This is the last installment in a series of writings about my perception of the changes taking place in the workplace, and how it relates to Christian life. Last two times I wrote about the changing definition of employees and managers. Today it’s about customers.
Here, like in the previous two articles, as I’m talking what I learn about a new view of customers, I will also talk about how the church should view its “customers.” Admittedly, “customer” is a strange word to use for people who come to church. But as you can see below, I believe the church really can learn more than a thing or two from the workplace about how to run a church.
More than 10 years ago, I was in a company meeting when the sales guy told us we signed a lot of customer contracts to offer our products and services. To my surprise, the general feeling after the meeting was very negative. At the time, my colleagues thought: oh no, now we have to be so busy producing things that those customers ask for, and we also have to handle so many people using and complaining through our customer service, etc. It seems ridiculous now, but the traditional view of customers was actually to sell them things, then say bye bye to them, and hope to never hear any complaints from them. This reminds me of an evangelistic concert I once had in a church in which lots of people came and even signed up to want to learn more about the faith. During the evaluation meeting, the mood was negative. They were saying, oh no, we have to accommodate all these people coming to our church, and we have to get so many people to mentor them, how can we handle it, etc. It was just as ridiculous.
The company I work for makes software that helps companies to innovate. Our CEO is a great motivational speaker. In his speech to our company in January, he said that we need to sell our products to more and more people. The reason? Of course we have to increase our revenue. But he also said that we have a “responsibility” to sell our products. If we truly believe that our product can help other companies innovate better, we have a responsibility to this society to foster innovation and contribute to the benefit of this world. In other words, we want to help our customers become world changers.
In the same vein, author Kathy Sierra’s blog posted this illustration about this new view of customers:
Often, churches try to be “culturally relevant” by adding rock music or drama or videos. There’s nothing wrong with doing rock/alt music or using drama, but there’s something wrong if a church thinks that it can get people to say, “Hey, church is cool too!” Doing so only promotes church consumerism, and it won’t make people feel any more positive toward the church. The reason is that people are not looking to find culturally relevant stuff at church. Rather, churches do well to be authentic, and to foster an environment where people can feel authentic and yet connect to God personally, intimately, and authentically. Churches do not need to be cool. They should help people to experience and to connect to a cool God.
When someone becomes a happy customer, it’s less about the product itself but more about the experience. One of my colleagues at work told me he likes going to a dentist which has a mini coffee bar in the dental office. It’s similar to this other picture from Kathy’s blog:
I used to go a church which has a policy of “no eating, no drinking, and no physical cuddling” allowed in the sanctuary, let alone coffee. I never really understood the reason for this policy. Is there something so “sacred” about the sanctuary that a little food or beverage stain can’t grace the carpet? They might as well say “no breathing” allowed also, because my breath can contain germs that contaminate the air in the sanctuary. I really feel less than human when I was there observing their policy.
Leonard Sweet, in his book “The Gospel According To Starbucks” (see book summary here), hopes the church can learn from how Starbucks provides an authentic experience for its customers. Why would people flock to Starbucks just to buy an expensive cup of coffee? Because when they go to Starbucks, they’re getting more than just coffee. They find a cool environment and music they like. They find community in Starbucks, where meetings and social gatherings are frequently held. You probably notice that the Starbucks coffee cups have “The Way I See It” messages that are great discussion topic starters for people. Even Pastor Rick Warren’s words made it onto one of those cups (see news about controversial Starbucks cups’ messages here).
At the same time that Starbucks is giving its customers authentic experience and community, churches are still mostly feeding people with just intellectual ideas and information. Many people are attracted to Starbucks, but fewer and fewer are going to church, and most of those going are going out of obligation and habit.
Here’s a true story. One time at my church we were having a baptismal service. A non-Christian was invited to be there, but he got so bored during the meeting. One of my friends saw that he was bored, so he said, “Hey, let’s go over to Starbucks!” So they went to Starbucks, drank coffee, and then my friend shared Christ with this non-believer. And here in that Starbucks, he trusted his life to God and accepted Christ as his Savior. The moral of the story: Starbucks turned out to be a better environment to connect with God than in my own church.
Companies have learned that its less about them and more about their customers getting an authentic experience, and empowering them to be world changers. Churches should also learn to focus on letting people experience Christ for themselves. As Leonard Sweet wrote: “Authenticity is not about being more relevant but about being more Jesus.”