Killing Church Programs – What the Church Can Learn from Apple and Google

In your latest update to Apple’s free program, iTunes, Ping is gone. It’s disappeared. What is Ping?, you ask. (Well, you should be asking, What was Ping?) Ping was an attempt by Apple to get into the social media game by allowing people to easily share what songs they were listening to, liking, etc.

You know how people are always using Spotify or Pandora to share with you on Facebook the song that they’re listening to at the moment? Well, Apple was hoping that since over 300 million people use iTunes, they could get a piece of the action.

But it didn’t work. Ping had a low adoption rate — at least by Apple’s standards — so they killed the program. They didn’t keep it going for the millions of people who used it. They didn’t apologize. They just euthanized it and moved on.

Three years ago, I wrote a post about Google Wave as a Sermon Preparation Tool, and that post was picked up the next year by WorkingPreacher.org. Within months, Google killed Wave.

Google Wave was an online, real-time collaboration tool. I liked it, a lot, and I used it. But not enough people did. When asked about the death of Google Wave, CEO Eric Schmidt said,

We try thingsRemember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it’s absolutely okay to try something that’s very hard, have it not be successful, and take the learning from that.”

In my contribution to the (free!) ebook,  Renew 52: 50+ Ideas to Revitalize Your Congregation from Leaders Under 50, I argued that a significant reason for Facebook’s success is constant, incremental change. Unlike MySpace, which didn’t change anything for a long time and then changed everything, wholesale, all at once, Facebook is changing stuff all the time.

- Facebook doesn’t take a vote about whether you want them to change something.

- Facebook makes a change, explains it, and then sits back and listens to reactions.

The church needs to behave more like this. Some will argue that these are for-profit companies and they are attempting to please their investors. But the changes I’m talking about affect the user — who get to use these platforms for free. They’re not looking to please consumers, they’re looking to better the user interface.

So the church can learn a couple things from companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook:

- When programs don’t work, euthanize them.

- Socialize your users so that they expect constant change.

With these two simple but profound changes, I think that many American mainline churches could reverse their impending demise.

  • Curtis

    It is worth noting that Google Wave is dead in name only. Google still held onto all of the technology that went into Wave, and has integrated much of the collaboration features that were introduced in Wave into Google’s existing Google Docs service, recently renamed “Google Drive” (there goes that change thing again!). So while Wave does not exist, Google took many of the lessons learned from Wave and used them to improve their other products.

    In addition to learning to kill of programs, and socializing the church to expect change, a third lesson to draw from these companies is to not be shy to try out new programs. Innovation comes not from analyzing a problem until you have the perfect solution. Innovation comes by implementing ideas quickly, in ways that minimize cost and risk, then learning from the results. Some ideas may take off and blossom into full-fledged programs. Some ideas are duds and need to be euthanized quickly. But you will never know if you never try the idea in the first place.

  • Larry M.

    I can just imgine how tradition-driven churches like Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran would react to that.

    • Curtis

      I tend to agree. But I think the problem is not so much the “tradition-driven” nature of these churches. The problem is the church organizational structure. There is no room for innovation. Nothing can get done unless it is approved by the church council, the church staff, and the clergy. In the rare moments where rank-and-file members do burst out with an innovative idea, there is no mechanism to recognize the effort and foster the innovation. Instead, rank-and-file efforts, not matter how successful, are quickly overrun by the standing agendas of the church council, the church staff, and the clergy.

      A church would be well-served to organize an innovation committee that can grant some sort of license to rank-and-file members to try out new ideas, to recognize and support these efforts, and give these efforts some official standing in the church structure, as they come forward. Traditional organizational structures are bad at innovation; the structure needs to be officially opened up to give new ideas a recognized place at the table.

      • Rev. Cynthia Hallas

        In my church, which most would call “tradition-driven” (and I agree with Eric’s comment below about nostalgia, which is often mistaken for tradition), it’s often the clergy who are innovative while the so-called “rank and file” are resistant. It can take a very long time to help congregants understand that new ideas are not threatening – I know, I’ve been there and (finally!) done that. “Innovation committee” is an interesting idea.. Our bishop has been issuing what he calls “permission slips” for parishes who want to try new things, and that’s helped.

      • Bob Fisher

        Innovation committees? Permission slips? This is great stuff.

    • Eric

      I think we need to distinguish “tradition” from “nostalgia” [Bethany Stolle had a great piece on this on Adam Walker-Cleveland's blog last March]. If Protestant churches actually followed “tradition” they would be continually re-forming — doing exactly what Facebook, Google, and Apple do. But we hang on to nostalgia under the guise of tradition so that we can stay comfortable, and we keep programs that don’t work because more programs = a successful church. Doesn’t it?

      • Ken Ball

        Very good points. Certainly is some traditional churches like mine, I play a game when was this sermon first preached and its to easy to think when I open my eyes after these prayers, we will be back in the Victorian times!!. The danger is we can look back to golden periods of the Church and society when life was a lot simpler. There are also people who want to go back to the early church model and others like people in my stream who feel that the only model for the Church is what happened in the 1660s and everything else is not from God. Your point about nostalga and tradition is so well made. I do wonder if facebook with Christian groups for those of like minds, will be a more natural home for people in very traditional Churches facing pressure of conformity.

  • Tanya

    David Hayward once wrote an article about the problem with pastors with “vision.” The trouble he said, is that if you aren’t with the vision, you just get mowed down. You’re in the way. So instead, ministry should simply “tend the roots.” No other vision necessary.

    I’m not saying this is hands down the best answer to your post, but it has me wondering. Apple and Google could care less if grandma falls out when they change things — she wasn’t likely to make them a lot of money anyway. Money is their goal, and the method works, it creates brand loyalty among the coveted consumer demographic of what, 18-40? I suppose we have to ask just exactly what is our goal? Get those people out of the way who won’t conform — so we can . . . do what exactly? Have bigger churches?

    And of course I know how this looks on the ground — how the “we’ve never done it that way before” crowd keeps things from ever changing, and ties up resources in old programs that serve very few. But I’m just wondering if there isn’t another model out there that doesn’t leave bunches of people lying by the side of the road as so much refuse on our way to get somewhere.

    • Phil Miller

      I largely agree with this comment. How do we judge whether something is working in a church? For some things, it’s relatively easy. I’ve seen plenty of small group initiatives in different churches crash and burn. To be honest, many of them died before they made it off the runway.

      I guess I just don’t particularly like the idea of a pastor being a “vision caster” or always having to feel pressure to start new initiatives. I was a service a few months ago at a relatively new satellite church where the pastor of the larger church spoke. His message was all about fulfilling our dreams, seeings visions fulfilled, etc., but in the end I realized he hadn’t even mentioned Jesus once during the sermon. The sermon could have been easily been given at a Microsoft shareholder’s meeting. It seems to me that there has to be something inherently different in the way the church approaches life together than the way a Fortune 500 does it. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them, but I’m not sure I know what that is yet.

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  • Wayne

    Forgive my “dense-ness” but I’d like to hear more about “socialize your users” (church members). I try to keep up with the vernacular but I can’t say that I’ve heard that before.,

    • Curtis

      If you walked into worship on Sunday, and all of the furniture was re-arranged because the pastor wanted to try something different, how would your congregation respond? If they are socialized to expect constant change, they would say “cool, lets give it a try”. If not, they would say “I’m not coming back (and not giving any money) until you put things back where they belong”. That is the difference.

      • Phil Miller

        I would be irritated because re-arranging the furniture has nothing to with anything in most cases, but, hey, whatever. Also pews are a bitch to move…

        • http://cantleaveunsaid.wordpress.com/ Dave Buerstetta

          While I would say it is darn near indisputable that pews are a bitch to move, I have to strenuously object (yes, that’s how it works ;) to the idea that “furniture has nothing to do with anything.” Of course it does. The medium is the message. How we sit affects our experience. One needn’t go to church to understand this. Consider your experience at, say, a movie theater compared to a Caribou. Which one is designed for interaction and conversation? Which is designed for passively consuming content? If coffee shops had rows of chairs would we go there? If we did wouldn’t our experience of that coffee shops change dramatically? I think so.

          Seems to me that changing the furniture changes how we engage with each other and with whatever is being presented.

      • Tracy

        I just don’t think it is all about “socializing” our congregations. We’re talking about people, not computers we can program to behave in particular ways. Some people will freak out when the furniture is changed — maybe because everything else in their life is changing at that moment, and the church then concretizes their experience. What seems stupid to one congregant takes on great meaning to another. It is balancing these things, and bringing them to consciousness that is our task, I think.

        If we could “socialize” people out of their sin, somebody would have done that a long time ago. Turns out that takes a lifetime, and then some. And in the meantime, what are we going to do with each other?

        • Curtis

          You are right. Change is inevitable. Change is a process carried out in relationship between people. That process of change can be broken in two ways 1) when the relationships break down, as you describe, or 2) when any and all change is resisted. Both break-downs are a problem. Google, Facebook and Apple are examples of organizations that have been successful in the process of change. They manage to maintain healthy enough relationship among their users so that their users are tolerant of pretty aggressive changes, and continue to remain loyal to those companies.

  • http://chadmfarrand.com Chad Farrand

    YES!! I was just referring to this same idea just yesterday. So often, churches do “programs” simply because it is what most churches are offering. Churches spend so much time, money and resources to keep programs alive rather than killing them and actually innovate ways to cultivate their highest goals in new ways that speaks into their cultures. In 1997, Steve Jobs faced a Q&A shortly after returning to Apple. In his remarks, he threw out a challenge to developers (and competitors) to look at the spaces in the market that aren’t being touched and go after them. While discussing that, he specifically mentioned the need for computer companies to go to cloud based environments…in 1997. I sincerely believe we’re missing enormous opportunities simply because we choose to copy rather than to innovate.

  • john

    I’m sorry, did you just say “innovation committee?”
    I don’t think innovation needs to be a “innovate at all costs, no matter how many people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, as long as you innovate at all costs, no matter how many people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way” kind of proposition. Reforming the church does not equal authoritarian leadership. It should, however, mean leaders willing to make difficult decisions for the health of the body.

    • Curtis

      I know “innovation committee” sounds like an oxymoron. I thought so too. I’m just trying figure out how to legitimize innovation within the existing church structure.

      I think having a committee within an existing current church structure could give at-large members the freedom and permission to try new things without “innovate at all costs, no matter how many people you leave dead and bloodied along the way”.

      A committee could be arranged to give congregation innovators a place a the table, to recognize new ideas when they succeed, and to document and cleanly kill the ideas that don’t succeed, while still acknowledging the good work that was done so ideas that don’t pan out are not labeled as “failures”, and the stigma does not discourage the next person from trying something new.

      If the current bodies of power in a church do not give permission for innovation, it will never happen. An “innovation committee” might be a way to grant this permission within an existing church structure.

      • john

        You’re probably right… the key is “grant[ing] this permission WITHIN AN EXISTING CHURCH STRUCTURE.” If we’re going to remain within that existing structure (which I have chosen to do), then we need to find some creative ways to make that happen. And an “innovation committee” is probably a great start. The phrasing just struck me funny.

  • Ryan

    I wonder if God is concerned about being presented in the most trendy way, or if He worries about people not hearing the gospel if He is not offered with the right magnetic docking base.

    • Curtis

      God might not care. But people do. And that means something, even to God. Psalm 96:1

    • Curtis

      Printing the Bible on paper was trendy once, but certainly had an impact. I would like to think God was concerned about that.

  • Ryan

    There is nothing wrong with meeting people where they are at in life, but I think the modern church is caught up with appeasing everyone at the expense of truth. Psalm 96:1 is great and full of truth and love, so is the rest of Psalm 96 though it is much more “harsh”..In order to “protect” people, many churches leave out the hard verses and lessons in order to “modernize” the message. More and more I am seeing people who claim to be Christ followers have issues with certain parts of the Bible. Instead of struggling with God and learning God’s character( perfectly fine to do), they write it off as “some ancient text or idea”…I say, why be a Christ follower then.

  • http://http://winter60.blogspot.com/ Lausten North

    Reading this reminded of that commercial that came out during the Super Bowl right after the dotcom collapse. The monkey, representing some online trading company was walking through the rubble of all the other icons of the dotcom boom laying around in a desolate, smoking, post-apocalyptic landscape.

  • http://Livingthequestion.org Riley

    I dig it. Great idea. Wish churches did more of this!

  • http://Livingthequestion.org Riley

    Totally agree that the arrangement of furniture matters! If you’ve studied architecture you know that historically church arrangement has been very symbolic and communicated a message in itself. If you’ve been a teacher you know the way chairs or pods are arranged effects how people learn. If youve planned events you know arranging seats into groups effects how relationships form. If you’ve been to the Porch gathering our circular arrangement of folks on couches in the room demonstrates how we feel about a flat, democratic and comfortable church “structure ” where anyone can weigh in. Essentially we killed the “speecher/expert/boss in front, audience/receiver in back” structure program to try something different. And it both creates and reflects a different culture than most churches.

    • Phil Miller

      Actually, I did study architecture (well, architectural engineering). I don’t disagree that the furniture arrangement of a room makes difference, but I think it’s actually relatively little difference compared to the overall size and feel of the space. A huge auditorium is going to feel like a huge auditorium regardless of the how the chairs are arranged. So if that’s the type of space a pastor is dealing with, I don’t think rearranging chairs is going to matter much. Actually, the phrase “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic” comes to mind.

      I should say, that I’ve been to Solomon’s Porch probably half a dozen times or so. It’s like two miles from my house, actually. I do appreciate doing church in the round, but that in of itself doesn’t change the whole teaching dynamic all that much. Everyone knows who’s preaching still. I guess it makes asking and answering questions a bit easier.

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  • kristen

    I thought this was going to be about getting rid of church “programs” as we know them. I feel like a community of believers (especially the smaller ones like mine) should be so much a part of each other’s lives that they don’t need a church calender to know what’s going on in the life of the church, and they don’t need programs and scheduled gatherings to force themselves to hang out with their fellow parishioners.

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  • http://www.missionalshift.com Steve K.

    Good stuff, Tony. Of course, for most churches in order to be able to do both of those things, they would need to significantly alter the way they are structured/organized and how decisions are made. That’s where the real challenge lies — changing the bureaucracy so that the other things can follow. But you already know this … ;-)

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