People love the familiar. We are creatures of habit, often taking the same routes to work, ordering familiar menu items, and sitting in the same seat — even when the room is vacant. We love product brands, because… well, that’s what we’ve always bought (and probably what Mom or Dad bought).
Conversely, there’s something exciting about new beginnings. People enjoy variety and novelty. We are attracted to things that appear fresh and new. And we often love a well-timed, pleasant surprise.
This behavioral dichotomy poses interesting problems for the institutions that we rely upon for all sorts of services. Marketers call these problems customer acquisition and retention, and both can be very costly. It is very expensive to hold onto a good customer, and it is estimated that capturing a new customer can cost up to thirty times as much. So it stands to reason that restaurants, movie theaters, and even churches would do well to pay attention to the preferences, needs and wants of their customers.
So let’s talk about dinner. New restaurants launch and fail at a staggering rate; that’s the free market at work. There are all sorts of logistical problems to overcome with founding and maintaining a new restaurant: finding a workable location; hiring and retaining cooks and waitstaff; menu planning; maintaining a supply of fresh ingredients – and not over-ordering or under-ordering inventory; advertising and marketing, as well as managing social media and print reviews; maintaining a smooth operating schedule. That’s probably just scratching the surface.
Anyway, let’s say that a restaurateur succeeds in bankrolling and launching her new venture, “Ravioli’s”. The location is desirable; the home-style Italian menu is delectable, and unique to the territory; the chefs and waitstaff are skilled, energetic and friendly; the grocery supply chain is running like a well-tuned Ferrari; and, from all reports, everyone that visits is thrilled with the experience and tells their friends. Success! Operations are smooth, the investors are happy, everyone is headed to heaven in a little rowboat.
Three years later…
Three-quarters of the waitstaff have graduated college and moved onto their new careers. The new staff have been on a seemingly endless turnstile, and only a couple have stuck. The sous chef everyone loves was poached by the local country club – for double the money. And, perhaps most importantly… there’s a brand new Asian bistro opening up on the opposite corner of the block; their facilities are freshly remodeled, the kitchen immaculate, and the buzz is that they’re offering a premium for new waitstaff. Across town, another Italian restaurant cropped up last year, and it’s getting harder (and more expensive) to keep popular ingredients in stock. After three years of continuous operations, this business owner is TIRED. A vacation sounds welcoming.
Six months, and one two-week vacation later…
Customers are starting to leave less than positive reviews on Yelp, and word seems to be getting around. The typically busy nights aren’t so busy anymore. One weekend, several families call to complain that they got food poisoning after having the Fettuccine Alfredo special. The following week, the health inspector decides to pay an extended visit. The new waitstaff apparently didn’t get very good knowledge transfer about deep-cleaning and disinfecting the kitchen… and the deep freeze isn’t quite freezing anymore (there’s another big repair bill). The new chef is threatening to walk, and the waitstaff are demoralized. This isn’t fun anymore. Nobody wants to work at this washed up restaurant, and the way the finances are going, no one is getting a raise anytime soon.
I could continue, but I think you know how the story goes. A few weeks later, “Ravioli’s” bites the dust. The free market rolls on.
At the Movies
We’ve had our dinner… now let’s head out to a movie! The entertainment industry has been going through a great deal of consolidation of late. A corporate behemoth smells a winner in a young production company, spends some cash, and gobbles it up (“We are the Corp. You WILL be assimilated.”). There is really no way for the Corp to lose – they’ve eliminated a competitor and simultaneously acquired a whole new portfolio of content. As for the sellers, a few entrepreneurial creatives get rich, their staff either get absorbed or outsourced, and the burden of growing the brand and pleasing the shareholders is now officially somebody else’s problem.
But here’s the rub. The sentiment of a whole tribe of faithful fans for their beloved characters… the familiar story arcs… their hopes and dreams… are now at the mercy of the Corp, whose concerns could not be more at odds. The execs at the parent company have one job: to exploit their newly-acquired vein of entertainment assets for all they’re worth. The investors have to see a return on this new acquisition, or they’ll get itchy.
So the Corp creative squad gets to work, slicing and dicing plotlines and developing sexy new spinoffs until they have a decade’s worth of production projects in the hopper. They put their talent scouts to work locating cheap new faces to populate the vast new universe they’re spinning up. Meanwhile, the marketing machine goes into overdrive, fostering licensing deals with toy manufacturers, and co-branding with fast-food restaurants, water parks, insurance agencies, ANY business with a pulse and the massive bankroll to further ingratiate the Corp‘s investors. You’re going to be hard-pressed to open your browser, turn on your TV, listen to the radio, open a magazine, throw away junk mail, or drive down a country backroad without seeing, hearing and practically smelling the new flood of content flowing your way from the Corp‘s media presence.
And what happens then? Well, it may not matter to some people… but to the superfans, the cosplayers, the devotees that wait with baited breath from one cliffhanger episode to the next, it matters. A lot. To them, it can mean that the jig is up, the story is over, and “the Corp will never get another dime of my hard-earned money.”
Sunday Morning Church
So we got sick at “Ravioli’s”, then spent Saturday night digesting a profane, half-baked Hollywood blockbuster that was a “prequel” to our once-favorite sci-fi series… maybe we can find some redemption at church? Lord, I hope so.
(Note: You’re going to see me refer to “church” or “local church,” and “the Church.” When I say church, I am referring to the local church, the physical gathering of a group of people to worship the Lord and introduce Jesus Christ to those that don’t yet know Him as their Lord and Savior. When I say “the Church,” I’m referring to the entire body of born-again Christian believers on planet earth, AKA the Bride of Christ.)
Ah, the local church. At once comforting, challenging, boring, thrilling, and oh-so-very un-comfortable.
Everyone at church has, or has had, big problems. They may feel empty and purposeless; they’ve lost their job; their spouse has left them or is threatening to; they’re struggling with illnesses, addictions, anger, trust issues, lust, greed, unfulfilled dreams; their kids are rebellious and disrespectful. All of the usual relational and financial issues, along with deeply personal, unmentionable concerns that would make Maury Povich blush. These folks come to church because they have an unction that the people there can offer a solution. What they may not be so aware of is that the Solution the church offers is a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But there’s often a problem: sometimes a church doesn’t make Jesus feel all that close or caring. The members understand that they need redemption, but they’re often quick to judge; they know they need mercy, but can be incredibly mean-spirited; they want authentic relationships, but they’re terrified to reveal themselves for fear of rejection. It can get pretty messy, and to the uninitiated (or the unwilling), it might seem to be a sham or a waste of time. I mean, if these people have all the answers, why are they so messed up?
Nonetheless, the Church is the only truly living thing on earth. Everyone and everything outside of the Church is, literally, going to hell. God didn’t provide a plan B. The Church is the exclusive answer to sharing what everyone needs, a relationship with Jesus Christ. And, damn it all, they just seem to keep botching it up.
But once in awhile, in spite of all the fumbling about, there is a moment of clarity. A special time where fear is washed away long enough for the love of Christ to shine. Hearts respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and new believers are born (again). That is what these hurting folks came looking for, even if they didn’t know how to ask.
This is where the parable of the sower comes into play:
- Some folks don’t get the message at all.
- Some receive the Good News with gladness, but get distracted by the cares of this world. But then…
- There are a few who are “good soil” – they receive the Good News and faithfully remain in it, flourish, and produce a fruitful harvest.
This mixture of outcomes perpetuates that comfortable/uncomfortable environment I mentioned before. Some folks happily participate in their Kingdom family, others are just trying to connect with their peers and feel like a part of something, and still others are put off by the lack of “real” people and never really connect at all. The dynamic of each church is deeply affected by all of this.
Unlike a restaurant or movie franchise, churches are motivated by an eternal purpose; they’re not profit-driven, they’re prophet-driven! While it’s true that no mission can be accomplished without enough physical resources, a church is more than the sum of its parts. Very often, when there is no tangible evidence for what could be holding a church together, the faith – and faithfulness – of its members creates something more real than any impressive edifice or burgeoning bankroll ever could.
Churches are also different from business ventures in the way they’re supported and grown. While restaurants and movie franchises can benefit from customer loyalty and word of mouth, their product and purpose cannot command the sort of heartfelt devotion that the local church can. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit that wells up in the corporate worship of a church inspires members to give of themselves in a way that no earthly calling ever could.
Unfortunately, in the United States, churches are faltering and failing at an alarming rate. You might guess that it’s caused by the usual people problems; humans have a long history of finding reasons to envy, strive, fight and divide themselves up into factions.
However, the main, root cause for church failure is much more intriguing: the church endeavors to be more welcoming and less offensive to newcomers. They do this by diluting the very Message that can resolve the big problems that led newcomers to visit in the first place!
How do these things relate?
I hope you’re still with me, because I did have a point when I started all this. Whether I still do will become clear as I attempt to wrap this up.
My point is, we’re all consumers, living in a material world full of go-getters trying to fulfill their dreams.
Allow me to explain:
- When I say “consumers,” I mean that we are generally concerned first with WIIFM (what’s in it for me). We use money, stuff, circumstances, other people, etc. to achieve our personal ends.
- When I say “material world,” I’m not paying homage to Madonna. I mean that we live in a world of finite resources, unequally divided among the population. The degree to which you can accept this reality and the personal responsibility that arrives with it will largely determine your position on the political spectrum… that’s another post for another day.
- When I say “go-getters,” I mean the sort of folks that own their slice of reality like a boss. These are the movers and shakers, the dreamers of day, the captains of their soul, the ones that will not go quietly into that good night. Depending upon their moral character, these could be ruthless, bitter, maniacal workaholics that lust for the smell of blood in the water, or generous, fun-loving, laid-back dreamers with hearts bigger than Alaska and smiles warmer than Hawaii. In any case, these folks are hungry, and unafraid of hard work and personal sacrifice. They accept challenges and hardships as the spice of life, and would feel lifeless without them.
- When I say “dreams,” I’m talking about all the little aspirations, as well as the big, hairy, audacious goals in life that cannot be accomplished without a whole lot of trial and error, luck, and the guts and wanton stubbornness to never quit. Dreams like building a great marriage; owning a flourishing business; buying a home; raising a strong family; achieving mastery and excellence in personal pursuits; becoming famous and in-demand for something; building a fantastic physique; traveling to far-off places; experiencing life among different cultures; collecting wonderful experiences and things that bring joy to the heart. Dreams are as various and sundry as the dreamers that pursue them.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets there. It’s a sad reality of life that not everyone gets to see their personal dreams come to fruition. This could happen for any number of reasons, or seemingly no reasons at all. Here are some possible causes for failure:
- It’s not our turn. Unfortunate circumstances, bad timing, or lack of preparation or resources can stall or eliminate our opportunity.
- We cave into pressure and sell ourselves short. To quote Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio”, “glittering prizes, and endless compromises / shatter the illusion of integrity.”
- We refuse to address the elephant in the room. You step on the scale… you balance the checkbook… you rifle through the pile of credit card bills and late notices… something gives you a big red flag that there’s a problem. And, it’s a solvable problem! But it hurts. It requires change. And we don’t like that.
So while it may not always be within your sphere of influence to fix that thing that’s standing between you and your aspirations… you do have choices. As does the restaurateur, the movie franchise, and the leadership of the church. Check it out:
- It may not be your turn today,
- you might have compromised today,
- staring down the elephant in the room might be intimidating today…
… but it ain’t over yet. And recognizing that setbacks are just building blocks for maturity… and pressure perfects patience and persistence… and half the battle is just naming the problem and claiming the responsibility… then it becomes easier to focus and forge ahead toward victory.
And finally, pay attention to the bottom line, whether it’s being the best Italian dish in town, the movie franchise that will live in the hearts of fans forever, or the church that ushers in the Kingdom one soul at a time. Novelty at the expense of quality is a losing proposition: Keep the main thing the main thing.