How the church invented ‘customer service’ and why we need more

While I’m called to vocational ministry, my livelihood for the moment is tied to the marketplace. I work in a retail store and my Sunday morning liturgy this week was sitting through a customer service training.  Sitting through my training, my mind wandered to how applicable it was to a church context. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate of the un-examined appropriation of business practices for the church. In business the bottom line is the bottom line. The telos of the church is to be a faithful witness to the coming kingdom (see the difference?). Customer service is especially suspect. When Christians appropriate a customer service model of church we end up ministering to felt needs of congregants instead of dealing with the objective problem (sin). We also fail to remain theocentric in our approach.

And yet. . . . As I sat through my training session this morning a thought dawned on me: Some ‘business best practices,’ are inspired by historic Christian witness. Not in a self conscious way, mind you. I doubt that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies read the Desert  Fathers (or even the New Testament) to help them form their business plans. However as I sat through a video presentation offering advice on how to exceed customer expectations,  I heard dimly the saints of old.  This was especially true as the advice I was given for business was taken directly from the hospitality industry.

Hospitality is a Christian practice (though not exclusively).  The early church took its cue from the Ancient Near East’s value on care for ‘strangers'(cf. Gen. 18 where Abraham offers hospitality to three ‘strangers’) and  injunctions in the Torah to care for the vulnerable (Deut. 24:20). So during the early centuries of Christianity, hospitality was not simply entertaining guests in your home for an evening, but a much more robust set of practices aimed at care for those in real need [for a good background on this practice see Christine Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering the Christian Practice of Hospitality (Eerdmans 1999)].  Early Christians rescued infant girls left to die of exposure and cared for the sick in their communities. Travelers in the ancient world were particularly vulnerable, and Christians offered a safe haven.   As the church’s resources grew (as well as the need), the Christian practice of hospitality became formalized in the establishment of hospitals as well  monasteries and inns which cared for  travelers. This was  the precursor to the modern hospitality industry.   When businesses seek to cultivate longstanding relationships with clients and offer service that goes above an beyond their expectations, they often look toward the hospitality industry(i.e. the Four Seasons Hotel, Walt Disney Resorts, etc.).

When market driven capitalists (such as those who run retail stores) seek to learn from the hospitality industry, they are appropriating a secularized version of the Christian practice of hospitality.  When the church seeks the wisdom of market place leaders (who are  gleaning  what they can from the hospitality industry), they are appropriating a dehistoricized version of their  practice. This can be diagrammed as follows:
HospitalityTheft

 

And perhaps the cycle continues. But there are problems with this scheme. The historic practice of  Christian hospitality was meatier and more robust than its modern capitalist equivalent. When hospitality got institutionalized (into hospitals and hotels), it allowed for care of greater numbers of people, but something of the quality and attention of the earlier practice was lost.  So when churches attempt to learn from business on how to minister to the felt needs of their congregants, they are appropriating a watered down version of their own practice. The personalized care of the early church is lost. So is the depths of their biblical and theological reflection.

Does this mean that the church can’t learn from exceptional customer service representatives. Nope, all truth is God’s truth and some of God’s truth is wrapped up in contemporary business practices. I would be wary of how ‘customer service’ models would turn congregants into consumers, but to the extent that ‘customer service’ is a recovery of the practice of hospitality, we certainly can learn from the best practices of businesses.

In the retail business, caring for the customer and exceeding their expectations ensures their loyalty and strengthens your business relationship with them. In the church, hospitality makes visible the love of God before a watching world and brings needed care to the vulnerable members of society.  When we learn hospitality solely from business leaders our vision of hospitality is too small.  Recovering a Christian practice involves learning from notable examples in church history (i.e. the early church, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St. Benedict, Basil the Great, Francis of Assisi, the Pietists, The Catholic Worker Movement, etc.).  It also means reading the Bible evocatively, allowing it to shape our imagination of how we in the church can best express the the hospitality of God. And it involves learning from exceptional practitioners (Christian or otherwise) about how to care for the vulnerable among us.

What is the greatest customer service experience you have ever had? Does the church offer something different from that?

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