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True confession: I don’t like salespeople. (If you are employed in sales, I am begging your forgiveness. I am an awful, grouchy curmudgeon in need of something like deep inner healing. Please forgive me.)

In the spirit of vulnerability, let me explain.

I don’t like walking into a store and being hounded by groups selling their cookies, popcorn, discount cards, or soliciting donations for one thing or another. I want to be able to walk into a store, purchase my carefully selected items, and get out. I get uncomfortable in meetings with people selling insurance or legal services, particularly when they are working so hard to sell me something I don’t want. And don’t get me started with used car salesmen. On one occasion I had a car salesman grab my stomach as if to tickle me. I walked off his lot. I should have called the cops! I find my pulse racing and palms sweating in encounters with salespeople.

My aversion towards people in sales may be based on a stereotype. But it is a stereotype I have encountered way too often when people pretend to be interested in my needs/desires as a customer, but actually have one thing on their mind: their sales commission. Fueled by their desire to “close the deal,” they push and pry, manipulate and exaggerate. Do you know the fake toothy grin, overly firm handshake, and I-am-your-friend-trust-me tone in their voice?

No thank you.

I wonder if the caricature I have created is how we in the church appear to the outside world, when we try too hard? When we in church leadership are obsessing over numbers in the name of “church growth,” but when in reality we need more people attending our services to feed our fragile ego, do we come across as the pretentious salesperson hiding behind a facade of niceties? Do we come across as inauthentic when we want a growing list of names in our new member class, but care little for the actual people represented by the list of names?

Church as a Consumer Enterprise

Evangelicalism in America has in modern times wrestled with the temptation to be completely overrun with customer-oriented business practices where people become commodified and quantified as “revenue,” enabling local churches to evaluate themselves in terms of member-profitability. Richard Halverson, chaplain of the US Senate in the 1980s and early 1990s, has been quoted as saying:

In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe where it became a culture, and, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.

The temptation is real for those of us in pastoral leadership. It is real for me. I feel the impulse to forsake the pastoral vocation of word and sacrament, prayer and disciple-making, in favor of becoming a CEO who gets things done. While in seminary in the late 1990s, I first began to see the call of a pastor was to serve God’s people and cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in making disciples. Theology opened up to me while in seminary. I began to see the work of theology as the pastor’s tool in the disciple-making process.

I Wanted to Be a Success

While serving my first church in the 2000s, I continued to read theologically and participate in academic conferences. I just couldn’t shake the world of theological books, essays, research, position papers, concepts, constructs, etc. I found a way both to grow as a pastor and continue to pursue my love for academics by working towards a doctor of ministry degree at Asbury Theological Seminary over ten years ago. Asbury has since overhauled their D.Min. program building it around a cohort system, but when I was working on my D.Min. we each chose a certain emphasis.  I chose “Christian Leadership.”

As a young pastor, I wanted to grow as a leader because I wanted to be a success. I wanted to grow a large church because I wanted to be great in the church world. Somehow along the way I lost the simple truth that the greatest is the servant of all.

I had lost the heart of the pastoral vocation. I was quickly turning the church’s ministry into a consumer enterprise.

My church gave me the responsibility over the youth ministry of our rural church and I bought into a consumer-driven philosophy of ministry that promised: “If you can dream it and plan it, then you could build it!” Building “it” meant setting numeric goals to reach at certain intervals to measure success, which I sadly defined by the total number of participants in our youth ministry.

Faithfulnesss by Theology and Liturgy

As I continued to read as a young pastor, God used a number of authors to lead me to a complete overhaul of my own philosophy of ministry. These authors included Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Michael Slaughter, Tim Keller, and others. In their own unique way, each one helped me to unlearn many of the unhealthy habits and faulty ways of thinking about the life of the local church. I began to see success in pastoral ministry is not measured by numbers, but by faithfulness to the gospel. The local church isn’t a corporation seeking to increase revenue every quarter. The local church is the flesh and blood presence of Jesus in the world.

We can learn from business leaders and business models as Bill Hybels reminds us every year at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit. Certainly there is wisdom to be found in leading people, navigating through conflict, recruiting volunteers, creating structures and systems of workflow, financial stewardship, etc. I am in favor of learning what we can, but corporate, for-profit, business models cannot become the impetus behind the mission of the church. The local church is not driven by objectives and goals as much as she is driven by theology and liturgy. With quarterly goals driving a leadership team or church staff or church membership, it will not be long until that local church becomes formed in consumerism, a chief enemy to disciple-making in America.

Theology, what we think and say about God, and liturgy, the practices that form us into the people of God, keep us rooted and grounded in the mission of God.

Theology and liturgy keep us focused on Jesus.

Theology and liturgy keep us centered in the Trinitarian life of God.

Theology and liturgy keep us in a position to be formed and shaped by the Spirit.

Theology and liturgy create tradition to pass on the faith to the next generation.

Theology and liturgy allows us to remain faithful to the gospel.

And perhaps for my own benefit in light of my own idiosyncrasies, theology and liturgy preserve us in the true pastoral vocation, keeping us from becoming yet another salesperson trying to sell people a religion they don’t want.

If you want to go further in exploring how theology and liturgy shape our pastoral vocation invest some time in the wisdom of Eugene Peterson. Start with his memoir The Pastor and then move on to his trilogy of books on pastoral ministry: Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral WorkWorking the Angles, and Under the Unpredictable Plant.

Derek is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph Missouri. He lives in St. Joe with his wife, Jenni, and three boys, Wesley, Taylor, and Dylan. He earned his M.Div.from Oral Roberts University and his D.Min. from Asbury Theological Seminary.

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Paul Wiggs

commented on Oct 15, 2016

Derek, Just so that you know, nothing happens in a company or in the economy until something is sold. Fortunately, it is the Holy Spirit that draws us to God and not a sales pitch. Most sales reps are just trying to make a living! Trying to take care of their families, clothe their children, put food on the table. You need to learn to graciously say "no thank you" to desperate sales reps. Should you ever become a CEO, your heart will change toward sales reps, I promise you. You'll reward them , you will acknowledge them, you will celebrate them because you'll discover that without them you will not be able to take care of your family, nor clothe your children, nor be able to put food on the table. Work harder at finding better metaphor for your article.

Phil Merioles

commented on Oct 16, 2016

Greetings Derek, I'm a bi-vocational pastor on the coast of Alaska. I graduated from Nazarene Theological Seminary, and during seminary I was the pastor of small community church in Mirabile Missouri south of where you are pastoring today. While in seminary I worked in sales at Sprint in Lenexa and did very well (top 5--God helped). I enjoyed your article, and felt it to be a very timely and needed reminder of the importance of having the proper perspective on the issue of "the Call." Numbers in the church isn't just a trap that we pastors can get caught up in (for a number of reasons); sadly it is a focus that trickles down from the leadership of most denominations. The pastor who mentored me while I was in seminary recommended the same books for "navigating these waters" that you did in this article. Perhaps it is time to do some rereading. Our world and nation is in a spiritual crisis. It is in desperate need to "hear the redeeming word of God." Thank you for sharing. If you ever get to Alaska, look me up. I'll take you fishing!! Blessings to your ministry in St. Joe.

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