If your youth ministry were a roadside stand, what would you sell?
If you were to think about the youth/student ministry of your church as a business, what would you consider to be your primary product or service? Would it be tangible merchandise or a subscription-style service? Who would be your target customer? How do you make your “merchandise” or “service” available? Are there “sales” goals to make? Where do you advertise? DO you advertise?
It seems sacrilegious to think of the ministry of the Gospel, Christ’s precious gift, in terms of merchandise to be moved or services to be rendered. We chafe at the very idea that His atoning work would ever be perverted into some kind of for-profit enterprise. Eternal salvation was purchased by His death on the cross and is offered to us as a free gift by faith. That’s the preeminent power of the Gospel—the very essence of Good News!
Would it seem equally sacrilegious to us if someone used the cherished opportunities afforded to us each week to present the astounding message of the Gospel in a haphazard, slipshod, or uninteresting way? Would we be just as offended to discover that the Spirit of God had moved on teenagers in our community to finally visit a church, only for them to be ignored or dismissed by the youth leader in charge? Or worse, that the message they heard was so intolerably boring or irrelevant that they vowed never to return to any church?
While the Gospel is not for sale, and our church is not a for-profit organization, there are many similarities between how the church wins the lost, and how the local coffee shop turns a profit. The Gospel is, of course, neither a product to be sold nor a service to be rendered, so the rules of commerce don’t equally apply to our efforts to share the Good News. However, it could be argued that they should definitely inform those efforts. The same principles that assist an entrepreneur in successfully selling a product can also help a struggling youth leader turn an otherwise dull, ordinary youth program into a vibrant, soul-winning station and an influential voice in the community.
Before you totally tune me out, allow me to make a case.
I made my first visit to Walt Disney World in February of 2013. My wife Mandy had visited the world-famous theme park as a child, and still had many wonderful memories from that trip. She was absolutely convinced I would love it, and that we’d make great family memories of our own. So, when my son Nate was old enough to really enjoy the characters, we took a short vacation over a long Valentines’ Day weekend and visited that famous Mouse and all his Clubhouse friends on their home-turf.
I’m probably not the first person you’ve ever heard say this, but I was awestruck from the moment I drove onto the Disney property. From the giant “Walt Disney World, Where Dreams Come True” sign that arches over the highway-entrance to the park, all the way down to the complimentary shampoo bottles in the hotel rooms that were shaped like Mickey Mouse, I was constantly amazed at the painstaking-attention given to every detail—each one designed to make my visit enjoyable. … And so much of our experience was filled with those “wow” kind of moments. The “tickets” to the park, for example, had arrived at our house in the mail several days before we left for Florida, but they were nothing like I expected. Not paper, or even plastic, but the tickets were actually armbands—each with our names imprinted on the underside—that would give us access to all the parks, our room in the resort, and even linked to our master account so that we could make purchases to our credit card with only a scan of our wrists. It was crazy!
Suffice it to say, I had a great experience at Walt Disney World, and so did my family. … and so do literally millions of other families each year at Walt Disney World properties around the world. Those kind of positive reviews are common-place among us—little wonder people call WDW “the happiest place on earth.” The cast, setting, and processes of Walt Disney World seek to “exceed [their] guests’ expectations by paying attention to every detail of the delivery of [their] products and services.” They’ve created a culture centered on customer service, and they’ve imprinted it on every product, service and experience they produce.
So, when a senior-pastor friend of mine recommended that I read a book about how Disney intentionally creates those moments of “practical magic,” and use it as a guide for ministry to first-time guests, I was intrigued. … Because when anyone mentions “customer service” to me, I don’t usually think first about my church, or my role as a pastor. I certainly don’t think of those who worship with us each week as customers. It seems so very sacrilegious, really, to think about the ministry of our church in those terms. However, I would have to acknowledge that we desire to present Christ with excellence at all of our worship-gatherings, and that while we have been graciously given the gifts of abundant and eternal life and earnestly desire to share it with the world, we often squander great opportunities to do so because we fail to recognize some practical, key truths relating to customer service. Quite simply, we often fail to serve those who courageously choose to visit us for the first time because we are much too focused on serving ourselves. “Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service” is a valuable tool in the hands of corporate professionals and ministry leaders because it enables us to see our organization through the eyes of those we’re trying to reach, and capitalize on the benefits of quality customer service.
Kinni’s text offered a great mix of business principles, training points, and interesting stories about Walt Disney and the genesis of his world-wide empire. Walt Disney’s prior negative experiences with taking his daughters to neglected carnivals and grubby theme-parks motivated him to build a place that was clean, inviting, and fun for the whole family. Kinni described Disney’s early commitment to customer service beginning with a shift in culture, a conscious decision to make every moment for every customer magical, and every experience memorable in the best possible ways. His commitment to entertain customers with excellence and painstaking attention to detail was propagated from the very top levels of leadership in the organization down to every entry-level position… and it has been perpetuated in that organization ever since.
Kinni outlined Disney’s approach to customer service in terms of identifying their target audience, defining their own terms of quality customer service, targeting the systems that deliver that service, and then integrating each of those components into a global operating system. Those four ongoing efforts make up what he calls the “Quality Service Compass,” and they are each founded on the singular service objective to “exceed every guests’ expectations.” The remainder of Kinni’s work was spent describing the infrastructure that undergirded those efforts, and the attitudes and philosophies that govern them. He spoke often about how cast members, settings, and processes are critical considerations in each of those efforts, and how important it is that they each actively contribute to the same goal. He also repeatedly observed how attention to detail in each of those components often makes the difference in customer loyalty and return visits.
It’s a pretty technical text. So long story short, what does Kinni’s observations about Disney’s customer service philosophy have to do with our church’s week-to-week youth ministry? How can I apply his business-principles in my ministry-setting?
Here are some of my thoughts about how the two seemingly disparate organizational models relate.
- We must learn as much as possible about our “customers.” My “customers” are students in grades 6-12, college students, and young adults. In my efforts to reach them with the Gospel of Christ, I must be able to interact with them in relevant ways. I need to understand their contexts and circumstances in order to demonstrate to them how the Word of God applies to their daily lives. It’s much akin to learning a new language—a cultural education and an individual familiarity with the students who regularly come and those who visit will give me an added advantage against the enemy of their souls.
- We must set a high standard of excellence for the overall experience for our “customers.” Perhaps this is the most exasperating truth outlined in the text. Kinni noted how Walt Disney not only had high expectations for customer service, but he also defined those expectations for every cast member in every department so that each park visitor would receive the same excellent experience every time. From a ministry perspective, we certainly believe that Christ gave His very best to fulfill the plan of salvation; how then can we ever be content to give less than our best to represent Him to the lost and dying souls in our community? When it comes to our youth ministry, I feel compelled to set a high-standard for how every visitor and member is served by our volunteers, and constantly enforce that standard—because the sacrificial gift given to me demands that I give my very best every time I share it.
- We must fine-tune every process that affects the delivery of our “product” for the highest quality. We’ve been called to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, to shepherd the flock of God entrusted to us, to teach others to obey all that He’s commanded them to do and be, and the list of scriptures could go on and on… but we also know what it’s like to get so caught up in the busy-ness of our day-to-day demands that our weekly programs end up less-than-excellent—whether it’s the music, the message, the ministry time, or all of the above. Yet, if we intend to offer our very best service unto Christ, while also delivering the least distracting, most meaningful experience possible to our students, we have to continually fine-tune our systems and processes to make sure we are consistently delivering high quality. Whether its’ our weekly small group meetings, our monthly or quarterly outings, the sermons we communicate, or the curricula we choose, it should all contribute to an excellent experience for our students.
- We must integrate each of these components to set an atmosphere of excellence. When we know whom we’re serving, when we define parameters for serving them with excellence, and when we evaluate and fine-tune our methods for success, excellence and efficiency, then our task is to integrate each of these pursuits towards a single result—to reach the least, the lost, and the unloved with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re not trying to sell a product, or even entertain people. We can’t effect a genuine life-change; only the power of the Holy Spirit can do that. Our job is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, to encourage the body to continue building the kingdom, and to encounter the risen Christ through worship, evangelism and discipleship. For us, quality service doesn’t simply mean better music, preaching, or decoration; it means paying attention to the details that facilitate that equipping, encouraging and encountering movement. You might say we expend tremendous effort to remove every single roadblock that might prevent someone from meeting with our risen Lord.
I know it’s a bit unorthodox to think about our ministry pursuits in these terms—we certainly are not kiosks and box-stores with inventory to peddle, nor can the Gospel be reduced to something like a mere product or service. However, we cannot ignore the tactics of our enemy who will not only package his product in the most appealing ways, but will also use every distraction and disillusionment at his disposal to deter a sinner from our Gospel message. Are you looking to reach more people for the Kingdom through your local church? Perhaps you might echo Disney’s invitation to Be Our Guest.
 Disney Institute with Theodore Kinni, Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service (New York: Disney Editions, 2011), 13.
 Ibid, 18-25.
Rev. Stephen Jones currently serves as the Pastor of Student Ministries at Whitnel Pentecostal Holiness Church in Lenoir, NC. In 2002, Stephen earned a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Christian Ministries from Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, GA. In 2008, he completed a Master’s of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Since 2002, Stephen’s full-time ministry to teenagers has spanned two IPHC Conferences, three IPHC churches, and numerous IPHC summer camps. Stephen currently occupies the Leadership and Skill Development Portfolio under the Student Ministries Advisory Team.