What the Church can Learn from Costco and Amazon: Continuous Improvement

by | Nov 12, 2018 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

One of the things I like about Costco is their return policy. I can return items that I don’t like, and they refund my money almost immediately. I don’t need to fill out a bunch of forms or argue with the manager over why I should get my money back. It’s a big reason why I shop there.

I think Amazon noticed this service and adapted accordingly. Not long ago, they partnered with Kohl’s department stores to be their agent for returns. Now, instead of transforming one’s dining room into a UPS store with boxes and packing tape, you just go to a Kohl’s and ask for a refund. I like it. I like it a lot.

But this isn’t a story about mass merchandising, which I could write about all day, it’s about the “work of improvement” verses the “work of creation.”

The example I just sited is clearly a work of improvement. Amazon noticed a flaw in their merchandising strategy that was dissuading customers from shopping on their website; well, at least slowing us down. Who likes to look for scissors and tape and print labels just to return something you don’t like? So, they found a workaround.

Amazon took a process they were doing well—selling products to customers online—and made an improvement so they could sell even more. While both Macy’s and Penney’s have closed in my neighborhood, Amazon seems to do be doing just fine.

Keeping Pace with the Spirit

I’d like to believe the work of improvement is something organizations like ours need to do only occasionally, at special moments when we sense a threat to our well-being. But that’s just not the case in today’s culture when most people or church goers have instant and continuous access to other alternatives. The work of improvement is the work organizations and churches must now do continuously merely to prevent from moving backwards. It’s like the treadmill at your gym. If you don’t keep up, the belt pushes you right off the back!


Do You Not Perceive it?

As I have written before, the key to spiritual leadership is first having eyes to perceive what God is doing. The prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it” (43:19). The first challenge for leaders, therefore, is always to stay attentive to what God is doing so they may “perceive” how best to lead their flocks.

Because we get so focused on the urgent, it is easy to miss the signs of a changed ministry context or, more perilously, to see the signs and ignore them, hoping they will go away. In this vein, vital congregations and presbyteries can learn something from the Amazons and Kohl’s of the world. Continuous learning must become the name of the game.

In a presbytery context where one’s mission is “cultivating vital congregations and partnerships,” it would make sense that a leader’s eyes are continuously scanning the horizon for how best to connect with people seeking spiritual community. And this is precisely why our presbytery invests so much in congregational assessment instruments that provide timely and accurate feedback on the quality of one’s spiritual community.

They are like dashboards on your car, except far more detailed than that. Instruments like Holy Cow! Consulting’s “Church Assessment Tool” give elders critical information on areas of their communal life that are doing great and those which could use improvement.

San Juan Capistrano’s Community Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Fred Swegles; Orange County Register/SCNG)

In a church context where the mission field is changing in constant and accelerating ways, it is imperative that the congregations invest heartily in the work of improvement. Better quality of gatherings, better direction from leaders, better hospitality, better ways of connecting with those who would find congregational life nurturing, are all desperately needed.

Don’t Go it Alone

That is why presbyteries like ours partner together with congregations like yours to give leaders the tools they need to make wise decisions on behalf of their flocks. The leaders of Canyon Hills Presbyterian Church and San Juan Community Presbyterian are the latest to benefit from Holy Cow’s process and would be happy to share with you what they have experienced.

But as I mentioned in my last article, the “work of improvement” is only one type of work the church is called to do. In every age, but especially in times of massive shifts in technology, culture, and values, the church is simultaneously called to the “work of creation.”

It doesn’t seem fair, I know. Just improving things seems hard enough, but the Lord to whom we bow has “all authority in heaven and on earth” and he commissions us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” which sometimes means among people completely different from ourselves.

The New Mission Field

As Gil Rendle points out in his brilliant article Waiting for God’s New Thing (which inspired this series), “One can argue that there are now at least two coexisting ‘species’ of followers of the Spirit…They may be described as… ‘the affiliated’… and ‘the unaffiliated.’”

Rendle notes the “affiliated” are people like you and me who believe that our way of doing church is a faithful expression of “being God’s community” not just in one neighborhood or city but throughout an entire nation. Furthermore, we understand our rules for credentialing and decision making as important aspects to who we are, and the institution of the denomination as preserving our connectional nature as well as the integrity of our faith.

In contrast, however, the “unaffiliated,” have little interest in congregations or denominations to nurture their spirituality. Rendle writes, “They avoid membership in favor of participation,” they “avoid institutions in favor of communities and movements.” As I understand Rendle’s comments, the “unaffiliated” may be highly responsive to the gospel, and even to Reformed theology, but for a variety of cultural reasons they choose to live out their spirituality with an emphasis on different ways of gathering, decision-making, and practices than the “affiliated.”

In other words, we could “improve” our way of doing church all day long, but even our improved version will fail to create the spiritual community the “unaffiliated” are seeking. Oh, and here’s the fun part, these “unaffiliated” folks are the fastest growing segment of American society when it comes to those seeking a deeper spiritual life. They are the mission field to which Jesus commissions us to “go.”

Creation on Tap

If “constant improvement” is the name of the game to reach people like us who are seeking congregational and institutions forms of spiritual community, then the “work of creation” is the work we must engage to reach our ever-expanding mission field. But alas, your attention is running out and my fingers are tired of typing.

I promised last month that I would address two forms of thinking, assumptions, and practices involved in two distinct types of work that church leaders are called to do, the “work of improvement” and the “work of creation.” Please consider this Installment #1 toward fulfilling my promise. I’ll address the “work of creation” next month, but for now I need to get to Kohl’s to return some stuff.

With you on the journey,