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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Church is Like A ...

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Be grateful for whoever comes
Because each has been sent as a guide.”

These words by the Persian poet Rumi were recorded by the band Coldplay. The poem compares his life to a guesthouse where different experiences come to stay for a while. All need to be welcomed, because all have something to teach. 

This is an excellent example of an analogy. 

Analogies are verbal or visual comparisons. 

“All the world’s a stage.” (Shakespeare)
"My love is like a red, red rose." (Burns)
“Life is like a box of chocolates.” (Forrest Gump)

Analogies are powerful tools for learning and imagining. Like this visual analogy comparing cigarettes to a shotgun.
Analogies are becoming increasingly important in the church. When things are clear and straightforward and everyone understands what they mean, you don’t need analogies so much. But in times like these, when Christian faith and the place of the church in society is becoming less clear, analogies can be really helpful.

Some common examples – “The church is a family.” “The church is a business.” In a recent blog post, I compared the church to an airport.

The important thing about analogies, however, is knowing that they have their limits. You can only push them so far. 

We can learn something about the church by comparing it to a family, or a business, or an airport. But we get into trouble if we forget that in certain important respects, the church is not like a family, a business, or an airport.

In my last two posts, I drew analogies from the world of marketing. The demise of Sam the Record Man can teach us that, while our core message stays the same, the way we deliver it needs to change. The recent success of A & W can teach us the importance of focusing on the essentials.

Analogies between the church and marketing can be helpful when it comes to the question of How? How do we communicate? How do we connect?

But those analogies can break down when it comes to another question -- Why?
Why does the church exist? 

Businesses exist to sell products to consumers. But the church exists – well, why does the church exist? To worship God? To teach people to love God and love their neighbour? To continue the work of Jesus in the world? All of the above?

Marketing analogies aren’t helpful if they make us think of people primarily as customers to be sold something. All too often, that’s how churches do think. What “product” can we come up with that will attract people to come in and part with their time and their money? How can we stop losing “market share” to the mega-church down the street, or the shopping mall?

Peter Drucker
The great management guru Peter Drucker said that the difference between a for-profit business and an organization like a church is in the nature of their product. The product of the business is a good or service that they sell to a customer. 

The church’s product is people. What churches “produce,” Drucker says, is transformed individuals. They are the people who are changed, equipped and inspired to live out the Good News in their daily lives.

Used properly, analogies can deepen our understanding and awaken our imaginations. Just remember that any analogy can only be pushed so far.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lessons From The Great Root Bear

On the way home from the airport after a recent vacation, my wife and I stopped at a brand –new, just-opened A & W.

While many fast food chains have seen their business plateau, A & W is going through a resurgence.

This surprises me. A & W always struck me as decidedly second-tier in the fast food world. The ones I was familiar with tended to be a little shabby, the staff disorganized and the food expensive. Their mascot was a brown and orange-clad, pear-shaped bear who waddled along to a goofy tune played on the tuba. A bit corny and

So what's gotten into A & W?

It’s simple, really. First, they identified one thing that people really care about – food safety and quality. And second, they started to deliver that one thing simply, clearly and consistently.

A & W recognized that people are willing to pay more for food they trust. They committed to serving only drug- and hormone-free meat. And then they communicated that message over and over and over again.

A & W did not try to become something other than what they were – a place to get a hamburger. And while other chains expanded their menus, A & W stuck to relatively limited range of choices.

But they focused single-mindedly on one thing -- the quality of their meat.
And it seems to have worked. A & W plans to open 250 new stores across Canada over the next few years.

I’ve noticed a few other changes as well. The A & W I recently visited had a little electronic keypad near the door with a customer satisfaction survey that has four questions and can be completed in 5 seconds. The results of that day’s surveys were visibly displayed on screens at the order counter.

Also a beautifully-produced video about their food sources – a family-owned ranch in Alberta, an environmentally-sustainable greenhouse in California -- was running on a loop in the restaurant area.

A & W also has relatively low franchise fees and many of their new franchisees are millennials in their 20s and early 30s. That is the age group that consumes the most fast food, and younger owners can be expected to be attuned to their needs.

So, what are the takeaways (so to speak) for the church?

A couple of words of caution: I’m not making any judgments about whether eating a Teenburger is actually any better for you than eating a Big Mac, or just a marketing ploy. And, building a Christian community and selling burgers aren’t the same thing. We need to be clear about what A &W can and can’t teach us.

But I think there are a couple of lessons many congregations could learn here.

First, find something that people really care about that you can respond to. And second, commit to doing that one thing consistently well.

The experience of A & W shows that there is more than one way to succeed. The prevailing wisdom today says that people demand choice and churches need to get with the program and offer people more and more options in worship, programming, music, etc. But A & W is succeeding not by getting more diverse but by getting more focused on one thing that really matters to people. I observe congregations trying to do too much and ending up not doing anything particularly well. In these times of diminishing resources, we need to learn how to focus. 
It would be better to find one or two things that make a real difference to people’s lives, commit to doing those things consistently and well, and let people know that’s what you’re good at, over and over and over again. Whether it’s hospitality, prayer practices, young families, seniors, creative worship, ministry to a particular population, or one specific aspect of any of these things, find those one or two areas in which you are able to excel and make those your priority.

And let people know about it in any way you can.

What are those one or two things at your church?