A recent article in the Boston Review discusses the long-term impact of financial pressure on American business. Fifty years ago, businesses were structured “horizontally” in order to manufacture any given product or line or products. For example, an American company could have 20,000 employees dedicated to the manufacturing of a specific type of ball bearings, which required layers and layers (and layers) of varied types of manufacturing. (This is a paraphrase of a much more detailed article)
In the ministry world, the effect has been the same. Ministries, church, para-church, and all manner of mission are continually pressured to focus on a very specific type of ministry. Rather than focusing broadly on a population (ie. “this neighborhood”) or a group of people with needs (ie. “the poor in Chicago”), the pressures of the financial set (read: rich people) requires that each ministry focus on 1 specific type of function. Summer camp. Food distribution. Clothing. Medical care.
Imagine you are “Steve.” Steve is poor, he needs help. In our present world, Steve has to navigate literally hundreds of organizations to get his needs met. Referral after referral to get education, job training, housing, food, healthcare, transportation, or let’s just say “all of the things a person needs to survive.” There was a time (probably 75 to 100 years ago now) where a real-life Steve could go to a single person, or group, and be cared for 1) in all of the ways he needs and 2) for a long period of time.
Now, rather than a person (Steve) being treated as a human being, by an organization focused on people and relationships, his needs are chopped up into literally thousands of organizations who care for any given specialty at any given point in someone’s life.
Why is it like this? Money. The people who finance ministry and helping people dictate how these organizations are structured, not the needs of the people or the relationships there. Organizations have mostly given in. They get to say “We fed 10,000 people since 2007” or “We sent 100 kids to camp” — finite, measurable, objective kinds of help. Those externalities don’t matter to the people who matter most, to those who fund the help.
What’s the alternative? There can and will be a vision cast in a given place for the needs of people (and relationships) to be the primary defining factor of an organization. Sometimes 1 person needs help in 100 ways, and other times 100 people all need 1 kind of help. What if an organization was so focused on people that they would adapt to the needs of a community? Rather than bending to the pressure of financiers who want to shop through a menu of functions of ministry (ex. “I want to send Steve food for a week, someone else can pay for his bus ticket”), the organization can and should serve as a structure for connecting people (rich and poor) around the needs of the community.