What Would Google Do?
Some say that the invention of Google has changed society in our day like the invention of electricity or the automobile changed society in the past. So powerful is the effect of Google and other similar "search engines" that in just a few years this technology has rendered several businesses and business models nearly obsolete. For example:
- Online search engines have killed the classified ads sections of newspapers across America. Why pay for an ad to sell your car or baby stroller when you can list it for free on internet sites like Craig's list?
- Why go to a bookstore to buy a book when you can see it and have it delivered from a website. Better still, why not read your favorite best-seller on an E-book for half the price? These digital books can then be read and stored on your phone or tablet and read anywhere and at any time. 2010 marked the year when there were more E-books sold than actual paper books sold (first time in history). This is why major bookstores are near bankruptcy and closing many of their stores.
- Department stores, legal services, computer manufacturers, universities — every sector of our society has been impacted by the internet age. At Oklahoma Christian University incoming students are provided a laptop computer and an iPhone when they begin classes, and they take notes, communicate with their teachers, do research and produce most of their assignments with these tools.
This is the new reality. When things change so radically and quickly, old systems come crashing down and new models emerge, and no company or service has better adapted and exploited, even led the changes that are taking place than Google. Their business model (the way they deal with their employees and customers) is setting the framework for how other businesses and institutions need to operate in this computer age in order to remain viable and to succeed. It is no wonder that one of the more popular books in recent years has been "What Would Google Do?" by Jeff Jarvis (Harper Business 2011).
I do not believe that the author was trying to be offensive to Christians when he took this title from the popular "What Would Jesus Do" idea. His point is that in the same way that Christians look to Jesus as the guide for successful Christian living, businesses and institutions should now look to Google for the guidance they need to successfully navigate a new world dominated by the internet and the changes that it has brought upon society. Changes, I might add, that also affect how the church operates as well.
The church is the spiritual body of Christ, but it is also an organization operated by human beings in a world populated by human beings. We have guidelines from the New Testament on how to establish and organize the church, but much of the day-to-day function of the church God has wisely left to the discretion and judgement of its leaders and members. I say "wisely" because God knew that the church would have to function in different ages, cultures, and societies — each with its particular technology and social customs.
In the last 125 years or so our society has gone from being predominately an agrarian (farming) society in the early 1900's; to a manufacturing society in the 1930's; to a service society in the 1960's; to an information/computer age in the 1990's; moving towards an artificial intelligence age in this millennium — where over 40% of jobs are in the information technology sector and only 1% are in agriculture. Through all of this change, the church has had to adapt (not its doctrine or its love for others) but in the way it does things. For example:
- The congregation where I serve in Oklahoma City was formed as a result of a two week gospel meeting in the 1930's. We could not have a 14 day gospel meeting in today's society.
- In the 50's-60's, many churches supported one national radio program to preach and teach to thousands of people across America. Today each congregation can stream their services live on the internet for viewing anywhere in the world.
My point here is that one of the most successful organizations to navigate and take advantage of this new information/computing age has been Google. I propose that we examine what Google actually does and see if there are any lessons that we can use to help us take advantage of this technology and its application in our service to Christ. Our basic reference should always be to seek out what Jesus says or does. But in this new and rapidly changing world, we should not be afraid to adopt some of the things that Google does in the service of the church as well.
Five Things That Google Does
In his book, Jarvis mentions many things that Google has done to succeed brilliantly in the information age. I have chosen 5 of these that have a particular relevance to what needs to be done in the church.
1. Do No Evil (Basic Work Ethic)
Google's basic ethic is to make products and services that are good for the customer, good for the company, and good for society. The company aims at being a positive force in society because it believes this is the best long-term strategy for success. Google does not base this notion on faith in God or moral consideration. They simply accept the idea that doing no evil promotes success better than purposefully cheating, or trying to profit from a product that may harm its customers in some way. Of course, in the church, this principle is a given. We not only seek to avoid evil, we pursue righteous living as a goal based on our faith in God.
Perhaps the thing we can learn from Google, however, is that the good they do is really felt by their customers because their basic service (search engine) is free. In the church we tend to be inward focused and if you ask someone in the community, "What has the church of Christ done for you personally?", I am not sure that many could name any one thing we have done that has impacted our neighbors to the point that they would recognize our particular congregation. Google has provided something good and useful for the community for free. The church should learn to be known for this type of service as well.
2. Google Empowers Individual Growth in Order to Create Corporate Growth
Google's corporate structure is designed to enable individuals to be creative in coming up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. They are like a cooperative of entrepreneurs. They encourage their employees to imagine new products or better ways to deliver existing services by providing them with money and resources in order to experiment with new ideas. They know that their employees are their most important resource so they nurture and encourage employee development and training. In other words, management is there to encourage employees to take their jobs, and is not just there to preserve their own positions in management.
In like manner, we need to remember that church growth is based on individual growth. We think that growing the church requires spending money on buildings or equipment. But these things are the result of church growth, not the cause of it. Every time an individual member decides to begin reading the Bible more regularly, the church grows. Each time someone decides they will start coming to Wednesday services regularly, or commit themselves to greater sexual purity, or devote more time to prayer, or choose to attend Bible class, the church as a whole grows proportionately. Like Google, we can experience corporate growth if we focus more on the individual growth of each member. This work of ministry by the elders, deacons, and preachers is slow and not spectacular, but the results are sure.
3. Google Provides a Variety of Services Designed to Meet Their Customers' Specific Needs and Interests
Simply stated, Google gives its customers what they really, really want. They do this by listening. I mean really listening to their customers' feedback on their products and services. They provide ways for their customers to communicate with them, pay attention to what is said, and make changes accordingly. A lot of companies have a "suggestion box" that is attached to a trash can, or have the attitude of Henry Ford who said that his customers could have any color Model T. Ford they wanted as long as it was black — because "black" is the only color we have.
In today's information age, that attitude does not succeed because the internet has given people unlimited choices when it comes to products, and a voice to express their opinions and preferences (Blogs/Facebook/Twitter/ etc.) Google knows this and embraces it. Its customers tell Google what they want and Google obliges them — for free. Because of this, more people use their services while other companies pay to put ads on Google's web pages. This is how they make money. They bring billions of people to their site by giving them what they really want, and advertisers pay Google big money to display their products to the billions of people who use Google's free service every day.
In the church, it is easy to become like old Henry Ford. People can want and need many things so long as they accept what we offer, and many times what we are offering is dull and devoid of spiritual life — like that old black Model T. I am not suggesting that we change our doctrine or commitment to following God's word carefully in all matters, including how we live and how we worship. For example, recent studies have shown that churches who have abandoned Restoration principles in order to embrace more liberal ideas on women's roles in the church or instrumental music, have not achieved significant growth for their efforts. I am, therefore, against introducing non-biblical ideas in the pursuit of church growth because these things are non-biblical, not because they do not actually work.
What Google does teach us, however, is that we have to listen more carefully to the needs of our members and our community, and, like Google, provide ministry that satisfies those needs. Too many times we think the only thing that people need is public worship so we spend a lot of money, time, and effort to organize and provide 3 public worship periods per week. But people need other things in addition to these and this is where we are not paying attention:
- Widows need comforting.
- Young families need training and encouragement.
- More need to learn how to be fathers, leaders, and servants.
- The poor and the sick need ministry.
- The community needs the gospel and teaching brought to them outside the walls of the church building.
- Those grieving from broken marriages, broken lives, and broken homes need our support.
People need to worship God publicly and we do a good job in providing the opportunity and environment to do this biblically, but this is not the only thing they need or want. The congregation that succeeds in this complex and turbulent time will be the one that knows what its members need and figures out a way to meet that need according to the teachings of the Bible.
4. At Google They Understand That There Is an Inverse Relationship Between Control and Trust
Let me explain what this means:
Google has learned that people under 40 years of age distrust "top-down" management systems. They are used to having input, they want to know where they fit in and why they do what they do. This does not mean that the younger generation is better, it means that they are different, and Google knows this since this generation makes up the bulk of their customers as well as their company. The inverse relationship between trust and control works like this:
- The more you control, the less you are trusted.
- The more you share control, the greater trust and respect you gain.
Under 40's interpret a person's desire to control as a sign that this person does not trust others so they in turn are unwilling to place trust in that person. At Google, the leaders entrust a lot of responsibility for running the company, developing new services, even evaluating and criticizing existing systems to people who are not necessarily part of Top Management. Their idea is that people at the bottom want to succeed as much as people at the top. Their willingness to allow employees, as well as customers, to be legitimate partners in improving and shaping Google as a company has won them strong loyalty and trust from the newest employee in the mailroom to the highest level of management.
The great challenge in the church is that most of the leaders, because of their age (we call them elders for a reason), come from the generation where "Top Down" management and organizational systems were the norm. Many churches complain that there is a disconnect between the leadership and the congregation because the elders function like a "board of directors" and only meet to make decisions about budget items and when to hire and fire the preacher.
Google reminds us that there are different organizational and management styles that come and go with each generation. My point here is not that we imitate Google's style of management, but that we look more carefully at the Bible and follow what it says our leadership style should be. According to the Bible, our leaders are shepherds not CEO's or cheerleaders or activity coordinators. As leaders of the church:
- Shepherds lead the sheep.
- Shepherds are with the sheep.
- Shepherds seek out the lost and stray sheep.
- Shepherds feed and protect the sheep.
- Shepherds sacrifice themselves for the sheep.
I believe that when elders serve the church as "shepherds" they gain the trust of every member in the congregation no matter how old they are or what generation they belong to.
5. Google Knows What is the Essential Nature of Its Business
Google is a search engine. It enables people to find and organize information about any subject on the internet and provides this service for free. It is all about information and communication, and whatever growth or acquisitions it makes, it always does so in reference to these core elements. Google has not branched out to purchase and operate a professional sports franchise or acquire its own airline. Although some of its forays into the marketing of information collected on its customers has caused them certain problems, this experience simply proves my point.
The idea of knowing what your essential business is and sticking to it is not as easy as it seems, and many companies have gone under because they forgot this. A good example of this is Edgar Bronfman, a Canadian businessman. He was the young heir of the Seagrams distillery fortune. He decided that he wanted to be in show-business instead of the distilling business and bought a media company and movie studio with his fortune and proceeded to lose billions of dollars nearly destroying his family's 100 year old company. He forgot what his core business was about (selling whiskey) and learned a costly lesson.
Google strives to improve its core business (search engine) and find new ways to expand its use or increase its profitability, but no matter how big it gets or successful it becomes — it always remembers what it is and does. Unfortunately, we have many examples of churches forgetting what they are supposed to be about:
- Congregations that focus on one ministry to the exclusion of all others and end up being primarily a school, homeless shelter, or food bank with a church attached to it.
- Churches who think that their role is to change government policies concerning gays, abortion, or military action.
I am not saying that the church should not have an impact on society for good. After all, Jesus says that we are to be salt and light in influencing the world. But if we are to survive and succeed in today's world we need to remember what the Bible says concerning our essential role in society. In my reading of the New Testament I do not believe that the main purpose of the church is:
- To take care of the poor.
- To train preachers.
- To make the USA a Christian nation.
- To unify churches.
- To grow into larger congregations.
These are all good things, necessary things, and things that happen as a result of our work — but they are not our essential, core job/role/function. Our role is to call people out of the world and into the kingdom of God.
Why do you think Peter said,
Be saved from this perverse generation!
- Acts 2:40b
And again he said,
...of those who were saved that they … "(have) escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.
II Peter 1:4
And Paul who says,
For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.
- Colossians 1:13
Our job is not to save the environment, or create social justice for the poor, or restore America's Christian heritage. Our essential role is to call people out of the world, escape the world, reject the world, and become part of God's kingdom — the church. We carry out this mission in three distinct ways:
1. By preaching the gospel to all creation — Matthew 28:18-20.
This tells the people how to leave the world - by becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.
2. By witnessing to the world with Holy Living — Romans 12:1-2
This is where all the good works and pure living come in. I help the poor, care for the earth, seek justice for the oppressed, care for the orphans, and do these things, not to save or change the world. I do this in order to validate that my message is true; my holy life is a witness to the gospel that I preach. It may benefit the world, but this is not the purpose of holy living. Holy living points others to Christ and the truth of the gospel. I deny myself the things of the world so you will pay attention to my message which says, "Leave the world and be saved, come into the kingdom of God!"
3. We warn of the Judgment to come — II Thessalonians 1:6-8
This is merely the flip side of our witness. We witness with holy living. We warn of the judgment to come. When the church stands up for what is right, denounces immorality, and speaks truth to power it is simply warning of the judgment to come.
Unfortunately, many ministers get lost in the battle and make something else the goal of their preaching and teaching.
- Free the slaves.
- Elect a democratic government.
- Select a true Christian president.
These things are good, but they are the benefits of our preaching and our witness, not the purpose of it. What good is a democracy in Iraq, for example, if all are still in the darkness without Christ? We may get peace and oil for a while but the goals of the church are not met.
Google succeeds because it never forgets its core mission, and neither should we.
The church needs to remember that the task Jesus has given us is to call men out of the world and into the kingdom, not to save, improve, or change the world. This present world has been set for destruction long ago (II Peter 3:10) and nothing we do will change that. The only salvation is to escape!
One last thing to remember: Google is a man-made thing and like all man-made things it will have its time in the sun and then disappear.
What we belong to has been made by God and guaranteed by His word never to fail (Matthew 16:18).
Let us take encouragement from this fact. But let us also learn from the things around us, as Solomon once said, "Take a lesson from the ants…learn from their ways and be wise" (Proverbs 6:6).
If we can learn from the ants, we can also learn some lessons from Google about how to better and more wisely function as a church in this new Information Age.