Tag Archives: market driven church

What if Starbucks Marketed Like a Church? A Parable.


Problems with church planting: The cumulative case

Here are the arguements against the current trend of church planting I’ve tried to elucidate in my previous posts. I’ll collect them here to provide a handy centeralized reference for future forays into this subject.

  1. Modern church planting is not found in Scripture
  2. The market for new churches is oversaturated.
  3. It is irresponsible and wrong to simply abandon failing churches.
  4. The supply of pastors exceeds market demands and it is wrong to continue adding to this surplus in human capital.

Problems with church planting: Too many farmers

The move to focus on church planting strikes me as a massive welfare to work program for the newly minted pastors that SBC seminaries are churning out by the busload. All those pastors need to find jobs in order to pay off their student loans and make a living. The only market with a demand for their skills are the church businesses. And since there aren’t enough existing churches to meet the supply, in fact the demand is decreasing, the only other alternative to lessening the supply (which would mean discouraging people from pursuing theological degrees in the hopes of being employed in a clergy capacity) is to try and salt the market.

This means pastors are expected to become entrepreneurs and start new businesses in risky markets in hopes that demand will follow supply is strikingly similar to what Starbucks tried to do through their opening of hundreds of stores, many times in close proximity to one another, and having them basically fight for survival. I’m sure Starbucks considers the fraction of stores that managed to survive on razor thin profit margins a net gain. But at what cost in both capital as well as manpower? For each store that succeeds you have to factor in the numerous stores that failed in order to get a more accurate understanding of the costs incurred. This, of course, assumes that growth, indeed exponential growth in many cases, is required and not optional. It is. Other business models, specifically that of Chick-fil-A show us that real success comes through careful observation of the market, self-assessment, planning, and implementation. Chick-fil-A doesn’t plant very many stores compared to other businesses in their industry, but the ones they plant have a much higher chance of being successful and self-sufficient.

By contrast, it is a widely known and accepted fact that the vast majority of church plants fail in less than 5 years. And even though it is never a pleasant circumstance when a business fails, it is even more tragic when the business that fails is headed by someone fresh out of seminary, sporting large personal and business debts. What I find mildly amusing is that the SBC condemns gambling (and drinking) and yet it seems hell bent on putting the unfortunate pastoral entrepreneur on the fast track to doing both.


Problems with church planting: Planting in the wrong season

In most church planting strategies. Failing churches are expected to fail, leading to the needless waste of untold amounts of resources. Not to mention alienating potential customers through negative shopping experiences. This pessimistic approach to failing churches is apparently borne of the desire to avoid the hard conversations that might otherwise save some businesses from failing1. Then again, since the SBC consists of loosely affiliated churches2 I suppose the tactic is wholly in line with the overall church polity. After all, not many individual businesses concern themselves with assisting other businesses in a purely altruistic fashion3.

Proverbs tells us that everything has a season. And church planting is no different. However, rather than seeing this as a season for planting (which carries with it the idea of a net gain) I would argue that this is the perfect season for tending to fields which have become weak, sickly, and unproductive. Rather than planting new businesses or crops while allowing others to fail, we should be making the wiser investment decision4 to patch up failing churches. That may mean that we need to revisit SBC polity and seriously ask ourselves whether it is time to change the governmental structure of the SBC or, as a less invasive option, produce material designed to help failing churches adapt to current market conditions.

Regardless of how we go about attempting to salvage failing churches, the tactic of writing them off and allowing the resources they contain (which includes people, our brothers in Christ) is needlessly wasteful. And it is actually a variation of the broken window fallacy to assume that more churches is the same as church growth.

In my next post I will explore the problem of excess supply.

  1. A corollary can be drawn here with how the Great Commission Resurgence task force refused to tackle the serious issue of duplication of services and duties between internal organizations such as the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board. []
  2. Decentralized, voluntary collaboration is the hallmark of the SBC. At least it was until recently. Now the trend is to more centralized power and a much more ridged hierarchy. In the past the SBC used to operate from the bottom up, and while that is still how the convention works on paper, in practice the SBC has increasingly become more and more centralized. A hallmark of this trend is the emphasis placed on key positions of leadership and the marked weakening of local associations and churches. []
  3. Contrast this with the account in Acts of Paul collecting money from a diverse group of congregations to bring a gift of money to the persecuted church in Jerusalem. []
  4. Even secular businesses understand that it is far cheaper to keep an existing customer from leaving than it is to gain a new customer. []

Problems with church planting: Forgetting to till the soil

In my last post I discussed the problem of market saturation when it comes to churches, particularly in the south where it is easy to find a church on almost every corner. However in the north the market saturation is less obvious because the problem is not an abundance of church businesses but a lack of market interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular.

This is not to say that market conditions cannot change. However the way in which markets change is through educating the consumer. This is wholly different than simple advertising where the goal is simple brand awareness of a product being offered to solve a known and understood problem and/or need. When companies wanted to introduce the personal computer to the average consumer who has never seen one before, they had to first undertake a campaign of education about computers in general and simultaneously seeding the potential market with a clear vision of the promise of a digital future.

The same thing needs to happen if we want to turn spiritually barren plains into fruitful fields.

Practically, this means a deliberate emphasis on apologetic training and engagement with individuals in markets that have, for a variety of reasons, selected against Christianity.

Before any new businesses can be established, we need to undertake a campaign of educating people of the product (worldview) of Christianity and what it has to offer. In fact, I would argue that such an education campaign needs to be undertaken even in saturated markets like the bible belt. We need to combat false impressions people have developed regarding what church is, what Christianity is all about, and most importantly, who God is and how we can know he exists and sent His Son to come and die for our sins to set us free.

We need to till the soil.