I was talking with a 40-something friend and United Church colleague the other day about church attendance and participation. “What is it going to take to attract the next generation of church-goers?”, we wondered aloud. We both know that the stories and symbols of Christianity are rich and meaningful and have the power to be transformative and life-giving. We’re also sadly aware that much is said and done in the name of Christianity that is hate-filled and horrible. This legacy of empire and the moral failure of leadership is certainly key among the reasons why so many people have stopped coming to church. That, and the fact that, for many, church has lost its focus and sense of purpose. It is increasingly seen as irrelevant.
As daunting as it is, the work of clarification, reconciliation, reclamation and invitation has fallen to the current and emerging generation of leaders within the United Church. Like generations before us, we’re keepers of the ancient wisdom – but we are charged with finding new ways of sharing it.
This work has begun in many corners of the United Church here in BC and Canada, and there is a lot of energy going into it. People are trying new things, and learning and adapting as they go. These are important hallmarks of what the corporate-world calls “R&D”, Research and Development.
R&D, as defined by Investopedia refers to “the investigative activities a business conducts to improve existing products and procedures or to lead to the development of new products and procedures”.
Investopedia?? Some of you may be calling me a heretic right now for using capitalist propaganda as a reference – but let’s think about it for a minute. What if that sentence defined R&D as “the investigative activities [an organization, like a church] conducts to improve existing [congregational ministries, programs, activities and practices] or to lead to the development of new [congregational ministries, programs, activities and practices]”. There, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
My point is that there are some things we in the world of the United Church could learn from the corporate-world. Many profit-oriented industries are far ahead of us when it comes to innovating and adapting their “business” models to respond to the needs of their “consumer base”. Their language is different than ours, but they have techniques and tools that we could benefit from, including “R&D”.
Here’s more from Investopedia (with my edits…):
R&D is different from most activities performed by an [organization] in the process of operation. The research and/or development is typically not performed with the expectation or goal of immediate [success]. Instead, it is focused on long-term [sustainability] of the [organization]. [Organizations] that employ entire departments devoted to R&D commit substantial capital to the effort. They must estimate the risk-adjusted return on their R&D expenditures, which inevitably involve risk of capital, as no immediate payoff is experienced and the general return on investment (ROI) is somewhat uncertain.
In short, it takes money, time and the ability to tolerate risk to do R&D. The United Church has the money – in the form of our real estate assets. The challenge is: can we access it and, if so, are we willing to take risks with it? Can we spend it on “R&D”? We’re short on time and running low on people power, but I have to believe that if we act now we will discover innovative ways to build new, sustainable and meaningful models of ministry.
To be clear, I despise the economic inequality that capitalism has created. I’m fully committed to finding ways of doing and being that nurture equality, not perpetuate injustice. But let’s face it, capitalism is the system in which we function, the water in which we swim. We, the United Church, are a corporation that owns property and controls other factors of production. This means we are already participating in capitalism and are beneficiaries of the power it brings. We need to name that and strive to act with integrity in the light of this truth. We have power. We can watch our power fade away or we can use this power for good.
Why not work with what we have? Adapt the tools of the marketplace rather than eradicate them. Use them to serve the greater good rather than benefit the select few? In short, practice what Swiss-born British author and everyday philosopher, Alain De Botton, calls Good Capitalism.
Capitalism and church. An unholy alliance? I don’t think so. I’d prefer to think of it as an intersection, one that – to be sure – requires moral clarity and discipline. I feel sure that the teachings of the Christian tradition provide us the framework we need to capitalize on capitalism. Surely, we can use the tools available to us to serve God’s world as long as we act as we believe (in love, mercy, justice…) and dismiss that which we know to be wrong (greed, selfishness, arrogance…).