c. 2006 Religion News Service
Listen up, church leaders. This parable is for you.
Dell Computer Corp. is losing a repeat customer, because their process and data requirements overwhelmed my need to buy their product.
Last week I wanted to order a $39 USB memory key. Dell’s Web site required me to locate a username and password (serving their purposes, not mine). Dell’s toll-free number led me into a labyrinth of voice commands. A second toll-free number landed me with a live person who insisted on creating a “profile” for me. No, I said, I simply want to make a $39 purchase.
I persevered long enough to complete my purchase. But I will think twice before making another one. No business can afford to make purchasing its products this difficult.
This is the way many churches seem to all but a few insiders. User-unfriendly, concerned with processes and power struggles serving institutional needs, but not attuned to the actual needs of people. Quite unintentionally, I’m sure, we make it difficult to deal with us.
At the macro level, consider the conflicts that dominate church life. My own Episcopal Church, for example, is preparing for yet another pitched battle over homosexuality. So are the Presbyterians. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists are fulminating over “The Da Vinci Code,” as if a novel and movie threatened the Christian enterprise.
Combatants believe their causes just and necessary. But I wish zealots would consider the impact of their fighting. Nondenominational churches are thriving on people driven away by relentless bickering within denominations.
So are restaurants serving Sunday brunch.
It’s like the “profile” that Dell agents are required to seek. It makes business sense to them, but to me it is an unnecessary annoyance. Fighting about gay clergy or about judicatory spending might matter to a few insiders, but to most, such fighting is an unnecessary annoyance.
At the micro level, too few congregations are “user-friendly.” They don’t intend that, but what else happens when an individual or family shows up at church, isn’t welcomed, cannot find Sunday School, doesn’t understand the local protocols, cannot follow the service, and seems little noticed by people making a beeline for coffee and cliques?
What else should we expect when the faith-hungry receive newsletters that focus on money, visit Web sites that show buildings and not people, and place telephone calls to automated answering systems?
We are making it too difficult to belong and to participate. We don’t see our own enterprise through “customer eyes.”
People want hope, not a doctrine on hope. They want to feel loved, not tested for orthodoxy. They want to know God, not be required to navigate barriers. They want to ask basic questions of faith, not be embroiled in never-ending control battles over church property and power.
As an entrepreneur myself, I know Dell pursues data-gathering, profiling and account systems for good business reasons. They just don’t happen to be my reasons as a customer. And I am the one buying the product.
As a pastor, I know why churches behave the way they do. But the same logic applies. A few care deeply about who wins the latest battle, but most aren’t interested, especially when the fight gets in their way. Few people will attend a church that is trapped in stale dispute or seems uninterested in their presence.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, consultant, and leader of workshops. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C.