What the church can learn from the age of Amazon

Can the church learn anything from the business world about reaching more “customers”? Read it—from one of the best.

Chad Stuart, MDiv, is the senior pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Spencerville, Maryland, United States.

I love business books. Not because I am in the business world. Nor because I have a desire to be in the business world.

I love business books because I learn from them about leadership, organization, systems, vision, and management. These are all essential things for a pastor to know about and grow in.

Yet, while I love consuming business books, at the same time they sadden me. I am saddened because I read stories of men and women willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of their vision. They devote their money (most of the great companies had someone who invested their life savings in the beginning), time, thoughts, and energy to the business. Yet I wonder why all of us as pastors are not willing to do the same for our church or churches.

I am saddened because I read about how vision and mission drive the direction of these companies and their leaders while, at the same time, I see so many churches shackled by tradition and sacred cows.

Furthermore, I am saddened because I read about leaders constantly looking to grow, improve, and be the best in their field, but so many of us as pastors are content to remain at our current level. We do not read books, go to conferences, seek mentorship, or look for the best in the field so as to improve. So many of us are satisfied with the status quo. Even worse, so many churches allow us to be that way, or do not realize that they deserve better.

All of this saddens me because we serve a cause much more important than any secular enterprise. We have a power on our side much greater than any man-made method or model—the Holy Spirit. And we have a mission much more vital than money—the salvation of humanity!

We could learn much from our business world counterparts. Every time I read a business book, I gain new insights and am grateful for them. That was my experience with Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.1Amazon is currently the largest retailer in the world. Can church leaders learn from Amazon? Here are nine concepts I have gleaned for my ministry.

1.  Balance between the member and the not-yet member

Amazon’s passion is customer service. Vigilant about retaining their committed customers (think mem-bers), they are even willing to sacrifice revenue at times to avoid making the customer feel unappreciated or uncomfortable. Yet, they never take their eye off of their ultimate goal, which is to win other people to their family, to create new fans of Amazon. They work to keep both goals in harmony with each other.

I find that many churches struggle with the balance that Amazon has seemed to achieve. In the larger churches I have been a part of, I have found that we tend to focus on attracting new people, but the already committed members silently slip out the back door without anyone really noticing. We state that our member-ship in North America is 1.2 million members, yet we know that only half, if even that many, actually attend church on a consistent basis. We never see an article on the cover of the Adventist Review titled “Membership at 1.2Million . . . But We Have No Idea Where 623,000 of Those Members Are.” Do we care more about the growth of the number 1.2 million than its retention?

On the other hand, I have worked at smaller churches that seem to enjoy their close-knit community so much that they do not really have a great desire to attract new “customers.” The new disrupts what already is and, for many, to allow this is tantamount to apostasy. While they will not always emphasize their numbers, they will brag about how they know everyone’s name in the church. Of course, it is not hard to remember 30, 40, even 75 names. Obviously, I have seen large churches that are great at retention and small congregations that are highly successful at evangelism. But Amazon shows me how we are all better off when both are in balance.

2.  Word of mouth evangelism

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s goal is one day to be able to completely eliminate Amazon’s marketing department and just grow by word of mouth. In fact, he believes that the best evangelism—the best way for a company to grow—is when customers share their experiences with others through word of mouth.

The church needs to develop the same attitude. Amazon is commit-ted to their customers because of its belief that such people will become personal evangelists for the company. Our churches and church members need to embrace this same idea as the best form of evangelism. Bring a friend to the “store,” please!

3. Complaining is not a strategy, but hard work is

Nothing changes just because of complaining. If someone wants to transform situations, they should apply Amazon’s concept that “hard work is strategy.” If you want things to be different, you should work hard to be a part of what you want to see.

Oh, how the church needs to learn that instead of more letters and phone calls, more active involvement will move things in a positive direction! This applies to us pastors, not just our members. Far too often we spend so much time complaining about our bosses rather than really working for positive change. I have found that most people will, if they see pastors working hard and being committed to the growth of God’s kingdom, pay greater attention to the ideas of these hard-working individuals. “Complaining is not a strategy.”

4.  Innovate, innovate, innovate

Human beings normally fear change. But in the church, a far greater fear should be stagnancy. Without change, which comes from innovation, a stagnant church and then, eventually, a dead church will be the result. Innovation is not the creeping compromise that some think it is. Many were not comfortable with the innovations that H. M. S. Richards initiated decades ago through his radio ministry, the Voice of Prophecy. They had an overall fear of technology, especially the potential evils of associating with radio and, eventually, television. Yet even so-called conservative groups within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, such as Amazing Facts and 3ABN, are embracing, endorsing, and funding what was once thought a potential evil, liberal compromise. Jeff Bezos said, “What is dangerous is to not evolve.”

5. Imitate what works

“We watch our competitors, learn from them, see the things that they were doing good for customers and copy those things as much as we can,” Jeff Bezos has stated.2 Our churches are often far too scared of imitating methodologies from those outside our own movement. If something does not violate our theology and is clearly working elsewhere, we should grab it and run with it. In our church we have incorporated many an idea that came from a business book I have read or a church growth book by an author belonging to another denomination. In no way has this watered down our theology. While we do not imitate theology, we do borrow some methodologies (obviously within reason, of course). We also try to learn from our fellow Adventists—another area in which I feel we have drastic deficiencies as a church. Sharing, receiving, and implementing the best practices, even within Adventism, will help us accomplish more and grow.

6.  No one is more important than the vision

In Amazon’s culture, this means that no one gets to keep their job simply because they were there from the begin-ning. No one hangs on to their position because it is going to cause tension to replace them. And no one stays just because they are doing an adequate job. The vision reigns supreme, and if anyone does not want to run with the vision, then the vision will move on without them. Many a church finds itself hampered by someone who feels entitled to a position, entitled to be the roadblock to change. Amazon has only one irreplaceable individual—Jeff Bezos—maybe. The church has only one irreplaceable person, and that is Jesus.

Any pastor, any teacher, any administrator who does not charge ahead with the vision should be removed. And any elder, deacon, or church treasurer not on board with the vision should be willing to step aside. That does not mean that everyone will see eye to eye. But if the overall vision and mission of Jesus “to seek and save the lost” is not embraced and thoroughly pursued, then it is time for a change.

7.  Take little steps every day to get better

I think that many churches have far too many “major” initiatives. I will include myself in that observation. One point that I appreciated in Stone’s book was the idea of incremental changes being made daily to pursue the goal of being the best one can be. It has not been the big moves, such as the introduction of the Kindle or Amazon Prime, that have pushed Amazon to the top, but the daily unseen changes

that have enabled it to reach the retail mountaintop. Bezos demands of himself daily growth and expects nothing less of those around him. What would happen if every pastor, conference administrator, elder, Bible instructor, departmental director, teacher, and member said they want to learn one thing today that will help them to be a better witness for Jesus than they were yesterday? I think that would revolutionize the church, perhaps even more than initiatives such as “Let’s Talk,” “Compassion,” or even “Revival and Reformation.” These have their place, but I fear that far too many of us may be satisfied with the status quo.

8.  It is OK to be misunderstood

I would love for more of us as pastors to live by this principle. Far too many of us worry about what others, primarily our church members, think about us. We capitulate to the complainers, often afraid to step out for fear of losing our job or influence. Amazon has been misunderstood at the point of every major positive step they have ever taken. They are OK with that, content to be misunderstood rather than avoid being bold for their cause. Pastors, would it not be better for us to be misunderstood than to be stuck in a rut? Now let me share one caveat, pastors: if everyone misunderstands you, do not use this as an excuse. If you look around and realize no one is following, it is no longer about being misunderstood; it is, rather, about being a bad leader. But do not back down to the few. Run with the many even if it means being misunderstood.

9. “Make history!”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wants to “work hard, have fun, and make history.” The church is of no value if it  is not making history in our world, communities, and the individual lives of both our people and those we are reaching.

Stones’ back cover quotes Walter Isaacson as saying, “Jeff Bezos is one of the most visionary, focused, and tenacious innovators of our era.” Jesus Christ was the greatest visionary and innovator of the ages. When the history books are written and the book of life is opened, I hope we will be known as the tenacious pastoral innovators of our era. I hope it can be said of us, as was said of some pastoral visionaries of old, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6, NKJV).

1  Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (New York: Little, Brown andCompany, 2013).

 2  BusinessNews Publishing, Summary: “Amazon.com. Get Big Fast”: Review and Analysis of Spector’s Book (Troy, MI: Business Book Summaries, 2016), 27.

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Chad Stuart, MDiv, is the senior pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Spencerville, Maryland, United States.

August 2018

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