Thursday, August 25, 2011

Church Renewal Lessons From Restaurant Impossible

I watched an interesting new show last night on the Food Network called Restaurant Impossible.  In this reality show, experienced chef Robert Irvine takes failing restaurants that are on the verge of closing and does a one day makeover, discerning what is wrong and making the necessary changes to turn the restaurant around.  It hit me midway through the show that the problems this restaurateur was facing with his declining business were the same issues many of the declining churches face today.  I thought, wouldn’t it be great if churches could receive the same kind of evaluation and makeover.

In this episode, Chef Irvine's challenge was to revive The Dodge City Restaurant, a 30 year old "western" style steak house in Pennsylvania. The restaurant had not changed much in 30 years except to add more and more western memorabilia to the decor.  So the restaurant was cluttered, dingy, dreary and uninviting, in dire need of a makeover. But the owner/manager had such an emotional attachment to the decor and western memorabilia that he couldn't bring himself to remove anything, much to the chagrin of his wife.  You think many churches have the same issues?  I’ve walked into some that remind me of my grandmother’s house.  As I watched chef Irvine throw out loads of old, dust covered keepsakes and western relics, I was reminded of our mission trip to Denver last summer.

We had an opportunity to help a church outside the Denver area that had the same problem as the restaurant.  The church was not that old, perhaps about 30 years, and it had a nice, fairly modern facility, but the amount of stuff the church had accumulated inside was overwhelming.  I imagined that the staff felt obligated to use anything and everything that was donated to them so that the halls and rooms were packed with mismatched furniture and silk plants and flowers.  One small room that was used as a parlor had three sofas, a table and several chairs - so many pieces that you could hardly make it into the room.  Fortunately it so happened that we had two interior decorators on our mission team, one with a home restaging business.  We got permission to remove a lot of stuff and restage the halls and foyer.  We also painted some of the classrooms and gave the church a new, fresh look.  Thankfully the pastor gave us license to do the makeover and hopefully the church members appreciated the changes.  How many churches across America would benefit from such a simple makeover?

The second issue that was hurting the restaurant was the owner/manager's control and inability to delegate the work.  Doug had two cooks who had worked for him for most of the 30 years but he still controlled the kitchen and the creation of all the dishes.  He wanted it done a certain way and didn't trust his employees to do it right.  For example, Doug spent 20 hours a week cutting meat when any of his chefs could have done the job.  This took away time that he could spend managing the restaurant, empowering his team and training his cooks.  When the chefs were given the opportunity to create their own dishes, they proved that they could.  One commented, "if only I had more freedom in the kitchen, I could prove to Doug that I can cook".

It's no different in a lot of declining churches.  The pastor does not delegate duties that others can do, and in doing so fail to grow teams and provide the leadership the church needs.  They would rather do tasks that a volunteer could do because it is easier and gives a false sense of accomplishing something.  But by not equipping the saints for ministry, pastors rob others of the joy of ministering and miss opportunities to help others grow their faith and abilities.  The pastor's control of ministries actually does the opposite of what they intend to happen. It puts a governor on the church growth, numerically and spiritually.

The third major problem with the restaurant was the menu.  Doug's menu had way too many items.  Customers were handed 5 different menus with almost every kind of food you could think of.  This was a steak house but you could get anything from spaghetti to Mexican food.  Doug thought that the more dishes he offered, the more he could please his patrons.  But he had so many, none of the dishes were done well and the customers were so confused that it took them forever to read the menu.  Chef Irvine immediately pared down the menu to a few items that he empowered the longtime chefs to create. And wouldn't you know, they were very good and the customers loved them.

I've seen the same problem in many churches today.  You’ll even see small to moderate size churches with programs that many mega churches don’t offer.  The belief is that more programs attract more people.  But just like the extra large menu in the restaurant, a church that offers too long of a list of ministries and programs can overwhelm members.  You end up not doing anything very well.  The problem is that many programs you start become fixtures in the church which you have a difficult time ending whether they are done well or not.  Thom Rainer's book, Simple Church, gives great insight into how to overcome the over-programmed problem by simplifying your church, showing how less is better.  The principle is to focus on what you do well, what you feel called to do by God and less on trying to be and do all things for all people.

It was fascinating watching the transformation of a restaurant in one day. I know it's not feasible to revitalize a church in one day, but a dying church can have new life if the pastor and church leaders are willing to listen to outside consultants or coaches and be willing to change.  For the owner of The Dodge City Restaurant, his pride almost kept him from allowing the changes. But in the end, fortunately for Doug, his desperation overruled his pride.  How many pastors allow their pride to get in the way as they sit and watch their beloved church die?

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