A 4th sign your church is coming down with a cold is Compromise. 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 or young church.
In other words, defining the wrong “customer” is less about relying on “attractional” models and more about succumbing to pastoral pressures. Most new or small churches lack the resources to win an “attraction” battle anyway. Instead, the dynamics of being a small church plant create a slippery slope, gradually leading pastors to cater to rather than challenge members. They see other churches growing by designing better “customer experiences” and follow suit, not realizing that better facilities, amenities and programs may fill seats but won’t improve the health of the church. Only transforming lives by the power of the Holy Spirit and releasing disciples into personal ministry within their circles of influence can do that.
Who’s to blame? Who compromised first, members or pastors? It’s likely that consumer, cultural Christians pressured pastors to change the biblical definition of “church” (to a place) to take the onus off of themselves for being the church personified. Regardless of the cause and effect relationship, it’s stunning that church leaders and members in America alike have become so blind to how the Bible defines the word “church”. Only through misguided “group-think” could so many pastors, churchgoers, consultants, authors and speakers nearly all condone today’s institution-centric rather than disciple-centric perspective. It may take a disruptive event that decimates the church’s already declining growth, impact, influence and perception to awaken all those “group-think” victims out of the collective stupor clouding their vision, shielding them from the clear biblical definition of “church” as “disciples and the “lost” in the community as those each disciple should be equipped by church leaders to pursue (i.e. the intended “customer”).
Why Churches Compromise
There are powerful forces at work in America’s busy, consumer-driven culture taking focus off building disciples and shifting energies toward building institutions. To survive in America today, church leaders sense little choice but to compromise, redefining “church” and its “customer”. A vicious cycle ensues as struggling, recently planted or perennially small churches succumb to the pressures and adopt a reformulated equation:
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 Internal and External 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. Temptations to compromise will only grow stronger in the years to come. Without revival, there may soon be few churches not showing symptoms of that highly contagious virus – contracted by redefining “church” as an institution and consequently transitioning expectations from the ekklesia to pastors and staff.
How Churches Compromise
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” – 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 hesitate to upset the apple cart. If church leaders clearly saw the community as the “customer” their church was planted to reach, then they would be willing to risk pushing members out of their comfort zones, equipping and deploying disciples.
- “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 young and small churches. Pastor often do everything, overworked and burned out. Members are generally seen as voluntary participants, not as the church personified. Pastors are careful not to ask too much of members – they can’t afford to lose a single, influential family. Yet those same pastors stand ready to jump when asked to do something for a member. Companies can’t require that customers read the owner’s 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.
- “The Customer is Always Right” – The redefinition of “customers” also makes leaders of small churches reluctant to hold members accountable for their actions. Most hesitate 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 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. However, rather than pushing those with the greatest potential to impact the community for Christ to disrupt their daily lives, pastors 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 young or 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 distract from the external mission of the church to engage and serve a 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.
The Cost of Compromise
Christianity has lost its appeal. Not Jesus, but our religion. Not what Christ invented but what we did. Jesus is incredibly alluring, but churchgoers look very little like Him. Our modern-day churches don’t resemble the early church. The growing population of “Nones” aren’t choosing atheism, they’re rejecting our religion. The rapidly increasing number of “Dones” in our country aren’t choosing not to believe, they’re rejecting our redefinition of church. They aren’t buying what we’re selling because we’re selling something we – not God – conceived.
The Lord wants us to assemble and make disciples, then go and make more disciples. However, today’s church growth models recognize discipleship is too costly for Americans, so they instead teach church leaders how to keep the organization in operation. “Invite, Involve and Invest” is the rallying cry of the internally-focused church – it has nothing to do with “eating right” or “working out”. It requires little effort or commitment – just invite a couple friends a year, plug into a small group or be a greeter, and give whatever change you can spare after paying all your bills. That’s all pastors can reasonably expect and hope for from the average American. Few pastors are willing to pressure churchgoers to exercise their discipleship muscles and replace the world’s junk food with a steady diet of prayer, care and share – the Bible’s basic food groups. To do so would risk watching even die-hard members and frequent attenders invite fewer, get less involved less and stop investing. They may even renege on the one other low-commitment request all pastors are willing to make – coming back next Sunday.
Because few churches are still in the business of making real disciples, fewer Christians are distinguishable from others in their love for one another or their compassion for those outside the church family. Therefore they’ve become unattractive. Our light isn’t shining “before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Most churchgoers are “overweight” and “out of shape”. They’re often less attractive than the non-believers people hang out with. They’re the ones lashing out at what’s wrong with the world while their non-Christian friends seem less judgmental.
People are attracted to people, not institutions. However, in lieu of making attractive disciples, church leaders instead try to make their institutions more attractive (e.g. greeters and banners). But their efforts to conform and compromise, to look like everything and everyone else, are backfiring. For the ever-expanding throngs of “Nones” and “Dones” church just doesn’t appear as “cool” as their non-Christian friends and coffee shops.
The Solution to Compromise
- Transform and Release Disciples – versus retaining and attracting “customers”
- Flip Expectations – Challenge rather than cater to members, with less tolerance for complacency or sin
- Unite Around a Common Cause – Put aside petty differences and transform your community for Christ
- Increase Your Church’s Footprint – Even a small church can have a tremendous impact, but it will require change
It’s Your Turn
Which of the business principles above have you observed in a church before? What negative impact did it have on key Biblical imperatives like the Great Commandment and Great Commission?
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