November 18, 2014 / Scott Bessenecker

#ChurchTrending: From Corporation to Locally Owned, Part One

Like most Protestant mission leaders I work in an office environment, complete with cubicle farm in which managers generally get fixed-walled offices and others work in movable, partial walls. It is a relatively efficient arrangement and mirrors the corporate headquarters of most for-profit organizations. In fact there is much in the Protestant ministry world which is a carbon copy of the capitalist corporation. For some the adoption of a commercial, corporate organizational form is simply contextualizing to our capitalist culture. But I wonder if the Protestant church and mission world has crossed a line from contextualization to syncretism.

The Rockefellers, Carnegies, Morgans, and Vanderbilts were early architects of American Protestant institutions, and they designed and ran these ministries under the paradigm of a commercial corporation. It was the organizational structure which made most sense to them. Gather investors, appoint a board, hire executives and run a ministry like a business. To this day, the American 501c3 non-profit organization is patterned after a for-profit corporation. The fact that we use either the “for-profit” or “non-profit” designation for nearly all organizations tells you something about the centrality of the commercial, profit-centered business in defining nearly all human organizations. Organizations are labeled by their relationship to profit. We generally would not think of describing non-profits as human flourishing agencies and for-profits as non-human-flourishing organizations.

But we are more than the businesses we have become.

It is time to begin asking whether the commercial corporation is the best paradigm for those of us committed to seeing God’s kingdom and righteousness on earth as it is in heaven. Is corporate capitalism the best cloth from which we should cut the kingdom of God? Very few of us are asking this question and even fewer are proposing alternatives to the corporate paradigm. The corporation does not work very well for purposes that are unpopular, unprofitable and impractical. The corporate blueprint has pushed us toward treating the gospel as a product, turning our ministries into businesses and people into consumers.

How we got to where we’re at

The British and Dutch East Indies Companies were the very first corporations, and they were invented by Protestants. Trading companies were not only the vehicles which carried the early Protestant missionaries to their destinations, but William Carey used them as the organizational construct for his Protestant missionary corporation. This marriage between the church and the trading company made for interesting bedfellows. The Dutch East Indies Company, for instance, paid their missionaries a stipend per convert. Early American missionaries to Korea were criticized by merchants because they were selling commercial products in the interior, cutting sales reps out of their commissions.

There may have been positive aspects to the birth of the corporate age. No one would argue that feudalism is a better economic vision.

But corporations grew out of the socio-political compost of a dying medieval age; the very dirt from which colonialism and economic exploitation sprang.

Be sure to check out Scott’s new book, Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions From the Christian-Industrial Complex, out now from InterVarsity Press. And stay tuned for Part 2 on Thursday!

[Image by mark sebastian, CC via Flickr]