of Kingdom demographics. Forget the “new commandment” Christ gave His followers – the one about unity and laying down our lives for each other. We’re too busy doing church!