When my father-in-law fell on an escalator in a shopping mall, he was proud of his ability to catch his carton of eggs. “Not one of them broke”, he told me from his hospital bed. A true son of the Depression, breaking eggs was more significant than a damaged back. But as he stayed in hospital, two competing attitudes were expressed by staff and visitors. The older generation all said something along the line “You silly old goat, George, why didn’t you use the lift?” or “Why did you take the trolley onto the escalator?” The younger generation said “You should sue Westfield. They’ve got plenty of money.” and “They’ll settle out of court. They don’t want the bad publicity.” It was a stark cultural and generational difference. George, being an old man, simply laughed at his folly and was proud of catching the eggs.
Today in church life I also hear (and feel within myself) a similar clash of cultures. I’ll call them “family”, “government” and “business”.
Take an issue such as Occupational Health and Safety. The ‘family’ response is seen in two reactions: a desire to keep everybody safe; and frustration, if not annoyance, with the legislative bureaucracy of the nanny state. The ‘government’ response is to implement the legislative regime that has come in over the last few decades, but to do so tardily with a sense of legalism that looks for loopholes. The ‘business’ approach is to satisfy all requirements as quickly as possible to avoid any possibility of being sued if something goes wrong.
These three approaches can be seen in a range of areas. Child protection issues follow similar lines. To the ‘family culture’, children are the prime concern and must not be harmed in any way – and child safety measures are seen as something between insulting and ineffective. With the ‘government response’, it is critically important that good safety measures are in place but going through the training and filling in the forms is a great time waster. With the ‘business response’ it is really important that ‘we cover ourselves’ lest there be a disaster; so do the child safety measures as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Another area of church management is employment policies. To the ‘family’ those who have given up tent-making to work for the church, can expect to be looked after with a stipend to live on and without unfair dismissal, but they must not expect commercial salaries or career advancement. To the ‘government’ minded, employment in church should be regulated with detailed terms and conditions setting out proper job descriptions and employment contracts including termination practices. To the ‘business’ minded, workers are recruited for the skill set they bring and their service is dispensed with when they no longer contribute to the bottom line, or fit the changes of the church.
Each of these responses has its merits and its errors. The family response is Christian in its concern for the weak and vulnerable, its unthinkableness of harming others, in its concern for everybody taking responsibility for the welfare of others and its care for fellow workers. However, the Bible teaches universal sinfulness so it is naïve to think that the family will be unaffected by sin; that members will not need the protection of the law, or recompense from insurance or will not rort the system, becoming lazy and unproductive at work.
We must obey our governments as they are appointed by God to implement justice for our welfare. The government response is a concern for justice, especially for the vulnerable. The Bible sees justice as one of the chief goals of government and we can appreciate that providing clear legislation establishing responsibility for people is a good thing. Yet, there is a naivety in thinking that passing legislation will somehow protect people from accidents or from selfish bosses or from lazy or inefficient workers. It is only the changed heart that will move people into undertaking ‘family’ care and responsibility for the welfare of others.
At first glance, the business approach seems unloving and immoral for the care is self-centred; avoiding being sued for harm done to others rather than avoiding the harm. However, it is part of the reality of God’s creation that we are all responsible to make things work. If we cannot afford occupational health and safety, or provide sufficient supervision and protection of children, or make our business productive then we must take some action. Without proper financial management we will not be able to safeguard people or pay proper compensation for victims or stipends to our workers.
Yet, putting all these different competing cultures together and recognising the truth in each one, I am still left believing the family is the best model for church life. It has to be modified by the government regulations and the economy’s sense of reality, but its genuine and altruistic concern for others reflects the heart of Christian concern. Our concern must be for people not to get hurt rather than for fulfilling government regulations or protecting our financial interests. It may be good business sense to replace a staff member with somebody whom we prefer, or who will draw larger crowds and increase our offertories, but we do not dispense with family members in such a cavalier fashion. They have made sacrifices to work with us and we have to be committed to their welfare. If we cannot afford to keep employing them, then sadly we may have to ask them to leave – but that is not to replace them with somebody else. Contracts and the legal job description do not overcome common decency and care for a Christian brother or sister.
We do not face the world as simply another business to do business with, nor as a government instrumentality to provide welfare for the needy, but as a family whose love for one another shows that we are the disciples of Christ Jesus. Lose that sense of family and we may as well pack up shop and join the local council.