Living in a market-based economy, we tend to think in terms of customer satisfaction. The utilitarian calculation about maximizing the greatest pleasure for the most people drives the economic engine of capitalism. Businesses become successful in a capitalist economy by figuring out what people want, then giving it to them.
There are any number of ways to do that, not least of which is the “customer survey.” I get untold number of solicitations to take surveys–via email, over the phones, walking in the mall, at the cash register in the restaurant.
Sometimes I’m even offered a premium in return (money, gift cards, to be put into a drawing for a chance at a new _____), so badly do companies want to know what I think.
Now, many of these surveys are merely trying to find out how I think the business is doing. Are they providing the service or product they advertise? Do I like the look, taste, texture, durability, hospitality for which I’ve paid?
I understand this kind of market research, and I think it’s probably in my best interest that businesses are trying to figure out how better to do what they do. If I consistently find toenails in my pot pie, the offending eatery presumably has a stake in possessing that information.
Being the kind of establishment that wants this information is a good thing for a business.
There are other kinds of market surveys, though, that seem to want me to tell the company who I think they should be. What should they be concentrating on? If I could pick from a list of core principles, which one do I think is most important?
This kind of market research I find troubling. My first thought is: “If you don’t know who you should be, why should I help you figure it out?”
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing who you are is important information to have. All I’m saying is that asking other people to give it to you is dangerous, and a possible signal that you should be doing something else.
The first kind of survey is designed to improve service, and is therefore almost always a good thing.
The second kind of survey is designed to provide identity, and, I would like to suggest, is a sign of organizational flailing.
Churches, in a market-based economy, are prone to imitating business practices. Surveys are no different. Churches often seek the kind of information found in surveys, whether formally or informally.
In the case of the first kind of survey–the “How are we doing?” survey–I think this kind of information can be extraordinarily helpful, something churches should want to know:
- Were you greeted when you came in the door?
- Did you find the signage sufficient?
- Was the nursery inviting?
- Do you prefer Charmin or Cottonelle in the bathrooms?
Or for Emergent communities:
- IPA or PBR?
In the case of the second kind of survey–the “Who do you think we should be?” survey–I think this demonstrates a lack of vision and purpose. It’s a sign of organizational flailing.
“Oh, come on! That doesn’t happen.”
Anytime you make decisions based not on who you are, but on who you think potential “customers” (in this case, that’s often code for, “young families”) want you to be, you’re turning over your most precious treasure (i.e., your identity) to the people who know the least about it.
“What kind of worship should we have?”
“No. I mean, if we want to grow, what kind of worship should we have?”
“You’re not understanding me. If we want to grow, should we try the whole praise teams and projectors thing? That huge church down the street does it, and the young people seem to like it.”
“What makes you think the young people like it?”
“Well, they have a lot of young people and they have that stuff. It doesn’t take a genius.”
“Actually, I’m not nearly so sure the young people like ‘that stuff’ so much, but whatever. I understand what you’re asking. You don’t understand what I’m answering.”
“Look. What form of worship best expresses the majesty of God and the rigors of following Jesus, while at the same time represents the sensibilities of the congregation? Do that well and people will show up—or they won’t. But worship isn’t something you do to attract people; it’s something you do because God deserves it.”
The point is: You can’t look to other people to define you. Figure out who you are, and then make sure you do it excellently.
Ask people how you can make what you do better.
Don’t ask people to tell you who you are.
Do the work of reflection. Then put a stake in the ground.
But remember: It’s a stake, not a weathervane.