Building a Google-y Church
What does the experience of Google and businesses that have successfully used its model have to say to the church?
In his recent book What Would Google Do? Jeff Jarvis, journalist, blogger and New York University Graduate School of Journalism professor, provides his insights into how Google, the rapidly expanding search engine behemoth, has used the Internet to change the world of business. Jarvis offers a series of rules that flow from Google’s success that he thinks all businesses should follow if they wish to be successful today. He also shows how these rules would apply to traditional business settings. Jarvis’s rules resonate with shifts that are happening in all facets of our lives, whether we realize these changes or not; they also echo what we are learning through Gallup research on parishioner engagement.
Bringing Christ to people in ways that speak to them has been the task of believers throughout the centuries. Engaging people in Christ’s life in our time requires us as pastoral leaders to understand the ways in which people interact with institutions and organizations. We believe there is much to learn from the social sciences and effective business practices as we strive to evangelize.
Jarvis offers these eight rules for our consideration:
1. Customers are now in charge.
2. People will find each other anywhere, and that can work for you or against you.
3. Mass market is now dead; the new approach is mass niches.
4. The key skill to have is conversation, not marketing.
5. There is an economy of abundance; control of product or distribution is no longer key to success.
6. You must enable customers to collaborate with you.
7. Networks are essential, as are the platforms on which networks are built.
8. Openness is the key to success.
While applying rules formulated for business to church life might seem to feed into the power of the consumer-driven, consumer-dependent culture in which we live, we think it helps us to understand the tremendous shift that has occurred in people’s attitudes, of which we must be conscious. Speaking the gospel to people in our time and space will be effective only to the extent that our pastoral practices respond to the changing social climate to which Google’s success points.
So what would a Googley church look like?
While the church exists to evangelize, as Paul VI famously wrote in Evangelii nuntiandi, Evangelization in the Modern World, the primary delivery system used to evangelize is the parish, a bricks and mortar facility to which people come to pray and worship, gather as community, and to be cared for in times of need. Even if compassion and solicitude drive the ministry of most parishes, the ministry the parish offers is still often driven by what parish leaders want to or can provide, usually only at the physical parish plant, at a time the parish decides. In most Catholic parishes, the parishioners are definitely not in charge; in fact in most parishes the average parishioner has no real understanding of how decisions are made, or a clear means for offering input or voicing desires.
If Jarvis’s rules apply to the church, we would expect to find a decline in Mass attendance, reception of the sacraments, and participation in the life of the parish community as people go elsewhere to meet their needs. All recent studies of parish life report exactly such declining figures. Note that at the same time these numbers are declining, other studies suggest that people are just as spiritual as they have ever been. They are simply choosing not to participate actively in the church.
In a Googley church, pastoral ministry leaders will understand that they no longer control people’s source of spiritual nurture. If people stop believing that the Catholic Church and sacraments are their only source of spiritual nourishment, there are unlimited alternatives waiting for them. No matter how deeply we believe that the fullness of the faith resides within the Catholic Church, if we do not find ways to meet people where they are and draw them into the life of Christ through the Catholic community, many will seek to nourish their spiritual lives elsewhere. The challenge placed before us is to create a climate within the church in which people will be compelled to hear the message of Christ today.
If we want people to “buy” what we have to “sell” (the language of business doesn’t quite fit with what we do with church, but it is difficult to apply a business book to church life without also using its language), then we need to make sure that we always offer them a quality product (great music, deep prayer, traffic wardens in parking lots, programs that people want and are willing to attend). This will require a change of mindset from “here’s what we offer, take it or leave it” to thinking “what do people want and need and what are the most effective and efficient ways we can deliver it to them?” Notice this move from giving answers to asking questions. It will require us to hear from parishioners (our customers) before providing services, not telling parishioners what services they have to settle for.
In a Googley church, priests and other parish leaders are not the real decision makers—the parishioners are. Leaders still have command and control functions and knowledge of our theological and doctrinal system; they still make decisions, implement policy, and run programming, but those policies, decisions, and programming better reflect what parishioners want and need.
Take, for example, the situation in many dioceses of undertaking the difficult and necessary task of closing, merging, and clustering parishes. Currently, the dominant factor driving the decision-making process is the availability of clergy. Certainly, there is an absolute need for clergy in the sacramental life of the church.
Following Jarvis’s first rule, the starting questions could and likely should be, “What are the ministerial needs of the church in each geographic area of the diocese?” and “How might we best respond?” Answering these questions would require a great deal of time and effort in order to hear from many people throughout a diocese, but would immediately engage parishioners in the process. This is the time for dreaming broadly, not limiting ourselves by existing parish structures or ministerial availability. By being open-minded to people’s input we may arrive at new and different approaches for serving them. Eventually the questions of buildings, personnel, and finances will have to be addressed, but these would come after the listening sessions, not before.
When listening comes first, people feel that they are an active part of the process. They can live with the decision because they helped to make it.
We do not mean to suggest or imply that decision-making should be done by ballot. Final decisions still lie in the hands of the leadership. But by simply changing our attitudes about the role of parishioners in how decisions are made, we change the criteria we use to make these decisions, which in turn may lead to different decisions: when we ask different questions, we get different answers.
Jarvis suggests that companies hire employees to monitor the Internet to see what people are saying about the company, and then immediately respond to complaints and do whatever it takes to resolve the matter. We would encourage each parish and diocese to set up an easy way for people’s comments to be heard directly. Every parish, region, or diocese could launch a promotional campaign to let people know that their thoughts, feelings, advice, and concerns—positive and negative—are welcomed and wanted. The bishop or pastor could respond to concerns on a blog or in the diocesan newspaper, explain what has been heard, and express how these issues are being addressed. This is a time for humility, not for telling people they are wrong. Let parishioners know that their comments are taken seriously.
Jarvis argues that every unhappy customer will generate many other unhappy customers, and every happy customer will generate many other happy ones. The same holds true for parishioners. The research done by the Gallup Organization tells us that people are more likely to be spiritually committed when they feel a deep sense of belonging, what the researchers call engagement. Their commitment is shown in the outcomes of inviting, serving, giving, and experiencing life satisfaction. In fact, a significant percent of those who are engaged say they have invited someone to something at their parish in the last month. Not surprisingly, those who feel that the parish is an important part of their lives are likely to bring others to the parish—to advertise the parish. Engagement can be measured, and it can be improved. The Googley church would capitalize on this knowledge and adjust its practices accordingly.
The Googley church would comprise many small groups—Jarvis calls these mass niches—rather than a large parish (a mass market). His observations echo what we have learned over the past fifty years concerning small Christian communities. Jarvis posits that natural communities abound and that all Google does is provide them with the tools they need to congregate quickly around their own common interests.
As the geographic and parishioner size of parishes becomes larger because of mergers and clusters, the need to form people into smaller ministerial communities becomes more urgent. Keep in mind that the average size of most Protestant churches in the USA is 200 individual members (not families). This suggests that one minister can effectively care for only this number of people at any one time.
In a Googley church, we would find ways for ministerial communities of 200 or so adults to organize themselves through the church’s platform around common interests or geography. Such groupings already take place in various men’s and women’s groups, with senior citizens, and with divorced and separated members. We could simply expand this idea to encourage people to organize around other naturally occurring likes or dislikes. Why couldn’t there be a Sunday morning golfers’ group following Saturday Mass or one for new parents or for the recently married? Parish leadership would not control these groups or determine their membership, but would still pay close attention to them, attempt to understand why these natural groups have formed, and then provide ministerial support to them in this setting. Perhaps in larger parishes that now have staff members devoted to shaping life within the confines of the parish property, a staff member might instead be devoted to supporting the smaller ministerial communities that meet in the homes of parishioners and local coffee shops. This is how mega-churches such as Saddleback keep people connected to their larger community; we can benefit from their experience.
As is true with all small group efforts, special attention is needed to engage these ministerial communities into the life of the larger faith community, but that can be done through regular celebrations and inter-community events.
In the Googley church, leaders would be keenly aware of using the tools of the day to foster communication within the community and beyond it. Following Jarvis’s advice for business, start a pastoral council blog to let people know what’s happening in your parish or diocese. Encourage parishioners to share their experience on their blogs. Develop (and frequently update) ministry-centric Web pages that are designed according to search-engine optional protocols so that people can easily find and search these pages when they are looking for Christian parenting tips (for example) on the Web.
According to Jarvis, the easier your site is to find, the more hits your site will get, and the higher your site will rise on Google’s search results. The higher you are on Google, the more people will seek out your site, creating a circle of growth. Openness is important here. We must be willing to deal openly with people’s negative comments. Don’t be defensive or try to hide: let the masses (our parishioners) respond to criticism or comments—but quickly fix any problems.
The Googley church draws upon the gifts of all in the parish, recognizing that people have a need to give. We recognize this simply as good stewardship; Jarvis calls it a gift economy and points to sites such as Wikipedia as evidence that people want to offer their wisdom and insights, and will do so freely. The engagement research tells us that people are thirty-eight times more likely to be engaged than actively disengaged when they believe their parishes are places in which they can do what they do best. The Googley church would intentionally draw upon the abundance that is already in our midst, given to us by our ever-generous God.
Parishes and dioceses need ways to link all of their members together so that a free flow of ideas can happen. Networks could be created within and among parishes. Imagine having the ministerial communities linking together within and among parishes, working together for the benefit of all. Imagine how such a network would strengthen relationships with the church and with fellow Catholics.
These ideas are not new. They reflect how the parish church was once the pivot point around which a community formed and life flowed. Today the parish is no longer the center of life for most Catholics. Communities already exist; we just need to provide the means for them to gather. The parish provides the platform (in Jarvis’s language) for this gathering.
Jarvis argues that closed systems are doomed to fail; that the more open you are to hearing and learning from others, the stronger your relationships with people will become and the better your business will do. While openness doesn’t mean the public airing of secrets, it would suggest that fewer things be kept hidden. An open attitude would go a long way toward addressing people’s negative attitudes toward the church. A lack of transparency turns people off, makes them angry, and leads to their disengagement from parish life. This is a shame. A movement toward listening more closely with parishioners and better communication between the parish council, the pastor, and the parish staff would be a good step in the right direction. According to Jarvis’s laws, our very survival as a church depends on our ability to become more open.
The Internet and the search capability provided by Google and other search engines are changing the way we connect with people, changing the way that people use information, and changing the way people think about relationships. Such changes are affecting the way that people think and act, shop, do business, and even commune with their God. Catholic Christianity has always expanded and grown when it adapts to address the changes present within a culture. This time should be no different.
We don’t consider Jarvis’s rules to be sacred or unchanging, but they do provide a valuable tool to help us rethink how we are to be church in the twenty-first century.
If you are interested in continuing this conversation, we invite you to join us at thegeneroushearttalk.blogspot.com. We look forward to your help in shaping our thinking and creating more effective ways to proclaim the good news today.