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Putting worship in perspective

One of my favorite newsletters, the Harvard Business Review, isn’t aimed at church leaders, but I find its “Management Tip of the Day” is often spot-on.

Take this recent tip: “To succeed in business you need to know what your customers really want.”

It sounds so simple — discern what the customer needs and provide it. Yet we know from experience that most enterprises take the opposite course.

They decide what they want to do — produce, sell, broadcast, stock on shelves, offer on Sunday — and then market hard. Some get lucky, most are mystified when no one buys.

Then they compound their failure by not asking why customers are shopping elsewhere. No discerning, no measuring — a formula for failure.

Church leaders often think they are exempt from such marketplace realities because they do know what is best for people. In mediating revealed truth, they deserve to speak first, listen later.

If this were prophetic witness, fine. Prophets need to say what people don’t necessarily want to hear. But our inward focus isn’t usually about prophecy. It’s about what we enjoy doing. We enjoy Sunday worship, we assume everyone should feel the same, so we just need to offer Sunday worship and make it as excellent as we can. That strategy, of course, is mainly about pleasing ourselves.

In asking people what they need and want, it’s hard not to get in our own way — for example, by phrasing our inquiry using terms we value, or steering people toward a range of options that we define.

HBR suggests asking “frontline employees,” such as customer service reps and salespeople, what they discern. Those are “outward-facing” people, as opposed to, say, accountants and production managers, who are inward-facing. Who within our church communities is truly outward-facing?

I can name a few: people engaged in mission projects, ministers who get outside and engage in the larger community, new constituents not yet fully remade as “insiders,” and vendors.

One argument for regional gatherings is that they intentionally include many outsiders, who are more likely to be in touch with what people like themselves are experiencing. So, too, with online ministries such as online classes. You don’t know who will show up or what questions and needs they will bring.

If we want to avoid replicating what we have — and thus repeating its consequences — we need to listen more carefully outside our walls. What we listen for isn’t approval or disapproval of what we currently offer. We listen for needs, yearnings, unresolved problems, stresses. We don’t listen for what we can fit into Sunday worship; we listen for how we can touch actual lives.

Or as Jesus told his disciples, go live with people out there; don’t wait for them to come in here.

Christians are called to serve in the world, not to gather in secluded places. When Jesus took his disciples to a “deserted place,” it was to give them respite from demanding ministries. What Jesus intended as “break time” has become, for many congregations, a primary reason for being.

The way forward isn’t to abandon worship but to place it in perspective, as what we do when striving to serve as Jesus served has worn us out.