Has Listening to Church Attenders Led to the Decline of the Church? (re-post)

In my lifetime, I have been involved in some really traditional and really innovative expressions of the local church.  The main difference between the two tended to be the area of focus.  Traditional churches focused on those who were coming.  More innovative churches tend to focus on who hasn’t yet come.

For example, as a church leader in a church plant in Seattle, I began to realize I was so desperate for people to show up that I allowed our vision to be hijacked by people who had left other churches to come to ours. I ended up compromising our vision for a church that reaches out to focusing on the needs of the ones who were coming.

Learning from Gary Irby (church planting strategist for Seattle) and then later Erwin McManus (lead pastor at Mosaic), I came to realize my mistake. As church leaders, we need to make decisions based on who is not here yet rather than on who has been here the longest.

This principle is true in business as well.  According to Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Professor, Author, & Innovation Expert:  “The Innovator’s Dilemma is about the failure of companies to stay atop their industries when they confront certain types of market and technological change. It’s not about the failure of simply any company, but of good companies…

It is about well-managed companies that have their competitive antennae up, listen astutely to their customers, invest aggressively in new technologies and yet still lose market dominance.”

So then, what is the solution?

According to Christensen we need to be willing to innovate to reach a new audience.  If not, our current audience will get older and pass away.  Ironically, they will also go to a new company willing to meet their needs better than we are.

I realize that the business world isn’t synonymous to ministry, but too often churchgoers do make decisions as if they are consumers rather than ministers.  For those of us who are church leaders, we have to make sure we avoid that same consumeristic trap.

For more notes on The Innovator’s Dilemma, send me an email at eric@gatewaychurch.com with “Innovator’s Dilemma Notes” in the subject.  I will also include you in future email newsletters which include free resources.

Showing 5 comments
  • Swodeck

    Eric, great article by the way.

    It’s an age old dilema when it comes to church marketing and strategy. Where is the line between effectiveness and compromise? I believe when it comes to the overall message of the church, there can be no compromise. We believe what we believe. However, when it comes to the perception and acceptance of the message…the universe is ours (creatively speaking). If a company sets out to sell, let say for example, toothbrushes…at the end of the day, whatever the toothbrush looks like or is packaged in, it must still be in fact a toothbrush.

    Creativity has been a rich part of church history. Whether in music, architecture, art, speaking style, and recently film. All these examples were useful for conveying a certain message to the community.

    The dilema today being that many church gatherings have began to compromise the message…and the product is slowing being less and less of the “toothbrush” it was intended to be.

    It is important to listen intently to your audience (target demographic), because knowing them will inevitably aide in communicating your message. The message is the same, but the packaging and delivery must change regularly to fit your audience. The goal though is not have people who become dependent on the ever changing packaging and grow to value to message no matter what it “looks” like. At some point, it doesn’t matter what the toothbrush is packaged in, as long as it works properly, you’ll buy it.

    My 2 cents.

  • GW "Rocky" Ivy

    Eric, I live in Austin, Texas where opportunities for creative ministry are limitless. We are involved in local theatre, performing in the many live music venues, Art showings, Gospel Brunches, Poetry Jams, Open Mics and more. Our building looks more like a coffee house than a traditional church and, because of our less than traditional manner, locally we are affectionately known as “Jazzicostals”.

    All that is to say, that while I am totally open to creative ministry, I am disturbed at how often the message committed to us has been watered down and, in some cases, abused. There are young Christians in our city who believe that the various translations of the bible [NIV, KJV, Etc.] actually present different truths. They argue that with so many “translations” of the Bible who can tell anymore what the original message was. This not only shows a great lack of knowledge but, more disturbingly, this rational takes away the absolutism of truth, making way for a variety of “spiritual” and social lifestyles. Both of which has made Austin famous.

    I saw a mural painted on a brick wall that read, “Ease my Tears and Tease my Ears”. Sadly that well fits this town that I love so much. It seems that too many Christians no longer know what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Even Praise is too often more entertainment than it is actual worship.

    I have walked with the Lord for thirty seven years and am somehow still considered “cool” by those younger than me. Young Christians have told me that they envy the fact that my eyes still fill with emotion when I share how Jesus saved me as a young musician. I tell them I love Him and am still passionate about my worship to Him. The message I preach isn’t one of “heaviness” or “legalism” but, it isn’t “God wants us all to be happy” either. We teach love, the fruit of the Spirit and, dare I say it, “denying and dying” or rather, “choosing and living”.

    Sadly, our culture despises sacrifice and anything that isn’t instantaneous gratification. Those not wanting to walk out the true message of Christ eventually say, “Ease my Tears and Tease my Ears”. In the absence of a significant move of the Holy Spirit Pastors, desperate for membership, may do things or preach a message that will at least keep the organization “functioning” even if it’s real ministry is lifeless.

    Irrelevant “churchianity” be gone! I really do believe in being culturally relevant. However, we need to stop trying so hard to “fit in” to our present culture and release Jesus to live His eternally relevant life and purpose through us. Jesus will draw all souls to Himself.

    “The people heard that He [Jesus] had come…So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and He preached the word to them.” Mark 2:1-3 NIV

  • John Williford

    This is really interesting- how do we communicate the message of Christ to those who’ve been with us for many years and those who haven’t yet stepped inside the church? You might think of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian church, in which he informs them that he has been feeding them “milk” instead of “solid food” because they weren’t ready for the real thing yet. Here is the dilemma, as those that are drinking milk and those eating food are sitting down at the same table! I think here that drinking milk might be akin to those first few months/years as a Christ follower. You accept Jesus into your heart and bam! Your life is suddenly colored and made alive in myriad different ways. It’s like receiving a BBQ smoker or something for Christmas- it’s all yours, you can use it and go ahead and smoke some meat…but you don’t know how yet. You read books, you google everything, and you impatiently wait for the meat to hit the internal temperature, and slowly you move into “solid food” where you’re not proficient at cooking meat. I would imagine that going to a BBQ where the person smoking doesn’t know how to cook meat would be very frustration and discouraging for the expert.

    The church is no different, and must be nimble enough to communicate between the two. Weekend worship for those seeking for the truth of Christ should be a staple, and deeper theological classes should be available as well. Even further, those that are deeper should teach those drinking milk! In doing so the leaders gain joy from participating in God’s growing of another, the students gain knowledge and information that spurs them towards Christ, and the church grows exponentially as a result.

  • Naomi Grether

    I want to see more POC leaders and more of a challenge for more POC leaders in US missions and real forgiveness and repentance in the church…..We seem to have lost the words I am sorry for justifications and replaced I forgive with walls we claim are boundaries and pretend are healthy…..

  • Matt

    I agree with what you put forth and also with some of the concerns of the previous commentators. Since we are called to make disciples of all nations, being culturally relevant is of high importance. The challenge is insuring that the Gospel itself doesn’t change, just presenting it in a fashion that will hit home with the current culture.

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