By Jack Wilkie
We’re all well-trained as customers. We are constantly evaluating products, brands, and advertisements to decide which ones are worthy of our time and money. That mindset serves us well when it comes to buying products or services, but it’s the antithesis of what church membership should look like.
Unfortunately, a customer mentality of the church may very well be the prevailing mentality in many congregations today. Let’s take a look at three reasons why customer Christianity is wrong, and three ways church leaders can avoid developing customers in the congregations they serve.
Customers aren’t loyal
The days of life-long brand loyalty are over. With so much competition, if another company offers a better product at a better value, we switch. Customers have no investment into a company, and therefore they have no reason to be loyal. The same goes for people who come to church as customers. They say things like, “I’m just not getting enough out of this,” or “I like the preaching and singing better somewhere else,” or “I want to go somewhere different for my kids.” Thus, church hopping and church shopping are incredibly common these days. The customer mindset
Customers get their way – or else
“The customer is always right,” the old business saying goes. Because of this, customers know they have leverage. When things aren’t as they like, some people complain until they get their way. They threaten to take their business elsewhere. In the age of social media, they might even write a review to complain to others about the company.
Customer Christians do essentially the same thing. It might be that they don’t like the song selection, that the sermon was too long, that the proverbial carpet color of their choice wasn’t chosen, or that they weren’t specifically catered to in some way. So they complain, cause division through rumors and gossip, and threaten to leave, because the customer is always right. After all, they contribute and add to the church’s attendance numbers, in essence saying, “I don’t need you, you need me.”
True members know that Christianity can’t be separated from Christ’s serving heart and His self-denial out of love for others. They may offer an opinion or make a suggestion from time to time, but they don’t complain, spread rumors, gossip, demand that they get their way, or threaten to leave. Instead, they look for ways they can serve others more and don’t worry about getting their way. They diligently practice the command to “consider others more important than themselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Customers have to be drawn in
Advertising is a trillions of dollars per year industry. Companies compete with each other for customers in every field of business. They promote their superior product, their better prices, or whatever else might get someone to bite. In the age of the seeker-sensitive movement, churches do the same thing. We do what we can to get people in the door, and once they’re in there we try to give them an experience that makes them want to stay.
Depending on the church, maybe it’s the preaching that they count on to get people to come back. Maybe it’s the worship. Maybe it’s the youth program. Maybe it’s the building. Maybe it’s all of these things combined. And if people decide that’s where they want to go, then we’ve successfully sold them on our “product.”
True Christians go to church with a purpose. They go to church to worship God and be connected relationally with people they can serve and people who will walk with them in the Christian life. Customers go to the person who makes the best bid for their attendance.
On an individual level, we all should strive to be members rather than customers. But what about on the level of the church as a whole? How do we avoid building the customer mindset in a church? What determines if a church has customers or members?
The leadership will set the tone.
Leadership must have vision and purpose
If “get people to come to church” is the goal, then the pews will be packed with a customer mindset. If we ask ourselves, “Which would I rather start with – 20 dedicated Christians or 200 customers?” and see how we answer that with our actions like our outreach strategies and the way we organize our church, it will tell us what our purpose truly is. Getting people in the door and getting our numbers up cannot be our end goal. Yes, we all want more people to be there each Sunday, but if we aren’t making each person who enters the church building into mature, Christ-emulating disciples who serve others (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12), we will just create more customers.
If leadership has no vision for the growth of the church and allows customer types to drive the church by reacting to their every complaint or demand, then a customer mindset will reign. If leadership lets people hold the church hostage by threatening to leave or withdraw their contributions, a lack of faith exists there that renders the church little different from any common business, and the customers will drive the church rather than God.
Leadership must be intentional about choosing their methods for growth
“What you win them with is what you win them to” is a principle that must govern our methods of church growth. If we win people to the church and not Jesus, it’s a problem. If we win them by attracting them with fun events, entertaining preaching, or anything but the Gospel and a desire to worship and serve God, it’s very hard to keep them engaged by continuing to do anything other than that which brought them in.
In true customer fashion, they will know that other churches are working to offer the same things to attract them, and if we fall behind they have other options just a short drive away. But if we bring people in by introducing them to Jesus and connecting them to His family, then we have truly won them.
Leadership must be intent on equipping every member for service
When you walk into a restaurant as a customer, nobody asks you to wait tables or wash dishes. When you’re at home, though, you probably have some role in preparing, serving, and/or cleaning up for dinner. If leaders bring members in and let them simply be customers who consume worship services and Bible classes but aren’t given a place to serve, they will have a customer-based church and all of the problems that come with it.
Ephesians 4:11-13 shows us that leadership roles like elders, teachers, and evangelists were created for equipping and building up the rest of the members for service. We are to show people how to serve rather than doing all of the serving for them. If those leaders don’t work to equip members for service, then a vicious cycle is created where the leadership treats the members as customers, leading the members to act like customers, leading the leadership to treat them as customers all the more.
There is nothing more sacred here on earth than the church. It is so important to our Savior that it is called His bride (Ephesians 5). It is the church that will live on with Him eternally. That sacredness should lead us to treat the church with the utmost reverence, both as members and leaders.
Customers can’t do that. Customers view the church as something that is there for them to engage with on their own terms and to their own liking. Members appreciate Jesus and His sacrifice too much to do that. Which one will you and I be? Which ones are we creating in our churches?
Jack Wilkie is the editor of focuspress.org and author of “Church Reset: God’s Design for So Much More.” He also preaches for the Forney church of Christ in Forney, TX, where he, his wife, Allison, reside with their four children. You can find his full bio here.