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Is the Church a Business?
Who are we to please?

by Rodney E. Zwonitzer

I address you today from the following background which has shaped my life and I believe has given me an interesting perspective for this symposium. I was involved in a career in product marketing with such corporations as Westinghouse, Storage Technology Corporation and United Technologies for nearly fifteen years before entering the Seminary. I graduated from this Seminary in 1988 and served two congregations in British Columbia, Canada before accepting a call in December of 1991 to my present call in Dearborn, Michigan.

Much of my experience in product marketing was in brainstorming sessions as to what could be adjusted to either bring in more sales or increase profits, or the usual demanded objective, increase both. Such frequent discussions generally entailed a microscopic look at all areas of our marketing effort. For those of you unfamiliar with marketing (who might define it incorrectly as “sales”), I offer the following definition from a classic university marketing textbook: “Marketing is the performance of business activities which direct the flow of goods and services from producer to consumer or user in order to satisfy customers and accomplish the company’s objectives.”[1]

Useful for our purposes here today is a traditional marketing way of looking at business by breaking it down into the Four P’s of Marketing: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Thus, the brainstorming sessions that go on in corporate America revolve basically around this discussion: which of these four variables or “marketing mix” can we adjust to gain a higher share of our market? For instance, if I lower my price on a given product ten percent, how will it affect sales? If I improve the product significantly or replace it with a new design, how much more of the market can I capture? Sound analogous to any discussions within the LCMS these days?

This type of analysis goes on continually in business with constant research, planning, implementation, and follow up being done in looking at changes to the marketing mix – the four P’s – which will result in higher sales, higher profits.

It is my opinion that much of the church growth movement so identified with American Evangelicalism is oriented to this same marketing approach. To see if my evaluation is true, let’s again hear our classic definition of marketing: “the performance of business activities which direct the flow of goods and services from producer to consumer or user in order to satisfy customers and accomplish the company’s objectives.”Churches in the church growth movement seem to revolve around this marketing orientation. They would revise this purpose statement as follows:“the performance of church activities which satisfy people’s needs for faith and accomplish the church’s objectives at any cost.” As a sampling of the witness to this, listen to the following by church growth guru George Barna from his book: Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth: “We could spend more time dissecting the Bible to see exactly how the Lord Jesus, the apostles, the prophets, and others in leadership positions utilized basic marketing techniques to further God’s Kingdom. However, the point is indisputable: the Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing. In fact, the Scriptures provide clear examples of God’s chosen men using those principles. So it behooves us to not waste time bickering about techniques and processes, but to study methods by which we can glorify our King and comply with the Great Commission.” [2]

Barna continues with the following statements which show that this approach truly relies heavily on their understanding of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 for their theological justification: “Marketing cannot occur without clear and meaningful communication . . . Jesus Christ was a communications specialist . . . Paul provided what I feel is perhaps the single most insightful perspective on marketing communications, the principle we call contextualization (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Paul advocated speaking to people with words and logic that they would understand. He understood that the audience, not the messenger, was sovereign - he was willing to shape his communications according to their needs in order to receive the response he sought. [3]

I submit that Mr. Barna’s interpretation and application of Scripture to apply marketing principles without reservation are in the same vein as the application of Psalm 91 which the Tempter appealed with to our Lord in Matthew 4. Just as Jesus in this case reminded Satan that yet in another place in Scripture (Scripture interprets Scripture principle of interpretation) it will not allow this application of God’s Word. We too ought to be suspect of Barna and the church growth’s full-scale application of marketing principles based solely on quotation of 1 Corinthians 9:22b: I have become everything to everyone so that in every way I might save some of them.” With all due respect to Mr. Barna and his marketing abilities, I believe Scripture does not permit the kind of open and full transmission of marketing principles to church growth.

The driving principle here is marketing orientation: meeting the needs of people for a church in order to grow numerically. This is done basically as in business marketing by survey and research techniques to determine just what people want in a church and then fill it by a marketing mix of church activities. Just as a business adjusts their marketing mix of product, price, promotion and place, the church growth movement stresses this same kind of approach. With the goal of retaining and attracting people in the church, it adjusts the four P’s. Adjust what the product looks like: make it pragmatic, non-offensive, i.e. preach and teach what they want to hear or more realistically, what they will tolerate. Change the place to whatever they will accept: house churches, cottage groups, mega-churches which look more like auditoriums, gyms, etc., anything but what church architecture has looked like. Likewise, modify the demands, the price of sacrifice of self-sacrifice of needs, wants, time, talent, confession of truth, etc. This culture just doesn’t have the time or interest in carrying the crosses believers of old did. Finally, promote the heck out of your plan based on the research and planning and preparation on the given market situations.

The part of all of this which should concern us most is the basic premise: should we be trying to satisfy people’s needs for a church? Should they be the final determiners and definers of what God would have us to be His people?

To aid us in answering this, I submit a fascinating verse from Galatians 1, verse 10: For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” One commentator on this passage, said that there was suspicion that Paul was a theological chameleon, who changes his message to fit the audience, you know make it fit the needs of the audience he was addressing. With statements like 1 Corinthians 9:22: I have become everything to everyone so that in every way I might save some of them one can see where such suspicion arises.

However, Galatians Chapter One would provide evidence that Paul was no such ecclesiastical politician, nor was he trying to build for his church career a prominent record for his resume of triumph after triumph in planting successful, large, growing churches. Paul was concerned we are told clearly with doing two things which give us tremendous insight into evaluating marketing techniques for church application: please God, persuade men.

We take a quick look at these two elements of Paul’s ministry as a bond-servant of Jesus. To persuade, peiqv in the Greek, is only used by Paul once besides here in Galatians 1:10. Listen to what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:10-11: We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, each to receive what he deserves according to what he did with his body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade (peiqv ) men, but we are made manifest to God, and I hope we are made manifest also in your conscience.” Probably all of us here today know that in this fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians the content of Paul’s persuasion is “reconciliation with God through Christ of which Paul is an ambassador.” (verse 20)

We know from the many inspired writings of this apostle where this same theme of persuasion rings forth over and over again: for while I was with you, I was determined to know only Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2) Paul’s whole existence from Acts 9 in Damascus on was to persuade people to know the Messiah and His cross for their sins forgiveness and their eternal security. This was his only task he says as a bond-servant of Christ.

However, Paul also speaks of a second task which drives his ministry: to please God. In 1 Corinthians 4:4 Paul declares that it is only the “Lord who examines him.” Paul makes it his only life’s work and ministry to please God. Paul speaks of others who do not share this approach of pleasing God, those whom he usually calls anqroeskoi , the opportunists who render eye-service to the truth, but who really desire to please men. In Colossians 3 and Ephesians 6 Paul speaks directly of this: Do not serve masters (as you do when you obey Christ) only when watches, seeking merely to please people, but serve as slaves of Christ who are glad to do what God wants them to do. Or maybe more directly applicable to our topic, 1 Thessalonians 2:4ff: Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts.

As Martin Franzmann penned it: “Paul is not, as his opponents claim, a man-pleaser who has diluted the Gospel to achieve quick and cheap success; he is wholly a servant of Christ.” [4] Paul is not a flexible theologian, circumcised around Jews, uncircumcised around Gentiles, doing whatever fits and brings forth growth. Paul knew that this approach might please men, but not God. Paul was a pastor only to be a slave, a servant to His Lord and to His Gospel.

It is my fear and experience with much of the modern day evangelical movement among us that they are not practitioners of Galatians 1:10: pleasing God, persuading men. Rather, they reverse this to: please men, then try and persuade God, themselves and everyone else that this is okay with Him. The drive for approval, acceptance and relevance in our society forces many of us to rethink our “church mix” of product, price, place and promotion to please men.

Dr. Ed Lehman, President of Lutheran Church Canada, has a very relevant statement which shall serve to springboard my concluding remarks: “Unfortunately, the daily life and activity of the church often causes us to wonder whether theology is really its heartbeat. The church wants to do those things that will attract people and give it a favorable image in the community. The church struggles for success, acceptance, popularity, relevance . . . but these are results. They are not a starting point. The starting point is the faithful preaching and teaching of the Holy Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments.” [5]

I recently heard a young seminarian who told me of his fieldwork pastor, a recent sem grad himself, who declared to him that law and gospel ministry just won’t cut it anymore with people. They need something that they can relate to, that’s modern, that turns them on. You see, please them, then try to persuade that it is okay to do. This is just the reverse of Paul as he proclaims in Galatians 1: please God, persuade people.

Marketing principles start with the premise of meeting the needs of customers, of finding out what they want. This is not the place to start theology, from below. Rather, we must start from above, God’s revelation to us in His Word. We must have as the foundation of our theology and ministry the same our fellow bond-servant of Christ, St. Paul, had: seek to please God, not the laypeople. Then we persuade them with all means, do whatever it takes, just so that it is not displeasing to the Great God we serve.

Asking people what they want in a church, what doctrines are acceptable for them to believe, confess and practice is pleasing to many these days. Likely, this should work to attract and retain a sizable congregation. But is it pleasing to God or do we try and persuade Him that it’s okay theology, hiding behind the Great Commission for justification?

We can ask people their needs on such things as nursery, parking lots, bathrooms, etc., and sincerely try and meet them. This is where church growth is truly beneficial and contributive to the church. There is much that can be utilized to the benefit of God’s kingdom. But not as Barna and others profess, to begin with the marketing principles of pleasing people.

Marketing orientation geared to satisfying customer or user needs is effective for business. The church as Paul concludes is not in the business of satisfying people’s “perceived needs,” of pleasing them. The church is centered around pleasing God by persuading people with the true Gospel. We let Paul then have the final word:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you have received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.[6]


1. E. Jerome McCarthy, Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach, (Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1968), pg. 9.

2. George Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth, (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988), pg. 33.

3. Barna, pg. 31-33.

4. Martin H. Franzmann and Walter R. Roehrs, Concordia Self-Study Commentary, (St. Louis: CPH, 1971) pg. 176.

5. Dr. Ed Lehman, “Canadian Lutheran,” September 1991 cover.

6. Galatians 1:6-10. This and all Bible references are from New Evangelical Translation: God’s Word to The Nations, Cleveland: Biblion Publishing, 1990.

The Rev. Rodney E. Zwonitzer is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Dearborn, Michigan. The paper was given at the Second Annual Theological Symposium 1992: The Appeal of American Evangelicalism sponsored by Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO (May 6, 1992).

Bible References:

1 Corinthians 9: 19-23

19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Galatians 1: 10
Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

2 Corinthians 5: 20
We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.

1 Corinthians 2: 2
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 4: 4
My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

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