Should churches advertise for their members' businesses?

May 4th, 2017

Context matters

I was asked recently by a church member if making a post on our church community social media page about her business would be “tacky.” There are plenty of pastors and church leaders I know who would recoil from this request and fear setting a precedent. I said she should feel free to post it. She was celebrating a win and an opportunity, and it would be a shame, I thought, for our community to miss out on supporting her in her goal.

In the General Rules for Methodist Societies, the early Methodists were definitely pro-advertising. They said that the church should funnel business toward its members:

“…doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.”

Of course, this was before the age of social media, and before people hosted parties for Tupperware, Amway, Mary Kay and Cutco in order to sell things. The Methodists of the 1800s lived in a different context, before the Industrial Revolution. They still lived in a world in which a majority of human beings worked in agriculture, businesses were usually small and all of them were local.

In the last few centuries, things have changed. Our world is now dominated by global corporations to the extent that even local businesses draw on resources from the other side of the world. Advertising consumes billions of dollars a year. And big businesses learned how to use our social networks to sell things out of our homes, leveraging personal friendships as marketing tools.

Relationships, religion and sales

Good sales, it is often said, is about relationships, but the line between helping out a friend through mutual self-interest and being exploited is a sensitive one. Genuine friendships can suddenly feel transactional when turning down a sale feels like rejection. Churches, small groups and Sunday school classes often have some experience being burned in this way.

And, of course, church itself is a social network that can and does benefit its members. People find jobs, make contacts and find new business through all of their social networks — church included. In churches that are truly diverse across socioeconomic lines, this kind of networking can be a vital part of ministry.

But I’ve also heard people say, especially in smaller communities, “I would love to go to X church — but all my clients (or constituents) are at the much larger church down the street.” They may disagree with the theology, object to the music and feel spiritually deadened, but their business contacts are too important to miss Sunday morning networking time.

Since our faith is also about personal relationships, intimacy and building community, the intrusion of capitalist and corporate-business values can be toxic to the life of faith. Our relationships can become transactional instead of transformational. Combined with theologies which approach church like a business, where conversions are equivalent to “sales,” where evangelism is advertising and attendance figures and giving are tracked like market share and corporate profits, our public faith can seem as cheap and as worthless as the latest mass-marketed trend.

The counterargument, of course, is that if you truly believe in something that excites you, you will naturally share it. This is true whether you are talking about your product, a favorite musician or the gospel.

I’ve pastored rural, urban, small and large churches, and in every one I’ve had discussions about how the church should engage with members’ businesses. Some eschew all forms of advertising and business (at least explicitly), while others maintain a business network or directory so that members can choose to patronize each other. Some who have employment or job-training ministries involve members’ businesses.

Early Methodism and business

One line in the early Methodist rule stands out: “Employing them [church members or prospects] preferably to others.” This, of course, would never stand up as policy in a big business. Big businesses with a formal job application process cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. But small and local businesses do employ people they know and trust: friends of friends of friends, people they see in their community. Most hires are made not through formal application processes, but because somebody knows somebody.

The early Methodists lived in a world without large businesses. They expected resistance and persecution by “the world,” in large part because of their stances on issues like poverty and debtors prisons. Therefore they made supporting each others’ businesses an explicit priority.

Their strategy was similar to the economic empowerment efforts of minority communities. The #moveyourmoney movement recently urged people interested in racial justice to move their accounts to black-owned banks and credit unions. Supporting black-owned businesses or other business owned by minorities is an effort to create community empowerment and greater economic independence. There is nothing wrong with divesting from dominant and exploitive economies in order to support alternatives.

The Methodist Social Principles contain some discussion about meaningful work, employment, and justice. It’s one of the most neglected areas of our teaching, in part, I think, because we are reluctant to talk about economic systems and what economic justice looks like. I believe a church that took this part of the General Rules seriously would have to ask itself some hard questions like, “How do we help entrepreneurs who have limited access to capital because of their race, neighborhood, or social status? How do we direct our resources toward those looking for employment in a world increasingly dependent on robots and automation? How do we take the concept of ‘earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can,’ beyond individualism to support each other as a community?” For example, churches who are interested in doing ministry with the most disadvantaged need to consider supporting “ban the box” policies that give ex-prisoners a second chance. They may need to examine how gentrification is affecting their local neighborhoods, and explore alternative models of economic development.

Yes, all of this plays into whether or not your church advertises for its members’ businesses. Your privilege, class, race, theory of power and social change, understanding of stewardship, and theology all influence how you approach the question.

More communities are realizing that economic development and economic justice go hand-in-hand. How we spend our money and conduct our business is a moral decision. I believe it’s time we took the spirit of this rule seriously, and explored how we can avoid “business as usual” and do real, tangible good with all of our dollars — and not just the ones we give away.

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