Recently, Business Insider unearthed a seven-year-old Salon article featuring Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch. In it, Jeffries makes a revealing, if unsurprising, statement about his company’s marketing technique. Essentially, A&F excludes certain kinds of people to elevate its brand aura. Jeffries says,
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
How does A&F make sure it targets only the “cool kids”? By hiring only the cool kids.
“That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
The comments sparked a sizable backlash, including a spoof “Attractive & Fat” photo advertisement and a #FitchtheHomeless movement that seeks to downgrade A&F’s image by giving A&F clothing to homeless people. Jeffries later apologized (sort of) in a Facebook post, offering his regrets but maintaining that his words were taken out of context.
Curiously, and frighteningly, A&F’s scheme seems little different from the way many churches target their audiences. Visit any sample of “contemporary” churches, and you’ll see the technique at work—only young, hip people on stage, because that’s what they want to attract. Visit a selection of “traditional” congregations, and you’ll see an equal but opposite approach—anyone but young, hip people on stage! Visit a few family-centered, suburban churches, and you’ll see it again—promotional materials, programming, and sermon series all targeting young families with children. Conferences and seminars teach the approach as a basic outreach principle.
While it’s axiomatic that a church will attract people similar to those it puts on stage, we must beware the temptation to target the “cool kids.” If we include only the young, the hip, or the attractive in leading worship, or if we target only young families with children in our promotions and programs, we may send a tacit, unwelcoming message to those outside the target zone. Further, we might build a church that’s simply too monolithic to resemble the church described (and prescribed!) in Scripture.
In the New Testament ideal, the church gives special attention to older men and older women (Titus 2:2-3). Widows enroll in a place of service (1 Timothy 5:9-14), the single person receives exhortation, and the one married to an unbeliever finds encouragement (1 Corinthians 7:8-16). The church considers the poor (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), honors the less honorable (1 Corinthians 12), and gives the orphan a home (James 1:27).
Really, the only thing exclusive about the gospel is salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Otherwise, it is a classless, ageless, multiethnic, inclusive religion—the gospel is for all who believe. It subverts the culture of the “cool.” Jesus himself dismantled any notion that he was only for the “cool kids.” The disabled, the diseased, and the socially ostracized all found his attention. He was, decidedly, on the side of the “uncool” (Luke 4:18-19) and generally against the “cool” (Luke 5:32; Matthew 23:27).
If the church is only for the “cool kids,” then perhaps it isn’t a church at all. Jesus’ church is the body of Christ, made of up many members. When staging, promoting, and programming, let’s practice a bit more truth in advertising.
For an example of a church promotion that really looks like a church, watch the video linked below. I know very little about Grace Community Church in San Antonio, but this clip drips with Scripture in both content and image.
Leadership is posture. The way in which leaders position themselves in relation to those they lead largely determines their leadership effectiveness. For example, “leading from out in front” is the normal leadership posture in the corporate world. Leaders gather with a team to formulate big ideas, and then cast those ideas out to the people, promoting buy-in and raising energy. “Out in front” leadership is good, necessary, and must always be done.
A church, though, is a unique entity. Indeed, it is sui generis—no other organization compares. Consider this: in secular business, the CEO (manager, boss, etc) can demand action from employees, because he or she pays their salaries. Subordinates are financially dependent on leaders. In the church, the system reverses. The leaders demand action from members, often exhorting them to do things they resist doing, but the members pay their salaries. The leaders are financially dependent on the members! In churches that maintain a congregational church order, this “upside down” organizational motif expresses itself fully in that the final locus of authority—the final say—is not vested in the pastor, elders, staff, or deacons, but in the will of the congregation itself—in the membership.
The unique nature of the local church requires a leadership culture that goes beyond the “out in front” approach. Church leaders must embrace additional positional directions—two in particular.
First, leaders must “lead from beneath.” Simply put, church members won’t do what leaders want them to do unless they first see the leaders doing it. If leaders want church members to invite friends, reach out to the unchurched, mentor young people, and assist with various ministries, then leaders cannot exempt themselves from any of those activities. Obviously, leaders can’t bear the whole load, but they must be visible and—in some sense—involved in all capacities. So, if church leaders want to see small groups grow or make family ministries work, then they must be visible and active in the efforts. Fundamentally, leading from beneath is a “willing to wash feet” posture.