When times get tough, most churches respond with the same survival tactics used by struggling businesses. Today, we explore the fifth and final reason why churches come down with a cold – the desire to Survive.
The life cycle of a business begins with great hope and anticipation, a keen awareness of market needs and commitment to satisfying those needs. When that laser focus on training employees to pursue and serve target customers breeds success, attention turns to managing a growing organization and companies often take their eyes off the ball.
That’s when growth suffers and survival instincts kick in. How the business reacts to downturns determines its future. If panic drives it to refocus on its intended customers, it will live to see another day. However, many do the opposite and look for answers in internally-focused strategies designed to cut costs and restructure operations.
Churches today aren’t much different. They plant in faith and hope, highly committed to discipleship and community engagement. However, when challenges inevitably arise or growth stagnates, few maintain the same level of focus on making disciples (i.e. training members like “employees” because they are the church personified) and mobilizing them to pursue the intended “customer” (i.e. those who don’t know Jesus). Instead, nearly all church leaders turn their attention (internally) to attracting and retaining members – wrongly treating churchgoers and not the “lost” in the community as target “customers”. Therefore, rather than follow Jesus’ model of making disciples characterized by compassionate service and bold evangelism, church leaders panic and employ businesses survival tactics:
1. Reducing Sales Force
Businesses panic and cut sales staff or commissions – Yet sales is the lifeblood of the company, the only way to increase revenues. As business consultants, we strongly advised against reducing investments in sales-related personnel, training or compensation. We viewed that as effectively ensuring the company’s demise. Typically, the market was still lucrative but the company lacked the sales force to pursue it.
Churches panic and cut discipleship and missions, lowering prayer-care-share expectations of members – Yet disciples are the lifeblood of the church, the only means to live out the Great Commission. Investing less in building disciples effectively ensures the church’s demise. The fields are white for harvest but the Church no longer has the “workers” to pursue it.
2. Making Cosmetic Changes
Businesses, rather than improving products and services during market downturns, typically go the cheaper route and try to make their offerings appear more attractive with surface-level changes.
Churches panic and make cosmetic adjustments like preaching more “relevant” or “practical” messages, sprucing up facilities and developing slick marketing collateral.
3. Sacrificing Quantity and Quality
Businesses like restaurants and food manufacturers frequently panic by reducing quantity and quality, offering smaller portions and lower-grade ingredients.
Churches panic by reducing quantity and quality through shorter time commitments (i.e. what I call “fast church”, the corollary to “fast food”) and cheap replacements for personal discipleship (i.e. small groups) and genuine compassion (i.e. occasional events, which often do more harm than good).
4. Target Marketing
Businesses panic and target only profitable customer segments, forgetting that they built their company on the core values of reaching and serving the entire community.
Churches panic and begin to consider how to restructure to attract younger families, forgetting that they planted their church to reach and serve the entire community. Rejuvenation lowers the average age but does not improve the church’s health, because young families typically have less time for discipleship and community engagement – keys to church health – between soccer games and cheerleading practices.
5. Providing Greater Convenience
Businesses panic and try to make the customer experience more easy and convenient. They also begin charging for services they used to perform for free and offer new for-fee services to raise revenues – in effect, enabling customers to pay for the right to do less by offloading work onto the company. Since they can’t afford to hire more employees, this increases the burden on an already overworked staff.
Churches frequently respond to dropping attendance by offering more programs and making evangelism and missions more easy and convenient. Responsibilities that used to fall on members to share their faith, make disciples and impact their communities are assumed by pastors and staff. Churchgoers are simply asked to share their stories and extend invitations to church, letting “professionals” handle the tough questions. In that light, tithes can be viewed as compensating pastors and staff for usurping roles rightfully belonging to them – those biblically intended to embody “church” between Sundays.
6. Mass Marketing and Engagement
Businesses panic and automate sales and customer support. Suddenly it becomes nearly impossible to reach a real person when you call for help. The company shifts from brick-and-mortar storefronts to selling online, eliminating personal touch in a desperate attempt to reduce overhead.
Churches panic and substitute mass appeal for personal touch. Following prevailing church growth models and the near-universal advice of celebrity pastors in books, articles and conferences, pastors insert layers of hierarchy, bulk mail flyers, run big outreach events, and push engagement in church groups and “chores”. The Church in America today views personalizing discipleship and unleashing prayer-care-share warriors into personal ministry as anti-establishment, threatening the culture of pastoral dependence.
7. Reducing Discretionary Expenses
Businesses panic and slash discretionary expenditures, like product innovation to keep pace with evolving customer needs and corporate responsibility programs that were designed to give back to the community.
Churches panic and slash expenses they consider expendable. Yet churches should model the behaviors they want members to imitate. It’s no coincidence that members today give to churches at approximately the same rate that churches give back to the community – 2.5%. Historically, members gave a much higher percentage to churches when churches invested a much higher percentage in the community (i.e. when churches served as the local food bank and homeless shelter). Pastors complain that churches only get the “leftovers” after members pay all of their bills. Yet churches do exactly the same thing. Buildings, salaries, programs, and other costs that accrue to the benefit of the “insiders” leave little left over to engage and bless the church’s intended “customer” (non-Christian “outsiders”). If churches were more obedient in giving their “first fruits”, members likely would follow suit.
As we said in the opening to this 5 part series, it’s not the unhealthy church “consumers” that infect the rest of the congregation. It’s the response by pastors to dealing with unhealthy members that turns a cold into the flu or pneumonia. Splits, squabbles, politics and personnel issues are signs that churchgoers and staff aren’t taking their responsibilities as “called out ones” (the definition of “church”) seriously enough. But that’s no excuse for church leaders to transmit consumerism to the entire church through rejuvenation or resuscitation efforts that Centralize, Depersonalize, Internalize, Compromise – or as we’ve covered today, tactics designed to help them Survive. Instead, the proper strategy for church revitalization is to nurse those “consumers” back to health by training them to eat right (discipleship) and work out (put the Great Commission into practice among their families, friends and coworkers).
It’s Your Turn
Have you seen a church implement any of those business survival tactics when attendance dipped, internal rifts occurred or enthusiasm waned?