Follow the Money

What sort of pastors (or churches) are we, when someone can use the language of market-based competition to describe partnership in the gospel, and think nothing of it?

Carl Trueman channels Marx, Freud and others to make the case that there is a tension between the catholicity of the Church, and the way in which seminaries—his immediate audience for the lecture—market themselves. And it struck me that many, if not all, of the points he raises are also applicable to churches, denominations and families of churches. If you want to understand the competitive nature of modern seminaries (and alas, as in the case of the pastors conference I mentioned, churches), you have to read a bit of Marx and follow the money.

 

A few months ago I heard a genuinely shocking statement at a leadership conference for pastors. The individual was saying that he wanted people in his community to think of his church before any others in the local area, and said quite matter-of-factly, “I’m after market share. And I don’t apologise for that.” I have no idea whether anyone else in the room was troubled by it (though I hope so); I certainly was, and it has come back to trouble me on and off ever since. What sort of pastors (or churches) are we, when someone can use the language of market-based competition to describe partnership in the gospel, and think nothing of it?

Recently, however, I heard a provocative lecture by Carl Trueman entitled “Follow the Money,” which gives a helpful perspective on this (presumably not unprecedented) phenomenon. Trueman channels Marx, Freud and others to make the case that there is a tension between the catholicity of the Church, and the way in which seminaries—his immediate audience for the lecture—market themselves. And it struck me as I listened to it that many, if not all, of the points he raises are also applicable to churches, denominations and families of churches. If you want to understand the competitive nature of modern seminaries (and alas, as in the case of the pastors conference I mentioned, churches), you have to read a bit of Marx and follow the money.

Trueman identifies a number of ways in which this tension plays out, and you can listen to the lecture here. Here’s my quick summary.

First—and this will not have escaped the notice of most people who have attended a few vision and values courses, or even read a few church websites—there is an ecclesial version of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences:

Free markets demand distinctives, for the purpose of protecting market share, and perhaps annexing areas of the market held by others … So a potential contradiction exists between a shared confessional theology, and a competitive marketplace relationship. And that, I think, manifests itself in a sometimes subtle, but definite, subversion of the catholicty of the confessions by the emergence and marketing of distinctives that are only of intra-confessional importance. In other words, it is in seminaries’ interests to bring that which is actually a minor difference, tolerated within the bounds of the confession, and place it centre stage, in order to say: you need to study here because this is the really important thing.

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