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Can The Church Lead Again?

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook recently opened a 5,800 word, online letter on his timeline with the phrase, “I know a lot of us are thinking about how we can make the most positive impact in the world right now.” He poses a broader question as well, “are we building the world we all want.” He argues that Facebook has a responsibility to help people. In a recent Fast Company magazine article, “Put your Values to Work,” editor Robert Safian poses the question “does business have a higher responsibility to address social values, as Zuckerberg asserts about Facebook, or should the pursuit of profitability – maximizing shareholder value above all else – be the chief purpose of a company?”
This is a hypothesis that many stalwart corporations as well as conscientious, start-ups are weighing in boardrooms and coffee shops across the country.

“This is a tension underlying a rising movement across the business landscape. From automakers such as Ford and Audi to fashion houses like Gucci and Ralph Lauren, from health care firms to consumer-packaged-goods makers, companies are increasingly seeking to align their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values – not just because it makes them look good, but because employees and customers have started to insist on it.” (Fast Company “Put your Values to Work”)

I am glad that our large and small business leaders are taking their responsibility as corporate citizens seriously, or at the very least listening to their people and asking questions about how they can be good neighbors.
But my question is: why is the church not looked to anymore as the moral guide and change-catalyst for a community or the country? The reality is, as confirmed by the Fast Company article, our culture doesn’t look to the church for moral guidance or action any longer. The recent track record for the Christian Church in America has been less than stellar with three decades of steady decline with a slew of scandals, fallen pastors, and misappropriation of funds in the name of a prosperity gospel. So, we have a new generation of people looking for authenticity and transparency in their quest for righteousness and they are turning to their employers and other business leaders for moral direction and social action.
Can the church reclaim its position as the trusted moral compass for our country and engage with this post-industrial, emerging millennial culture? I believe today’s church can earn a place at the table in leading moral and social change with its business and not-for-profit counterparts, but I think it will take three distinct shifts in how local churches relate to their communities.
First, the church must embrace its dual roles of providing a safe haven for hurting people to engage with a healing God AND as a successful organization that transparently stewards millions of dollars of resources. For literally a millennia, the Church has hidden its business persona (and in many cases its assets) behind a veil of sacred spirituality or the separation of church and state.  Financial responsibility is an important Biblical teaching for followers of Jesus, but the Church has struggled with authenticity and transparency in their own fiduciary duties. Taking a professional and open approach to managing their financial and physical assets can enable the church to invest its resources in areas of the community to impact a spiritual return.
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the Jerusalem Temple that separated the Holy of Holies, the place it was believed that God spoke to the High Priests, from the rest of the sanctuary was torn in two. This signified the removal of the human-made barrier between God and the people that worshipped Him. The church should remember this lesson as it approaches the business-side of the church. An authentic approach to church “business” can open a dialogue with corporate and institutional partners on how partnerships can maximize the resources each brings to bear to solve issues facing their communities. Transparency in how the church conducts its business can help bridge the gulf of mistrust that exists between the Church and the current generation of adults.
Second, the church must immerse itself into the culture by engaging with the people, business, and institutions, even governments, in their communities. Once again, Church history shows us a contrarian legacy regarding most opportunities where the church could engage to effect change in its society. There are some life-changing instances where the Church intervened in times of crisis and cultural upheaval, but even those stories have some dark sides and missed opportunities. Why can’t the church be a consistent partner for change and social justice instead of sequestering itself to protect the sacredness of our practices and beliefs?
Jesus immersed himself in the lives of the people and the culture he encountered during his ministry, even when he wasn’t welcome. He offered the people he engaged with a different way to approach life, relationships, and even their practice of religion. He is often portrayed as argumentative with the religious leaders of his day, but I would argue (poor pun intended) that he was challenging their conventional wisdom and trying to motivate them to consider a new way to approach worship and faith in God totally through love. If the church wants a seat at the table to drive change, they must challenge the culture in a loving way, without judgment (that is a blogpost for another day!).
The third paradigm shift, and possibly the one that is most counter-cultural for the church, is to partner with businesses, institutions, and other churches/religions in the community seeking similar goals. The church has to be willing to look for common ground with potential partners and openly discuss differences to develop relationships built on trust. Strategically aligning with business and community leaders doesn’t have to involve compromising the church’s biblical mission or beliefs. As a matter of fact, the Bible makes it fairly clear that the church is intended to be a light on a lampstand and not hidden under a basket.
The Apostle Paul exhibited this skillset as he traveled from place to place partnering with business and community leaders to grow the church and create change. For example, Lydia was a merchant in fine cloth that provided a home-base for Paul and his team as they ministered in Phillipi and Erastus was the city treasurer of Corinth that he enlisted to join his advance team to Macedonia.
Here is a simple litmus test to gauge where your church is in relation to addressing its biblical mission and concern for social impact. Does your church actively recycle? The very first command from God to humankind at Creation as recorded in the book of Genesis was to care for the Garden of Eden. Yet, today, many churches don’t actively recycle, reduce, or reuse nor are they exploring the use of alternative energy sources or educating their congregations how we can be environmental stewards.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am extremely happy that business leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and companies like Ford are taking a leadership stand in our country to right wrongs and lead social change. And, there are many churches and faith-based institutions attacking enormous issues in their communities. I just firmly believe that all churches can play an integral role as a partner in leading change and addressing issues to better their communities.
Are you ready to take your seat at the table?

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