By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/FlamingoImages
I don’t think there has ever been a more important time for churches to ask one simple question: “What business are we in?”
Let’s go back in time.
As I wrote in Rethinking the Church, in the late 1800s no business matched the financial and political dominance of the railroad. Trains dominated the transportation industry of the United States, moving both people and goods throughout the country.
Then a new discovery came along—the car—and incredibly, the leaders of the railroad industry did not take advantage of their unique position to participate in this transportation development. The automotive revolution was happening all around them, and they did not use their industry dominance to take hold of the opportunity.
In his videotape The Search for Excellence, Tom Peters points out the reason: the railroad barons didn’t understand what business they were in. Peters observes that “they thought they were in the train business. But, they were in fact in the transportation business. Time passed them by, as did opportunity. They couldn’t see what their real purpose was.”
Industries led by smart people are realizing the power of finding the answer to this pivotal question in an ever-changing world—a world changed more than any other time in recent history by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, most would think the “business” of a hotel is to provide a traveler with overnight accommodations. But is that the deepest answer?
The Accor hotel chain realized that they were actually in the “provide a space” business and began offering their rooms for day-rentals to people having to work from home who needed a place that provided a desk, food, and internet access (all within social and safety guidelines) to get away from the noise of their home or their neighbors or any number of other distractions. They call it their “hotel office” option.
Then there is the Steele Canvas company. Their factory in Chelsea, Mass., had a booming business making canvas and steel storage carts that customers used to stash tools, construction materials, and other assorted wares. When the pandemic/recession kicked in, orders dried up and the company was pushed into crisis mode. Just as it was being forced to consider furloughing its 70 employees, it asked anew that one, simple question:
“What business are we in?”
They realized they weren’t in the cart-making business. They were in the manufacturing business. So, they switched from manufacturing carts to manufacturing masks. The result? “We were able to keep our whole staff 100% employed,” said Ryan Huston, Steele’s head of sales and marketing, “and even to hire some extra people.”
So as a church, how are you answering this question? If you had been answering, “We’re in the weekend service business,” you are probably finding this season to be a tough and bewildering stretch.
But in truth, you never were in the weekend service business. You were in the “evangelizing the lost, assimilating the evangelized, discipling the assimilated, and unleashing the discipled” business through the centrality of the local church.
Yes, weekend services were a pivotal part of that enterprise, and every church is called to corporate worship, but if you were only an “hour-on-Sunday” enterprise you were already vastly diminishing the vision and mission of the church.
As I wrote in an earlier blog about five ways the pandemic is actually saving the church,
While every church should embrace, celebrate, and promote corporate worship, too many churches made that celebration the end-all for the life of the church. We say that the church isn’t bricks and mortar, but a community of faith that can be strategically served by bricks and mortar. Yet too many churches were never leaving the building. The goal of the church is to be the church in the community where it resides, attempting to reach and serve in the name of Jesus. The pandemic has broken us out of our gospel ghettos and holy huddles and into the neighborhoods and streets where we live.
So ask yourself, in a way perhaps you never have before:
“What business are we really in as a church?”
And then let the answer take you places you’ve never been before, in order to be more relevant and effective than ever.
James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Revised and Expanded (Baker).
Dominic Walsh, “Hotels Offer Distracted Home Workers a Little Privacy,” The Sunday Times, August 6, 2020, read online.
Jeanne Whalen, “Struggling U.S. Manufacturers Pivot to One Product Where Sales Are Actually Booming: Masks,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2020, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.