Church Should Add Value, Not Extract It

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book came out yesterday. It’s called Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus, and I read the first chapter yesterday. On a bus.

Rushkoff’s core contention is that the imperative for growth is killing us. Here’s a money quote from the introduction.

“We are running an extractive, growth-driven economic system that has reached the limits of its ability to serve anyone, rich or poor, human or corporate. Growth is the single, uncontested, core command of the digital economy.”

He’s talking about economics, but I’m thinking about churches (surprise!).

Most churches are not growing. Membership decline has been the reality in most of our churches and denominations for as long as I’ve been in ministry. There is no shortage of anger and guilt among the remaining church members and their leaders over that fact. People like Bill Easum go so far as to assert that pastors of churches that aren’t growing are “wasting their lives.”

I once had an earnest conversation with a pastor who was leading her church out of the PC (USA) who, in addition to theological scruples, was deeply offended by the denomination’s decline. She was moving to a new denomination, she said, because, “I want to be part of something that’s growing.”

I’ve never been able to square Jesus’ claim that one must lose her life in order to find it with the equation of church growth with discipleship. The decline of church participation in our context is an organizational problem, and a deadly serious one at that. Yet a theology of church growth commits the same sins that Rushkoff is laying at the feet of Uber and Facebook: it extracts value from people rather than making value for them.

Growth was never the goal for the Church. Growth serves a bigger purpose, namely the formation of a community of disciples embodying the grace of Jesus. That community ought to thrive. Where it doesn’t we have work to do. Getting it to grow, though, is not the focus of that work.

Rushkoff’s subtitle is great: How Growth Became The Enemy of Prosperity. I wonder if an assumption of growth–and guilt over its absence–has become the enemy of something in our churches.

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