One of our infamous family photos is of our son fishing in the parsonage toilet. Really. We love this picture (actually I love this picture, my wife has something of the opposite reaction). Our son ingeniously tied the string to the seat of the toilet, and was able to simulate reeling in a large fish from, well, a very small pond. The hilarity of the photo is that in addition to being gross, it is preposterous to expect to catch a fish in the wrong pond.
What if we do the same sort of fishing as churches?
I am not talking about where we do our witnessing, or even our mission focus as a church. There is plenty of literature about that to wade through and apply. Instead, I am wondering about our strategic investment of time and resources as churches. We work hard at defining what goals we will invest in—but do we assess who our goals pertain to? Let me explain.
In The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact[i], authors Chip and Dan Heath maintain that “We all have defining moments in our lives—meaningful experiences that stand out in our memory.” (2017, 4) The key is to refine what causes us to engage in peak, memorable experiences– and then to learn how we can offer that opportunity to others by shaping shared experiences (16). This is where the type of goal matters.
I fear that as churches, our goals almost exclusively aim to eliminate as many negative experiences as possible, without attention toward elevating the positives. The focus on the negatives is great. Afterall, there are plenty of places to turn to see that bad news is more powerful than good news in people’s memory (Baumeister, et. al. 2001, 362). For instance, if the sanctuary temperature is running at 54 degrees during a worship service, that is a pothole experience that needs to be corrected before the next week. A month later, the sanctuary temperature will be talked about a lot more than the music of that worship service. Yet, while fixing the “pits” of experiences are important, we cannot stop there. We should also be aiming for occasional peak experiences for people to remember as well (Heath 2017, 54). The key is not simply avoiding the negative, but to shape the positive in a way that outweighs the negative (Baumeister, et al. 2001, 362).
Let me unpack this some more. Many consumer-oriented companies expend 80% of their effort to eliminate negatives—in other words, to “improve the experience of seriously unhappy customers.” (Heath 2017, 58) That is an outstanding goal—to fill in the pits, but it misses the next step of investing to build a peak experience. The largest opportunity is not moving people from the grumpy pants category to lukewarm response status—the greatest opportunity is to provide a peak experience that moves people from lukewarm to pleased (59).[ii]
I am going to advocate that we give too much attention to the minor pot holes of church life. Let’s be honest, how many grumpy pants individuals in our churches are unsatisfied because of personal demeanor? On the other hand, how many people are lukewarm about their church experience because we have not invested in providing stretching discipleship opportunities? Sadly, we obsess about the negative comments and undercurrent, and completely overlook those “in the middle”.
There are two reasons to focus on the lukewarm category: 1) there are more lukewarmers than grumpy pantsers, and 2) there is a greater likelihood of lukewarmers entering into deeper engagement (Heath 2017, 59). Not only that, the lukewarm category is not a place to be smugly comfortable within (Revelation 3:14-22).
Who has not lamented about the commitment level of the members of their church? Might it be in part our own doing based on the expectations that we set? By focusing only on the disenchanted, we constantly try to make things as easy and comfortable as possible—where there are no expectations to rock the boat. Instead, there should be an emphasis on those with lukewarm commitment (Stark and Finke 2000, 48).
Our usual approach is to verbally give some passive-aggressive barbs about a lack of commitment. Something catchy like, “Young adults today just don’t prioritize church like we did.” That is a low, ineffective approach by the church—which wrongly attempts to take the blame off the church. Based on sociological research, the issue with commitment to the church is not primarily the change in desire of individuals, but the opportunities for costly discipleship commitment offered by the local church (Stark and Finke 168, 193, 223).
Let me say that again: the blame does not rest on “them” for not committing to our church, the blame rests on us for not offering a discipleship that is costly enough to provide true community. Churches should be offering peak experiences of discipleship that invite and encourage deeper experiences among the lukewarm that yield a deeper commitment to the community. We need to call one another to intentional living where we become disciples who make disciples in biblical community (Willis and Coe 2014, 25, 94, 95, 122, 123). As Rick Richardson maintains, “At the end of the day, the main problem with the church reaching new people, developing reproducers who advocate for faith and invite others into congregations, and then influencing communities for good is . . . the church!” (2019, 49, 8)
As churches, we become so self-conscious of the “cost” of biblical discipleship that we end up trying to undersell that cost to get people in the door of our church. In fact, we often make discipleship an optional endeavor as long as people attend worship fairly often (Willard 2004, 4). Sadly, this measure of discipleship means that we lose the rewards of a true discipleship community because we expect no commitment. The cost of nondiscipleship has a steeper net price tag to pay than the expensive, yet reward laden discipleship within biblical community (Willard 2004, 8-9).
It is imperative for us to not only deal with the pot holes of our church experiences. We also need to take a look at The Power of Moments that we shape. I would encourage you to take a look at this book by Heath and Heath, and grapple with ways that we can shape moments that elevate, provide insight, develop healthy pride, and develop connection (2017, 16).
Executive Director, Seventh Day Baptist General Conference of USA and Canada
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., and K.D. Vohs. 2001. “Bad is Stronger Than
Good.” Review of General Psychology 5: 323-370.
Heath, Chip and Dan Heath. 2017. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have
Extraordinary Impact. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hyken, Shep. 2016. “The State of the Customer Experience 2016.” Forbes. July 30, 2016.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2016/07/30/the-state-of-the-customer- experience-2016/#33b766152287. Accessed October 22, 2019.
Richardson, Rick. 2019. You Found Me: New Research on How Unchurched Nones,
Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open to Christian Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion.
Berkley: University of California Press.
Willard, Dallas. 2014. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on
Discipleship. New York: HarperCollins.
Willis, Dustin and Aaron Coe. 2014. Life on Mission: Joining the Everyday Mission of God.
Chicago: Moody Publishers.
[i] Thank you to my brother, John Greene, for connecting me with this interesting read.
[ii] Heath and Heath utilize survey work done by Forrester Research, Inc. In this study of businesses the measurement was based on the financial response of a customer. Moving someone from a customer satisfaction of 1-3 (grumpy pants) to a 4-6 (lukewarm) by eliminating negatives provides a bump in consumer spending. However, moving someone from a customer satisfaction of a 4 (lukewarm) to a 7 (happy) leads to a dramatic increase in purchases. The increase in value spent per person is further magnified by the fact that there are a lot more people in the 4-6 category to be moved up than in the 1-3 category. The end result in the assessment is that elevating the positives will yield 8.8 times more revenue than simply eliminating the negatives (Heath 2017, 59). It should be noted that based on the research by Forrester, Inc., the “happy” category does not create loyalty in and of itself. There must also be experiences where customers feel “valued, appreciated, and confident” (Hyken 2016). The research by Forrester, Inc. utilized by Heath and Heath was from: Parrish, Rick; Manning, Harley; Strohmenger, Roxana; Zoia, Gabriella; and Rachel Birrell. 2016. “The US Customer Experience Index.” Forrester.