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Do churches need a customer-focused revival to reverse decline?

July 5th, 2017

Donald C. Fisher believes that one day a technology company like Amazon could challenge the nation's churches for their flocks.

"A group like Amazon could come in and take over religious institutions," Fisher said. "You could be served religion at your home, on your electronic devices, whatever. It may change the way you worship God."

A long-term decline in the share of adults attending church, although less so in Tennessee and the Bible-Belt South, is evidence that many congregations are not customer-focused, he said. They are not embracing change and innovation to attract the next generation of churchgoers.

A quality journey for congregations?

For 25 years, Fisher has helped companies, governments, health care and other organizations around the globe follow the self-help steps that the nation's Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and quality award provide for pursuing world-class performance. 

His latest book, "Corporate Worship: A Baldrige-based Congregational Assessment for Religious Institutions," is the first manual tapping the Baldrige criteria to guide congregations of any denomination, said Fisher, chief executive of the Mid-South Quality Productivity Center.

"A church is a business, it's a business enterprise, and even though it's all about worshiping God and being focused on helping people lead good lives, it's still a business and you've got to keep your numbers up and you've got to keep your contributions up in order to pay the bills, in order to keep the thing viable and relevant as an organization," he said.

Declining attendance

Pew Research Center data for 2014 found that 36 percent of adults nationwide reported attending religious services at least once a week, slipping from 39 percent in 2007. However, Fisher said further research of actual attendance suggests the percentage may be far lower, about 15 percent.

In Tennessee, 51 percent of adults told Pew they attended religious services at least once a week in 2014, compared with 52 percent in 2007.

Christian faiths, accounting for about 70 percent of the nation's population, are losing ground to adults with no affiliation with organized religion. That's particularly a trend for the millennial generation that has surpassed Baby Boomers as the country's largest living generation, according to Pew. 

"And the competition is not other churches," Fisher said. The main competition is entertainment, including sporting events, as well as work schedules, family obligations and other priorities, he said.

Listening to the voice of the customers

Fisher's solution: Churches should be customer-focused, measuring the satisfaction of churchgoers, reaching out to their communities and honing an organization that can change to address diverse needs.

"You may think you understand the customer, but you may not because the customers are obviously changing because society has changed," Fisher said. "So most of the churches are not relevant for the 21st century, a lot of them have not changed with the times."

For the clergy, the topic isn't new.

Nashville-based Lifeway Christian Resources, for example, founded as part of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers a stream of advice, research and assessments. 

"Stated simply, the most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus," Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway, wrote for an article on a Lifeway Pastors websitelast August. Ministries, budgets, worship styles and service times are all geared only for members, instead of having an outward, community focus, wrote Rainer.

He's also author of "Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive."

Leaders of the United Methodist Church, which has several functions based in Nashville, in 2012 called for cultural change to stem declining U.S. membership, according to United Methodist News. A "Vital Congregations" initiative included goals and metrics. It triggered fear among clergy historically accustomed to fudging attendance numbers, the article reported.

In Memphis, Nathan L. Essex knows Fisher's work well and has been an elder for Hope Church. Fisher's center is a joint program of the Greater Memphis Chamber and Southwest Tennessee Community College. Essex was president at Southwest for 15 years, becoming president emeritus in 2015.

"I think all churches are experiencing declines in church attendance because we're so diverse," Essex said. "We need to be aware as best we can to meet the needs of everyone we service."

Fisher said his book provides a guide to begin the hard work of change, from examining leadership to strategic planning and focusing on members, staff, best practices and processes. 

Growth of multi-site and megachurches provide examples of the potential power of innovation, technology and the open-mindedness valued by millennials, he said.

"Stained glass institutions" that add upbeat music and segmented worship services, or promise diversity but don't produce it, remain in danger of becoming museum-like, as churches he visited in Europe seemed to be, Fisher said.

"You want to stay focused on the cross, stay focused on what you're all about, but it's not bad to be a quality institution that's focused on the cross," he said.

(The Commercial Appeal)

Click here to purchase the book. 

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