Members and attenders ARE the Church – so they cannot also be the Church’s “customer”. Customers are outside of an organization, whereas members (as the Church) are clearly insiders. So who is the Biblically-intended customer of the Church? In other words, who should churches be investing the majority of their time, energy and money in serving? Answering that question correctly is the key to the Church’s future.
As we’ve seen, the modern-day American Church treats members/attenders as if they were the “customer”. That redefinition of the Church’s “customer” is the reason it’s struggling today in terms of growth, impact, influence and perception by society. To illustrate, imagine a company that never advertised to its target market. What if you were a customer of that company and they never answered your calls or emails when you had a problem? Would you feel ignored? Would you want to “buy” what they’re “selling”? Of course not. You typically become aware of a company because they market to you. You become interested because they reach out to you – and then show they care about you.
What did Jesus and His disciples model?
Jesus, the Lord incarnate, spoke the perfect words. Yet He knew the words were not enough. So Jesus almost always served, healed and fed, demonstrating His compassion and love, before telling people who He was. He spent time in the temple, but the bulk of his preaching was done out in the community. He engaged those in need – not just with words, but with deeds – exactly where they were. He didn’t wait for them to darken the doors of a church building. He went to them. He didn’t just preach. He served them.
Likewise, Jesus sent the disciples out into the world around them, giving them the power to perform miracles and instructing them to follow His lead, preceding words with action. When Paul was called to go to the gentiles, the one thing the disciples told him not to forget was to serve the poor. Paul said it was the one thing he was most eager to do (Galations 2:8-10).
Clearly, Jesus and His disciples invested the majority of their time and energy in “outsiders”. They considered the community to be the “customer”.
However, few churches today follow Jesus’ model. No pastor can “outpreach” Jesus, yet most churches have separated words from action. They’ve replaced community service and evangelism with attracting and retaining members.
Who was the “customer” of the Church until the last century?
The early Church replicated Jesus’ model and as a result exploded in growth. It demonstrated God’s love and compassion so remarkably that people took notice. Society saw a group of folks with so much love for one another that it spilled out into the streets.
For centuries the Church continued to serve first and then tell people who Jesus is. Churches were the food bank and homeless shelter. Churches started the hospitals and schools. The local church was the center of town – integral and integrated. The Church allocated a much larger percentage of its time, resources and dollars to serving the community than it does today.
The early Church never outsourced community service, as it does now. Churches refer non-members who need help to a government agency or a local ministry (many of which the Church started but then severed ties). Historically, you didn’t have to belong to a church to get help – you could go to ANY Church to get help.
Whether the church abdicated its role on the front lines of compassion or whether the government and charities usurped that role isn’t important…
What matters is that the community was intended to be the Church’s “customer” and yet the community is largely ignored by the Church today. Of course society feels disenfranchised and neglected. It’s no wonder the unchurched view churches as uncaring. We turn away families in need and most only do occasional service events. Yet surveys show that people still expect the Church to be a first responder, to play a lead role in compassion. You know what happens when expectations aren’t met!
Where did we go wrong?
Jesus, His disciples and the early Church saw a church’s “customer” as the community where it was planted. Yet nearly all churches in America instead treat members as the “customer”, placating and paying attention to those who darken their doors. In an attempt to appeal to a consumer-driven culture, churches began roughly 100 years ago:
- Building Churches vs. Building Disciples
- Measuring Growth vs. Measuring Impact
- Lowering Expectations (of Members) vs. Holding Them Accountable (to BE the Church)
- Catering to vs. Challenging Members
- Transactional vs. Relational Community Engagement
- Advertising vs. Service-Based Outreach
By the way, advertising does not mean we’re treating the community as a “customer”. Advertising is not “outreach”, although many churches now consider those words synonymous. Mailers and billboards tout our preaching, service formats, and children’s ministries – which only appeals to Christians – attracting them from other churches. Arms-length attraction is not what Jesus or the early church modeled. They would define “outreach” as interacting in love and service, opening the door to sharing the gospel.
Ignore the “customer” or serve the wrong “customer” and you’re doomed to struggle. Here organizational behavior and business principles align perfectly with Biblical mandates.