What the Church Can Learn from the Age of Amazon

What the Church Can Learn from the Age of Amazon

I love business books. Not because I am in the business world. Nor because I have the 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 us within the church to know about and grow in.

Yet, while I love consuming business books, at the same time, I’ll admit that they sadden me somewhat. They sadden me because of their stories about 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. However, I wonder why we, as church members (the priesthood of all believers!), are sometimes unwilling to make the same unwavering commitments to our churches.

When I read about how vision and mission drive the direction of these companies and their leaders while, by contrast, I see so many churches shackled by tradition and sacred cows, I’m also saddened.

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 are content to remain where we’re at. We look for reasons not to read books, go to conferences, seek mentorship, or look for the best in the field from which to learn. So many of us are satisfied with the status quo! We sit in the pews week after week without calling our people to a greater purpose. I sometimes wonder if our members realize that there is more available!

These things sadden 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! I’d suggest that we can learn much from our counterparts in the business world. Each 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. As you probably know, Amazon is currently the largest retailer in the world. Can our church leaders learn from Amazon? Yes, I believe we can.

Here are nine concepts we would do well to consider as part of the 21st-century church:

1. The balance between the member and the not-yet member

Amazon’s passion is customer service. Ever vigilant about retaining their committed customers (think members), they are sometimes willing to sacrifice revenue 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 into their family—to create new fans of Amazon. They work to keep both goals in harmony with each other.

Many churches seem to struggle with the balance that Amazon has achieved. In the larger churches I’ve been a part of, we tend to focus on attracting new people while the already committed members silently slip out the back door without anyone noticing. We state that our membership in North America is 1.2 million members, yet we know that only half, if even that many, actually attend church on a regular basis. It’s unlikely that we’ll see an article on the cover of the Adventist Review titled “Seventh-day Adventist Membership Reaches 1.2 Million…But We Have No Idea Where 623,000 of Those Members Are.” Do we care more about the growth of the number than we do about the retention of those already in the fold?

On the other hand, I have worked at smaller churches that seem to enjoy their close-knit community so much that they don’t have a great desire to attract anyone new. After all, “new” has the potential to disrupt what already is, and for many, disruption 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 difficult to remember 30, 40, or even 75 names. 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 better off when both of these things are in balance.

2. Word-of-mouth evangelism

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and current Chairman of the Board, has admitted that his goal for the company is to one day eliminate the marketing department and grow simply by word of mouth. 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 must develop the same attitude. Amazon is committed to its customers because they believe 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 of “hard work is strategy.” If you want things to be different, you should work hard to be a part of the change you want to see.

The church needs to learn this instead of writing more letters and anonymous notes! Active involvement moves things in a positive direction! This applies to pastors too, not just members. We often spend too much time complaining about the leadership rather than working for positive change. I have found that most people will work hard if they see leaders working hard. Members and leaders committed to the growth of God’s kingdom pay greater attention to the ideas of these hard-working individuals. Remember, “complaining is not a strategy.”

4. Innovate, innovate, innovate

Human beings typically 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 are uncomfortable 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 to be a potential evil— a liberal compromise. When building the Amazon organization, Jeff Bezos said, “What is dangerous is not to evolve.”

5. Imitate what works

“We watch our competitors, learn from them. We see what they’re doing—things that are good for customers. We copy those things as much as we can,” Jeff Bezos has stated. Our churches are often too scared of imitating methodologies from those outside our movement. If something does not violate our theology and is working elsewhere, we should use it. In my ministry, we’ve incorporated many ideas that originated in a business book or a church growth book by an author from another denomination. This hasn’t watered down our theology at all! While we do not imitate theology, we should borrow some methodologies (within reason, of course). We also try to learn from our fellow Adventists—another area where I feel we have drastic deficiencies. Sharing, receiving, and implementing 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, no one gets to keep their job simply because they were there from the beginning. No one hangs on to their position because it will cause tension to replace them. And no one stays just because they are doing an adequate job. The vision is supreme, and if anyone does not want to run with the vision, then the vision moves on without them. Many churches find themselves hampered by someone who feels entitled to a position. Amazon has no irreplaceable individuals—not even Jeff Bezos, who recently stepped down from his role as the CEO. The church has only one irreplaceable person, and that is Jesus.

If the vision and mission of Jesus, “to seek and save the lost,” is not embraced and thoroughly pursued, it is time for a change. Any pastor, teacher, elder, or leader not on board with His vision should step aside. Please note that this does not mean everyone will see eye to eye. However, when we find alignment on vision and mission, we often see the minor issues melt away.

7. Take little steps every day to get better

Many churches have far too many programs and initiatives. I’ll include myself in that observation. One point that I appreciated in Stone’s book was the idea of incremental changes being made each day in pursuit of being the best we can be. It’s not the big moves, such as the introduction of the Kindle or Amazon Prime, that have pushed Amazon to the top, but the commitment to making a myriad of largely unseen daily 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, administrator, elder, Bible teacher, ministry leader, 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? It might revolutionize the church, perhaps more than any program or expensive initiative! To be clear, programs have their place, but I fear that far too many of us may be satisfied with them as the status quo.

8. It’s OK to be misunderstood

I would love for more of us 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. Would it not be better for us to be misunderstood than to be stuck in a rut? Now let me share one caveat: if everyone misunderstands you, do cannot 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!

Jeff Bezos charged Amazon 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).

This article by Pastor Chad Stuart was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Ministry Magazine.