How’s the God business?’

Published November 1, 2010

‘It works because we aren’t just interested in our own survival, in our numbers, or in our success. We’re on to something significant. That is worth taking seriously.’ Illustration: Abe Gurvin

A cheery greeting from a business acquaintance. He’s not religious, but I can sense a kind of affection from him. Most clergy have heard this one before, and in a flash, I can think of three replies.

“Going great!” That would be true, but not in the way he means. 

“Tough times, actually.” True in the way he means, but not what I really believe.

“God’s not a business.” Yes, but a bit superior, and he’d learn not to ask me again, and continuing a conversation with people who don’t go to church is pretty important. Especially if we think the business we are in has something of value to offer.

What he is really asking is how we are doing in our market niche. His niche is delicatessen coffee-Serious Coffee-and he knows all about the techniques used by the other coffee chains to lure his customers. 

It’s tough to keep customers and he’s curious to know what the church is doing in the market niche of religion. His cheery greeting is intended to remind me that, different as they appear to be, business and religion are both fighting for customers. Turns out, he wants me to know, we are in the same game and we can understand each others challenges.

“So, how’s the religion business doing in tough market times?”

We both know his enquiry about the religion business is a bit of a joke. His whole life is about increasing his market niche. He’s an expert in that game. And he knows that churches aren’t. And even if we were, he’d only be seriously interested if there was some really dramatic success going on at my church which he could apply to the world of coffee sales. Which there isn’t. And his question, while teasing, isn’t condescending. So what is he on about?

He’s heard some good things and he thinks we must have some kind of expertise. 

Could have stumped me.

Our expertise sure isn’t business management or niche marketing. Not that we haven’t tried, but when we’ve ordered that brew, we’ve come away with a bad after-taste. So what intrigues him? 

It’s not the theology. Not yet, anyway. What puzzles him now is that in a time when churches are getting smaller, and fewer people are going to church, some churches spend an inordinate amount of time with people who are never likely to go to church.

He knows some churches spend significant effort running food banks for people who have no food. Pretty poor, most of them, and, with government cut-backs, likely to remain so. Never likely to have the energy to attend church, let alone help pay the bills. Same for the addicted and the homeless and people coming out of prison. There’s no payoff. Why would anyone do that?

My business friend is intrigued because, crazy as our strategy seems to be, somehow the congregation is alive and well and full of energy by not paying attention to itself. 

So what’s the secret? Perhaps our secret marketing technique-forgetting about our own survival because we are so focused serving the poor-somehow mirrors the nature of God. That might turn out to be an extremely attractive quality about church.  And intriguing because it’s so different from the rest of the world. 

My friend is fishing. I take the bait. 

“The God business is great!” I say with enthusiasm. And he knows I’m not talking numbers on Sunday morning. And he knows I know. And he feels my affection in return. And I know he’s heard the good news. 

Turns out I’m the salesman and he just had his first sip of the really strong triple-triple ultimate full-bodied brew. Theology can come later. Tasting the self-forgetful counter-intuitive love of God comes first. 

“How did he do that?” I can almost hear him thinking as we part. What he doesn’t know is there is an entire congregation of baristas who actually mix and pour the stuff. Ω

Canon Harold Munn is the rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C.


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