At this past week's Smaller Membership Church Forums, the presenter shared a story about the NBA from the 1950's. Before games were televised and revenues included commercial spots, teams relied almost exclusively on ticket sales to games. When attendance dropped off in the early 1950's and the league was facing bancruptcy, they knew something would need to change.
A team of consultants were hired to go and begin asking questions of fans who used to attend and those who had never attended a professional basketball game. The answer came back: the games are boring.
The consultants were sent back out with a new question: why are the games boring? The answer this time had to do with the amount of action on the court. At that time, the predominant game strategy was to play as hard as you could for the first quarter, and then, if you were ahead, play keep away from the other team for the next three quarters. The first quarter was pretty intense, but the rest of the game was a dud.
A third question was asked: what would make the games more exciting? The fans answered that more shots would make the game more exciting, and shots throughout the game instead of just the first half. As the consultants continued to ask questions and get more specific answers, they finally landed on a possible solution.
Overwhelmingly, fans agreed that 60 shots per team per game would make the action more intense and games worth buying tickets for again.60 shots per team across four 12-minute periods came out to one shot every 24 seconds. The proposal was made to insitute a shot clock, forcing teams to either shoot or turn over the ball every 24 seconds.
How do you think the players felt about this change? Instead of playing hard for 12 minutes and then essentially passing the ball back and forth, they would have to play hard for the entire 48-minute game. Everything they had learned about strategy would have to shift and how they worked together as a team would have to be completely reworked. Not surprisingly, they threatened to go on strike, to quit, to refuse to play that way, to stop the change.
In the end, the owners and the NBA won. A 24-second shot clock was instituted and ticket sales rose by 40% in the next few years. You know the rest of the story.
What can our churches learn from this sports story? First of all, what do we usually do when attendance begins to decline or we're facing a financial crisis? The usual strategy has us calling an emergency session meeting and discussing why some members left and why new people aren't coming, and then brainstorming how we're going to deal with the problem. Safe in our meeting room, we make decisions that we're sure will address the issues we think are keeping people away.
What did the NBA do? They hired consultants. They went directly to the fans who had left as well as the people who had never given them a try. They asked questions directly of the people they were targeting in order to get accurate information.
Most of our churches don't have the resources to hire consulants, and most of us are too close to the immediate challenges to listen objectively to opinions and complaints about the churches we love so deeply. So what if we worked together and acted as each other's consultants? What if two or three session met to come up with a strategy, and then swapped geographic areas to do the work for each other? I imagine everyone involved would learn something helpful, and real information would be collected to help guide the next part of the conversation.
I'm sure there were all kinds of crazy ideas that the NBA consultants had to hear and sift through in order to get to the one thing that would address the problem while keeping the heart of the game intact. We have to do that too. We can't just stop reading Scripture, or do away with the offering, or completely change the music or style of worship. Each congregation has, in addition to the central identity of people of Christ, a way that they share that identity through worship style. But by sifting through the gathered information for what is helpful and actionable, you might just find some surprising changes that would enhance the action of praising God together for everyone.
For instance, what if you discovered that the parking lot always fills up when the choir and teachers arrive, which makes it hard for visitors and less mobile people to find a place to park right before worship starts? That's something you could begin to address, creating specific parking spots for visitors and asking regulars to park a little further out to leave room for others. What if you discover that the MBTA schedule has changed, and so the start of worship or the end of worship doesn't fit well anymore for those who rely on public transportation? You could work to address that issue. What if you heard that, while the music choices are okay, the way the music is played is creating a barrier, either because it's too slow, too fast, too loud, too soft, or not well played to begin with?
By asking questions directly of the people you hope will come through your doors, you also begin to develop a relationship. Even if we act as consultants for one another, the fact that First Presbyterian cares enough about what you think of the church to send someone to ask will make an impression. People who have never stepped foot in the church, or who may not even know it's there(!), will have a first contact, which makes future contacts more likely.
We could have our own 24 second movement here in the Presbytery of Boston, working together to discover what will penetrate the barriers that keep people from entering our churches, which is often the first step to engaging in worship and beginning to develop a relationship with Christ. Anyone interested?