by Eddie Pipkin

Image by mastrminda from Pixabay

I was checking off email a couple of weeks ago, and I clicked on an “IKEA Family” message, because I signed up a while back to be a part of the IKEA family, app and all, for the sole purpose of gaining access to a great discount on a major purchase.  I’ll be honest, when I opened the email, I was thinking about how I needed scroll to the bottom to unsubscribe from their marketing blurbs, but the reason I hadn’t done this before was that IKEA’s marketing emails are gorgeous; also compelling.  This one really hooked me.  It was titled “What’s Your Reason?” and it invited me to click through to a beautifully curated exploration of just what they could do in partnership with ME for the purpose of empowering ME to be a better ME.  I laughed out loud, wondering what it would be like if local churches could replicate a similar moment and follow through on it with style, enthusiasm, and creativity.

I don’t really mean for this blog to be a free IKEA commercial, but their well-tuned take on marketing is useful because everybody reading this knows the IKEA brand; we’ve all spent an afternoon following one of those infamous furniture assembly pictographs.  IKEA knows who they are as a company; they have a clear vision, and they are proud of their worldwide identity as purveyors of well-designed, affordable, put-it-together-yourself, functional furniture.  Their history as a company is a fascinating read, and they are now the largest furniture sales business on the planet.  They believe in their mission, and their key to staying relevant is by . . . staying relevant.  That means empowering the creative spirit that furthers their original principles, following innovative business practices to make that vision accessible and engaging to all, and listening to their customers to meet real and ever-changing needs as defined by those customers.

I am well aware that many ministry folks cringe at the suggestion of marketing what we do and thinking of congregation members as customers – I have been that person who flinches at that notion – but the last two sentences of the previous paragraph are a pretty great model for leading any institution boldly into the future, including a Gospel-infused institution.

“What’s Your Reason?” might seem a self-apparently answerable question for someone showing up to a church event, and the unusually large crowds we all just experienced for Easter Sunday are evidence that people put in an appearance on obvious occasions.  Perhaps a better question on the weekend after Easter and the many weeks that follow (Easter Season being, after all, the longest of the liturgical seasons) is “Now What’s Your Reason?”  People show up at our doors motivated by all sorts of priorities.  Whether they hang around or not depends on a plethora of interconnected factors.  How do we help them connect with their felt needs?

This is the part that intrigued me about the IKEA email.  It didn’t push me to buy a specific product like the Home Depot lawnmower ad I received the same day.  It didn’t try to sell me on having to have some gizmo without which my life would suddenly feel incomplete like the fancy waffle maker in the pop-up ad in the corner of my screen.  The IKEA email invited me to explore my vision for my own life as related to my home and furnishings – maybe they could help me more clearly articulate a design vision for my own space – maybe they could provide me with some critical components that I needed to bring that vision to life.

Here’s the ad copy from the email:

Need a reason to come by?

With our almost endless selection of home-improvement solutions, small accessories and everyday items, you’ll probably always find something you need at IKEA.

If you don’t believe us, come have a look for yourself…

Note that this short, but powerful script is substantially different from the flavor of text that makes up so much of the social media and email entries issued by most of our local ministries.  By and large, church web sites, emails, and social media posts continue to be bulletin boards for making announcements: “This is what’s happening.  Please come join us.”  Storytelling is far rarer, and creative, interactive engagement is the rarest form of all.  (Granted, it’s the hardest thing to do.  It has been a notable accomplishment for many local churches just to get current on their posts, much less routinely creative.)

But back to the IKEA email, I am cynical about marketing in general and skeptical that they had anything I needed – there’s certainly no place in my house currently for another piece of furniture – so I accepted the dare and clicked the tab and passed through the portal to a dazzling site of possibilities I hadn’t even considered.  Suddenly, I was inspired by the nature-embracing ideas for outdoor living spaces (maybe here was a pathway to my screened porch I hadn’t quite been able to figure out a unified design for).  Also, maybe they really did have a few cute kitchen organizing tools for my unwieldy countertop space.  Sure, it featured the latest sales and discount offers (the weekly announcements), but the part that appealed to me was the colorful exploratory options for the design problems that were on my mind.

Imagine if churches took this approach.  Rather than a one-size-fits-all list of opportunities, programs, and events, instead they might provide an interface that gave people a creative means to explore what was going on for them in the moment: “Feeling down, dejected, and at a dead end: try THIS or THIS”; “Struggling to be a better parent: why not explore THIS or THIS.”

Even developing such an interactive interface would be a great process for understanding more deeply what it is we are offering the community we serve and why what we are offering matters.  “Feeling stressed: join us for THIS; talk to THIS PERSON. They’re here for you.”

It’s a different way to think about organizing our public-facing resources.  It’s friendly, it’s inviting, it puts the emphasis on helping them meet their felt needs rather than the traditional emphasis of recruiting folks to be a part of our organizational priorities.

It is frankly a tiny sliver of people who ever walk through our doors thinking, “I’d like to be a more disciplined disciple!”  But there are lots of people who come to us stressed out, discouraged, joyless, and without direction or purpose in their lives.  The message of the Gospel and the spiritual disciplines offer great pathways to addressing those felt needs, but we’re not always great at helping people make the connections.

One of the innovative, interactive tools I most admire at the IKEA site is the menu of free design planning tools.  Anyone can access these tools; they’re fun to use and helpful for visualizing what you’d like to do with home spaces.  Imagine if a similar planning tool existed for your ministry.  People could visualize their own spiritual journey, their current starting place and their destination goals, the outcomes they’d like to see in the future and lots of options for how to achieve those outcomes.

I don’t even know of a real world example of such an interactive spiritual formation planning tool.  If you do, please send the link to all of us in the comments section.  There are many ways that a local church might facilitate such a process, such as providing a deep library of spiritual growth resources (available in the virtual world and the physical world), connection to a spiritual mentor or guide, a worksheet or questionnaire to establish goals and priorities, an animated brainstorming guide, or a seminar that is focused exclusively on this topic of developing your own customized spiritual formation plan.  (Most current versions of a spiritual formation journey guide as they currently exist in local churches are text-dense documents that look like college syllabi – inherently boring.)  We can do better!

How does your local ministry invite people to explore their own felt needs?  How are you offering interactive tools in helping people explore their own spiritual journey?  Share your ideas below.