From the Washington Post article, "Five Guys, Taking a Bigger Bite":
"You could get a cup of coffee your whole life from home or from 7-11, but now you're not happy unless you go to Starbucks," said Dan Rowe, chief executive of Fransmart, a Virginia consulting firm that helped launch the Five Guys franchises. "You could get a sandwich at a million places, including Subway, but people go to Panera Bread instead."
Rowe is hinting at a phenomenon called "trading up," which is typically thought to include purchases of high-priced goods. But there is trading up at the other end of the price chain, including fast food. "The tide raises all boats," he said. "If you have an environment where people are trading up, it affects everything from cars to clothes and even to food. Think about what a simple indulgence it is to trade going from McDonald's to Five Guys."
As I read this article the other day in the Washington Post, I couldn't help but wonder if the same mindset that applies to coffee and hamburgers doesn't have it's effects on the mindset of people searching for a new church home. In fact, I don't see how it couldn't.
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not writing from a perspective of "those people out there". I fully confess that I am a "trade upper" (when possible, that is). I like Starbucks (I'm in one now, as a matter of fact) over Folger's. I like Red Robin (can't afford it often, but I still prefer it…try the bacon guacamole one, you won't be sorry) better than Wendy's (which is a trade up itself from McDonald's & Burger King). I switched from Windows to Mac OSX (Bill, don't even start, you know in your heart of hearts it's a trade UP). Get the picture?
Now, back to churches. I see in the "church world" the same trend that is happening at Five Guy's and Starbucks. People want something better. Is that wrong? Well, no, not in and of itself. Shouldn't we want better? I guess the question comes down to what we look for that determines what "better" really is. And that's where I will, for a moment, put the magnifying glass to those of us involved in church leadership.
We know people are searching. We know that Christians desire something better. How do you intend to help them "trade up"? It is so easy, isn't it, to run to the bookstore and buy the latest flash-bang book full of answers on how to "grow a church lickety split"? Yet, for all the books you've read, for all the seminars you've attended, for all trendiness you've tried to cram into you're current church's model…what's it gotten you? You've tried, essentially, to "trade up" from within. Maybe you've bought better lighting, or installed Powerpoint, or juiced up the music…whatever. Maybe you've started 15 new programs designed to draw in new members or families, or to extol the value of your childrens programs….great. What are you really giving them in terms of "better"? Maybe you're even larger than before, numbers swelling quickly. But what have you given them that's better?
If I had come into the Starbucks this morning and instead of the really good blend (I gotta go back to the board and remember what this is, it's good) they'd given me the same old ground sawdust you get at the store, would I have considered that a real trade up? I mean, they've got great seats, nice lighting, the place smells like coffee heaven. But if they'd given me sawdust, it would have been lipstick on a pig.
Are the things you're doing to try to grow and get people to come to your congregation lipstick on a pig?
Ok, leaders…settle on that a bit and then we'll get back to the more general desire to trade up.
So I'm looking at my own satisfaction, or the lack thereof depending your case, and I'm thinking that church should be more….what? I hear that Church X has wonderful music, great teaching and expansive classes for every possible genre. They've got a coffee shop, a bookstore, marble tile in the bathrooms (been there, it's not a joke), and trams from the parking lot to the door. Is that "better"? I hear that Church Y is exploring a deep simplicity, stripping away all the "traditions of man" and all the pretense and all the lights, cameras, and action. Is that "better"? Yet another is embracing the use of the arts and drama, etc. Is that "better"?
I'd thought about writing about the answer to that, but I've changed my mind as I've let this subject live with me a week or so. I'm not going to answer it.
Instead, I don't really think the answer will be found by examining the churches' approaches to our desire to "trade up". That's something they have to examine for themselves. No, what we need to dive into is this: What do we really seek?
I love the ambience of Starbucks. It's not because it's trendy, I'm hardly a "trendy" sort of guy. I never have been. Rather, it's the content of the cup that draws me, and the community. I sometimes come just for the possibility of community. The ambience is, to me anyway, a very nice bonus. If all I sought was the ambience or decor, I could hang out at Pier One.
You caught that, right? It's the content of the cup and community. Content. Community.
Those two things are the real secrets to "trading up" in the realm of Christianity. It's not lights, it's not candles or Powerpoint, or a building at all. Those things can actually be good tools, or good distractions. It's the content of our message–the love of God, the hope of Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit, and the community of the Kingdom. Sometimes, we mistake the other things (good music, nice buildings, etc.) for being that for which we seek. That's why finding those things can bring enjoyment in the immediate, but emptiness in the long term. We mistook the ambience for the content, and our community was locked into a place, not a relationship that supersedes time and place.
We need to examine how we're feeding our appetite to "trade up". In truth, searching for/becoming a church that has "ambience" isn't going to nourish us. We should be searching for/becoming a church that serves a cup full of greater content–the full message of the Living Word in all its glory; and providing a real community–one based on our participation in the still unravelling story of God and man. Our community is not based on the building in which we meet on Sundays, or the age group of our Sunday School class or any of that "least common denominator" stuff. It is based on the fact we are all sharing a journey from death to life. Our story is not the stuff you read in trendy church brochures or on their websites. It's story of our hunger to "trade up" from drowning in the waves of our own sins, mistakes, and challenges to a life of hope, peace, and nourishment in Christ Jesus.
When we get that, the ambience will come. You know why Starbucks smells so nice? It's not because they use Yankee Candles or Glade or some other form of olfactory chemical warfare. No, it's because they make really good coffee. You looking to "trade up" churches? Look for the things that will last. Ignore the music. Ignore the lighting. Seek the best cup of faith. Seek a community of Christ-centered fellowship. Looking to be a trade up church? Put down the books, fads, and dvds. Teach the message of hope in Christ. Live the Kingdom life. Good lighting can really only do so much.