When we talk about treating members as “customers”, people naturally think of prosperity churches or megachurches. However in many ways the temptations to treat members as “customers” are even greater within a small church. In other words, defining the wrong “customer” is less about relying on “attractional” models and more about succumbing to pastoral pressures. Most small churches lack the resources to win an “attraction” battle anyway. Instead, the dynamics of small church life create a slippery slope, gradually leading pastors to cater to rather than challenge members.
The Urgency: Prospects for Small Churches
As all pastors know and often repeat, members ARE the church. They also know that Jesus, His disciples and the early church viewed the community as the church’s intended “customer”. The purpose of gathering together is to worship collectively and prepare hearts to reach a lost and broken world – the Great Commission. All hands should be on deck, collectively pursuing the real “customer”. However, most churches today have changed that definition of their “customer” – shifting a disproportionate amount of time and resources to member retention. As a result, few adequately train and deploy those “insiders” to pursue “outsiders”. The unchurched – the Church’s Biblical “customer” – largely feels ignored (at best) and judged (at worst). No organization can define the wrong target customer and succeed.
Churches had the definition of “customers” right for 1900 years. Churches were the local food bank and homeless shelter. They started the schools, ministries and even hospitals. They were the spiritual, educational and charitable “center of town”. They invested heavily in building and sending disciples. They plowed tithes back into the welfare of their cities and reaching all with the gospel.
The fact that small churches are no longer on the front lines of compassion corresponds closely to the decline of the church in America. Reversing course and getting back on the path to growth won’t be easy. There are powerful forces in place taking focus off the external and shifting the energies of small churches further internally. A vicious cycle is at work due to the redefinition of “Church” (was members, now leaders) and the Church’s “customer” (was the community, now members):
Higher Expectations of Leaders (to “feed” and care for members)
+ Lower Expectations of Members (e.g. decreasing contributions to church)
= More Responsibilities Passed from Members to Leaders
+ Fewer Resources to Address a Greater Number of Demands
The road ahead for small churches promises to get still rockier. Church “shoppers” continue to migrate to larger churches, mainline denominations struggle to reach younger generations, and government agencies are considering increasingly unfriendly policies and tax laws.
The temptation to compromise will only grow stronger in the years to come…
The Issue: What Does Compromise Look Like?
None of the following business principles should be in play at any church. They’re not Biblical, yet are all too prevalent in small churches (and many large ones as well). Each of them contributes toward defining members as “customers”. See if you recognize any of these corporate behaviors at your church:
- “The Pareto Principle” – Also, called the “80/20 Rule” where 20% of the input is responsible for 80% of the outputs. In small churches, a handful of members typically have an inordinate amount of control. Pastors worry about the reactions of the most influential families to any decisions, no matter how basic or simple (e.g. worship music). Therefore small church pastors seek the implicit or explicit approval of those most prominent or vocal, or risk a disgruntled member threatening the peace and stability of the entire church. Likewise, companies give preferential treatment to “anchor” customers, surveying them to get feedback on product or policy changes before enacting them.
- “Who Moved My Cheese” – As we’ll discuss more next week, small churches often become complacent, resistant to changes that would disrupt the status quo. When “if it’s not broken…” entails more concern for retaining long-time members than reaching the lost, it becomes a problem. Many small churches not only aren’t growing, they don’t want to grow. In business, engaging new markets requires innovation, but too many pastors remain content to preach to the same (saved) folks every Sunday. If church leaders and members saw the community as the “customer” their church was planted to reach, then community needs – and not those of current members – would dictate priorities and worship style. For example, millennials should be target “customers” but largely feel out-of-place at small churches. They want to be change agents in their communities and world – but churches are too invested in appeasing members to design local missions programs that meet the compassion “needs” of millennials.
- “Exceed Expectations” – The formula we laid out earlier in this post showed how the onus for operating churches has flipped from church members to church leaders. Nowhere is that more evident than in small churches. Members are generally seen as voluntary participants, not as the church personified. Pastors are careful not to ask too much of them, yet stand ready to jump when asked to do something for them. Companies can’t require that customers read the owners manual or share the “good news” about new products as prerequisites for making a purchase – but that’s exactly what churches should be doing. Church leaders shouldn’t be in the business of providing excellent customer service, but members have come to expect that level of performance. That shift in expectations is the primary source of pastor burnout today.
- “The Customer is Always Right” – The redefinition of “customers” also makes small church leaders reluctant to hold members accountable for their actions. Most are hesitant to approach the patriarch of the church or the largest contributor to confront them about sin in their lives. Yet those same pastors will readily accept criticisms from those same members and make changes to pacify them.
- “Create Raving Fans” – Pastors find it equally challenging to address inaction – in other words, to raise the bar for members on service and evangelism. It’s difficult but necessary to ask members to become greater servants and advocates for Jesus in their circles of influence. However, rather than pushing those with the largest circles to step out of their comfort zones, disrupt their daily lives and become the embodiment of “church” between Sundays, leaders of small churches are more apt to make simple requests – like inviting their friends to church. Yet we are all called to be raving fans of Jesus, not a church.
- “Risk Mitigation” – Businesses continually assess and minimize risk factors. Issue resolution is important in churches as well, but pastors of small churches are particularly quick to snuff out infighting because a single rift could jeopardize the entire church. A squabble or difference of opinion between two members or even a member and the pastor can readily lead to a split. Undue attention to putting out internal brush fires can detract from the external mission of the church to engage and serve an entire community. Ironically, a greater focus on the external, common cause of pursuing the church’s true “customer” would reduce the concerns of members about their own needs and opinions – the source of most spats.