The Religion Industry


Each Monday I post the next section of my 2001 book, which was originally called (by the publisher) Hoover’s Vision but which I have now retitled The Art of Enterprise. I have posted over half of it already; click on the “Monday” column to see all the prior sections. The entire book can be downloaded as a PDF for $10 at




I grew up as a member of the Church of the Brethren, a Protestant denomination closely akin to the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Society of Friends (or “Quakers”). Both of my grandfathers were ministers. I believe that this church and its sister denominations do a great job of teaching fundamental values that are valuable throughout life. And I know that I am only one of billions of people around the world whose lives have been enhanced by religion.
But as an entrepreneur I have to say that the religion industry is not in the best of shape. While some faiths are growing in membership and attendance, many are in decline.
Is it reasonable to think of religion as an industry? Why not? As a collection of enterprises that employ resources – time, talent, and money – in the service of human needs, religion certainly qualifies as an industry. And while the goals of religion may transcend the merely earthly aspirations of most enterprises, few religious leaders would want their churches, synagogues, temples, or mosques to be less well run than secular enterprises. If anything, the higher ideals to which religion aspires demand a higher standard of accountability and achievement.
I believe that the best hope for our religious institutions lies in entrepreneurial leadership. If you are a religious leader, you need to ask yourself some of the same kinds of questions that an aspiring entrepreneur should ask. Is the mission of your church clear? (For simplicity, I’ll use the word “church” henceforth to refer to all kinds of religious enterprises.) Is it consistent? Is it unique? How does it differ from the mission of the church down the street? And are you really passionate about serving people?
By the service standards of business, many religious enterprises fall woefully short. No business has such limited hours as most houses of worship. In many places, if you have a spiritual need any time other than Sunday morning, you’re out of luck. No wonder televangelism and religious broadcasting have boomed in popularity, since they make God’s word available seven days a week, 24 hours a day. 
How aggressively do the churches use their assets? As an architecture buff, I travel the world visiting and photographing buildings, many of them houses of worship. They are often beautiful, expensive, historic – and almost always empty. Couldn’t the magnificent spaces created by the devout be used around the clock for other cultural and community purposes? Couldn’t two or more faiths share the same building and use the resultant savings to serve more people?
What is your church doing to attract younger members and to keep them coming? Too many religious enterprises die out as their members age. Is your church deeply involved in the life of the entire community, or is it isolated, serving only believers? A church that operates like a private club not only violates the basic spirit of religious service but also dooms itself to a gradual decline in relevance and membership, and ultimately to extinction.
Millions of people around the world are searching for meaning in their lives. They want to belong to something bigger than themselves. They turn to new-age philosophies, to programs of diet, exercise, and meditation, to motivational speakers, to self-help books, to infomercials, to network marketing. Thus, the potential market for the rich offerings of traditional religion is huge. But whether your church will be thriving or forgotten fifty years from today is up to you.