If you were to ask church members around Forest Park to describe their congregations, I bet many of them would say that they are like a family.

That’s the old paradigm for what it means to be part of a church. In a good family, the parents look out for and guide the younger ones. The “parents,” in the old model of the church, are the pastors.

Family ties are built on loyalty, duty, respect for authority, commitment, rituals and tradition with shame and guilt as enforcers. That’s the way congregations are, too, if they operate according to the old paradigm.

If a once regular worshiper stops coming on Sunday morning and the congregation thinks of itself as a family, the person who left is seen as having the problem. The still faithful members will try to get the “sheep who strayed” back, first by the use of affection. If that doesn’t work, they may try appeals to loyalty, duty or tradition. And, if all else fails, they resort to using guilt and shame.

In contrast, the new paradigm for what it means to be a church is that of a business. According to the new model, instead of behaving like parents, the pastors are more like entrepreneurs. If you own a restaurant, for example, and a regular patron stops coming, you never blame the customer. The buck always stops with the owner.

The customer is always right, and that means the authority shifts from the educated and certified pastor to the consumer, the person sitting in the pew. In the old paradigm, family members vote at congregational meetings. In the new paradigm, they vote with their feet.

Entrepreneurs don’t ask customers to vote on whether they should serve Thai food or Italian cuisine. What they do is print a menu and advertise. If people come, they continue what they are doing. If folks stay away, entrepreneurs change the menu.

That’s how Bill Winston operates at Living Word. If you are a member of Pastor Winston’s church, you don’t get to vote for what kind of music is sung, what the pastor preaches or how much his annual salary will be. The pastor is in charge, and he makes the decisions. The only vote you have is whether you show up.

In the new paradigm based on the business model, the key person is the pastor as CEO. The success of the church is not based on loyalty, duty, tradition or guilt. People move from one church to another solely on the basis of which one they like the best. It’s just like restaurants. We went to Shannahan’s the other night because we had a two-for-one coupon. Loyalty had nothing to do with it.

That doesn’t happen in families. If grandma burns the turkey on Thanksgiving, you don’t go to someone else’s house for dinner.

I’m not saying that the new paradigm is better or worse than the old one. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, for example, it can be liberating to break free from the guilt and shame and choose to be with healthier people. On the other hand, entrepreneurs, by definition, cannot provide you with the kind of faithful love you find in healthy families.

My point is not to judge whether the business model is better than the family paradigm. What I’m trying to say is that right now the business model is the one that successful churches are using. For better or for worse, that is the way it is. For better or for worse, churches are in competition with not only each other but all the other Sunday morning options you find listed in the Trib.

To ignore that reality completely, or to not understand it, is to almost guarantee that your pews collect dust.