Enron and the church

Enron, the giant energy company that experienced a colossal self-destruction in 2001, is still providing lessons for us, this time in the newsletter of Laura Stack (The Productivity Pro). The lesson she draws is about how the company’s top executives completely lost track of the company’s mission and values and instead “focused on feathering their own nests and defrauding stakeholders to the tune of billions of dollars.”

Stack could be addressing the church when she writes of the importance of not losing track of our mission and of the need to make sure that every action is directly tied to it. That requires an attitude “that focuses beyond personal needs to the needs of the organization. After all, it doesn’t matter how well an individual worker does if the company falls apart around them.”

Saint Paul made the point much earlier. “Now you are the body of Christ,” he writes (using the plural form of the word “you”), “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). All of us together are the body of Christ. While there is extraordinary respect for the individual of faith in the early church, there is no room in the Christian scriptures for the independent individualism so prevalent in much of the Western church today. The church is Christ’s dwelling place, and our identity is as part of the whole church, like the eye, the hand, or the feet are part of the human body and have no life or meaning apart from the whole body (1 Cor. 12:20-26).

The best way to say what comes next is to say it plainly. The idea that the aim of our relationship with the church is our personal salvation is absurd in the Christian scriptural tradition. The United Methodist Church’s organizing document states: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (emphasis mine). We are here in the church together for the salvation of the whole world.

When Israel, after their captivity in Babylon, was looking to its homecoming as a time when it would be restored to its former glory, Isaiah heard God say to him, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). The mission of the church is not to serve its members; our purpose, as members of the church, the body of Christ, is to serve the transformation of the world.

That’s a distinction we too easily forget. We can end up like the executives of Enron, becoming consumers of religion, thinking of the church as a service or association we purchase with our offering dollars for our benefit. When that happens, we lose our mission, our reason for existence, and we become no different from a service club or the local country club (or from Enron).

The loss of mission and values in favor of self service is a fatal combination. As we approach the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, and as we prepare to celebrate again the coming of God in human form, we would do well to remember this particular lesson of Enron.

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