I met with a group of summer interns this past week for a final chat about their experience at Meck (Mecklenburg Community Church where I serve as pastor). Part of their experience was reading a book on leadership, and over a lunch I led them in a discussion of the book’s contents and church leadership in general.
These were sharp young men and women. They were leaders in their high schools and colleges, serving as valedictorians and student government presidents.
I asked them what they had learned from the summer, and one of the dominant answers was a fresh appreciation of the church as a place worthy of a life fully spent; the church as a place where someone could make a difference with their one and only life – maybe even the biggest possible difference; the church as the hope of the world.
That was real news to them. They live in a world where anyone who wants to give their life away in service has a hard time thinking beyond the model of Tom’s shoes, Bono as a musician-ambassador, or Teach for America.
I saw my moment. I unashamedly challenged them to hold on to that thought and be open to God leading them to give their vocational lives to the church.
I told them that they weren’t going to hear the church championed as a place to invest their life in many quarters, so I asked them to let me pitch the vision for it hard and fast.
And then I did.
And then I reminded them to never forget the unique nature and role of the church, and no matter what good they might do through the marketplace – and God certainly calls many, if not most, to that endeavor – don’t ever let it become a substitute for taking up at least some role in the church.
In my book Christ among the Dragons, I wrote of sitting in the boardroom of a prominent Christian business leader. He was determined to boast of his company’s identity as a Christian enterprise. He told of the mission trips he had taken with his employees, the investments the company had made from its profits in select boutique parachurch ventures, and the Bible study offered on-campus for employees.
He then proceeded to take more than his fair share of shots at local churches and pastors who were not as “alive” as he and his company were in their faith. Then, in the midst of one of his personal asides about the sorry state of the church, as compared to the pristine missional nature of his business, he maintained that it was for this reason that he wasn’t involved in a local church. They were, he intimated, beneath his own theological vision.
“And after all,” he added, “we’re the church, too.”
And then everything within me wanted to leap from my seat, shout “Enough!”, and say, “No, you are NOT!”
A company is not the body of Christ instituted as the hope of the world by Jesus Himself, chronicled breathtakingly by Luke through the book of Acts, and shaped in thinking and practice by the apostle Paul through letter after letter now captured in the New Testament.
A marketplace venture which offers itself on the New York Stock Exchange is not the entity which is so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell can withstand its onslaught.
An assembly of employees in cubicles working for end-of-year stock options and bonuses is not the gathering of saints bristling with the power of spiritual gifts as they mobilize to provide justice for the oppressed, service to the widow and the orphan, and compassion for the poor.
And I’ll go further.
No company will ever hold a candle to what the church can do.
I once read of a pastor who boarded a plane in a pair of old blue jeans and a polo shirt, looking anything but ministerial. He sat down next to a well-dressed businessman who was reading a copy of the Wall Street Journal. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then the pastor asked the man what he did for a living.
With pride, he said, "Oh, I'm in the figure salon business. We can change a woman's self-concept by changing her body. It's really a very profound, powerful thing."
He was a fairly young guy, so the pastor asked him if he had been doing it for very long:
"No," he said, "I just graduated from the University of Michigan's School of Business Administration, but they've already given me so much responsibility that I hope to eventually manage the western part of the operation."
"So you're a national organization?"
"Oh, yes. We are the fastest growing company of our kind in the nation. It's really good to be a part of an organization like that, don't you think?"
The pastor nodded in approval.
Then came the inevitable question.
"And what do you do?"
"It's interesting," the pastor said. "We actually have similar business interests. You're in the body-changing business, and I'm in the personality-changing business. In my field, we apply basic theocratic principles to accomplish indigenous personality modification.”
The guy had no idea what that meant, but he said, "You know, I've heard about that. Do you have an office here in the city?"
"Oh yes. We have many offices, up and down the state,” the minister replied. "In fact, we're national; we have at least one office in every state of the union, including Alaska and Hawaii.”
By this time, the businessman was racking his brain trying to identify this huge company that he must have heard about or read about somewhere.
The pastor went on:
"Yep, in fact, we've gone international. And Management has a plan to put at least one office in every country of the world by the end of this business era."
The pastor paused a minute, and then asked,
"Do you have that in your business?"
The guy said, "Well, no. Not yet. But you mentioned management. How do they make it work?"
"Actually," the pastor said, "it's a family business. There's a Father, and a Son...they run everything."
The guy said, "Wow. That must take a lot of capital."
"You mean money? Yes, it does. No one knows just how much, but we never worry...those of us in the Organization have a saying about our Boss, that 'He owns the cattle on a thousand hills.'"
"Oh," the guy said, "He's into ranching, too? Wow. Well, what about you?"
"You mean the employees?" the pastor said. "They are something to see. They have a 'Spirit' that pervades the organization. The Father and Son love each other so much that their love filters down through the organization so that we all find ourselves loving one another too.”
"I know this sounds old-fashioned in a world like ours, but I know people in the organization who are willing to die for me."
"Do you have that in your business?"
"No," the man said, "not exactly. But what about your benefits? Are they good?"
"Good! They're amazing. I have complete life insurance, and of course fire insurance – that one’s more important than people realize - all the basics. You might not believe this, but it's true: I have holdings in a mansion that's being built for me right now for my retirement."
"Do you have that in your business?"
"Not yet," the young man said, by this time feeling like the figure salon business wasn't exactly the place to be.
"But can your operation last? I mean, companies come and go."
The pastor said, "Oh, I think we've got a pretty good future. After all, we've got a 2000-year run going."
Nothing compares to the church. No business, no investment, no enterprise, no activity. It's the heart of God's plan, and the hope of the world. It's the most dynamic, active, vibrant, forceful movement on the planet. It is the one thing we will give our lives to that will live on long after we are gone - and not just for a generation or two, but for all of eternity.
So do I challenge people to think about throwing their one and only life into it? Vocationally, but at the very least, as an active participant?
With every fiber of my being.
James Emery White
James Emery White, Christ among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
Story of pastor on the plane adapted from Jeffrey L. Coter, “Witness Upmanship,” Eternity, March 1981, pp. 22-23.