We’re working on a new website at St. John’s UMC, Aiken and getting feedback from a variety of people. What has stirred my thinking this morning is that most of these people are church members. This strikes me as a little odd because it confirms that our target audience is ourselves although we have been trying to ask “What if I were a new person to town…?” But, even the best intentions of trying to innovate our “branding” is a little iffy if we don’t ask the opinions of people without a “brand” – the “nones” who have no religious affiliation, the people who are struggling day-to-day to get by and have no clue that Jesus loves, forgives, heals, and reconciles.
I just finished reading a business genre book titled The Ice Cream Maker by Subir Chowdhury, a famous corporate consultant known for his expertise in helping companies achieve excellence. He suggests in his allegorical story of an ice cream manufacturer that quality is America’s missing ingredient for success. He has great ideas to help us all reach higher degrees of national, corporate, and personal excellence. Summed up, they are: Listening, Enriching, and Optimizing. The book jacket says, “Chowdhury illustrates what businesses must do to instill quality into our culture and into products and services we design, build, and market.”
So as we design a website, a new ministry building, and sanctuary renovations, too – plus the fall kick-off of small groups, Bible Studies, outreach ministries and the like, we must ask as much or more about QUALITY as we do about INNOVATION. If we’re answering questions that the culture isn’t asking we’re wasting time, effort, and breath. If we believe in the mantra, “If we build it, they will come,” it probably isn’t going to happen! Innovative ministries are a must but we have to be excellent, too!
As United Methodists I have often thought that our most excellent theological hallmark is sanctification: that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. This doctrine of holiness and excellence has inspired the Methodist Movement to seek changes individually and in society so that everything might reflect the Kingdom of God. Like the author of The Ice Cream Maker, we are a denomination that promotes quality, yet I’m afraid that our primary excellence has diminished into taking care of those who already know Jesus and not the ones who don’t. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian if my parents and home church had not discipled me, but if I hadn’t listened and responded to a Billy Graham Crusade on TV when I was an early teenager I know that I would have have ended up as a casualty of misplaced priorities, a nominal Christian at best or not at all.
What are we going to do to be more excellent? I think we need to start by asking the right questions. Who are the customers we need to listen to? What are our strengths that need enriching? How can we optimize and build on our successes? These are tough questions. Many of our churches act as if their customers are the folks already caught in the fish bowl. As a matter of fact, it’s what I do! I want to spend more time reaching those outside our congregation’s walls, but if I had to put percentages on my ministry I would have to admit that I am about 85% focused on sheep tending and 15% on outreach. I believe John Wesley’s percentages would have been the opposite. Sure, he spent a lot of time building small groups and infrastructure, but those groups were comprised of people new to the faith. You clean fish after they’re caught, not before. Most of our programs are directed at people who have already been caught instead of catching fish!
We’re not alone in this either. Look around at America in general, not just religious institutions. Innovation has been part of our country’s DNA but do we insure the slogan “Made in America” means best quality? Think about GM and all of its recent recalls. As a big fan of the show “Shark Tank,” I enjoy seeing how entrepreneurial the average American is. We think up ideas and create new products left and right, but as quickly as we have a new idea some person or company overseas either pilfers the idea through computer hacking or simply makes a copy and produces a better quality product so that the only way the US can stay ahead is by creating something new and the whole scenario gets repeated. Our only advantage is innovation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we not only were tops in new ideas but also in excellence?
Do you remember when cars made in Korea were almost a joke, and now Hyundai and Kia are both top of the line? Some are old enough to remember that a “Made in Japan” label on something meant it was inferior, yet most of us demand Japanese products today because of their exceptional quality. I wonder which countries that are lagging today will be tomorrow’s premier manufacturers. Doesn’t this sound familiar as we think about the mainline church and the UMC?
Mainline Protestantism cornered the market for 150 years in the US and has been losing “market share” to non-denominational churches and others for quite a while. They have copied Wesley’s small groups and discipling methods (Methodism), and can articulate our theology better than we can ourselves, but they do it all better than we do. They combine innovation and excellence, and I am convicted by it because this was our forte. That is who Methodists are by theology and definition, or at least who we used to be! I personally repent for my lopsided focus, and pledge to start asking and answering questions that are pertinent to everyone. We must offer Christ to the world in the most creative and excellent ways, or die a dead sect.