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Amazon vs. Church (Part 2)
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

Amazon vs. Church (Part 2)

Justin Barber
9 min read

In my last email (“Amazon vs. Church”) I unpacked the two key arguments in Jeff Bezos’ defense of Amazon (and his own wealth) that he delivered to Congress last summer: “The Perilous Journey to Success” and “The Unique Benefits of Scale.”

(It’s worth noting that since then Jeff Bezos has stepped down as Amazon’s CEO, following the precedent set by Larry and Sergei that I saw happen at Google when it transitioned into Alphabet in 2015.)

In his speech, Bezos said:

“Just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones.”

This email explores the same question, but for church — does the world also need large, Amazon-sized churches?

In a recent conversation around growing our company for the year ahead, my CEO made a passing comment that

“At the end of the day, a company is just a group of people working together on projects.”

While he was saying this to underscore the importance of each employee’s individual contribution, I was delighted by the phrase because I found it to be a charmingly simplistic definition of what a “company” is. I do, however, think this basic definition is missing one key component. As I mentioned in my previous email:

“Profitability is the north star of every company – the pursuit of which drives every core decision the company makes, whether sacrificial in the short term or strategic for the long term.”

So if I were to amend my CEO’s inadvertent definition, I would say that a “company” is

“a group of people working together on projects to make money

With this addition, our cute little definition of a “company” is off to the races: it now covers the who (a group of people), the what (working on projects), and the why (to make money).

The only missing piece is the how.

The Secret to Amazon’s Success

By now you’ve probably heard of Clubhouse, Silicon Valley’s latest darling. The audio based social network raised a $100M Series B on a $1B valuation from top firm Andreessen Horowitz without having a single source of revenue.

That’s the beauty of venture capital: the upfront cash allows companies to focus exclusively on building something that people want (which is pretty hard) without also having to generate meaningful revenue (also pretty hard) at the same time.

Of course Clubhouse has a plan for monetization, and while I’m not personally familiar with it, it’s easy to imagine that they might generate revenue by…

  • Enabling users to sell tickets to rooms and taking a cut (an exclusive room with a celebrity could fetch four figures, or maybe someone like AOC could charge $2 per ticket for a room with tens of thousands in attendance)
  • Charging for access to recordings of past rooms
  • Advertisements
  • Sponsored rooms
  • Subscription access to specific creators (the Spotify podcast approach with Joe Rogan)
  • etc.

Eventually though, like every other company, Clubhouse will have to execute a strategy to make money. And, like every other company, their path to sustainably growing revenue hinges on how well they can read the market to understand which strategy they should execute.

Over the past couple of decades the best company at reading the market has been Amazon. Jeff Bezos attributes Amazon’s success to what he calls “customer obsession:”

“At Amazon, customer obsession has made us what we are, and allowed us to do ever greater things. I know what Amazon could do when we were 10 people. I know what we could do when we were 1,000 people, and when we were 10,000 people. And I know what we can do today when we’re nearly a million.”

In theory, the flywheel is quite simple: customer obsession begets revenue begets growth begets more customer obsession, begets — you get the point.

This is, in part, why Amazon has been able to scale to over 1 million employees. Their “customer obsession” enabled them to execute at a much higher level than their competitors and anticipate what the market would pay for better than anyone else – even their own customers:

“Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf. As a result, by focusing obsessively on customers, we are internally driven to improve our services, add benefits and features, invent new products, lower prices, and speed up shipping times—before we have to. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it.”

But Amazon’s business savvy is only half of the equation — Bezos acknowledges that Amazon’s origin story and subsequent success is also the result of uniquely American cultural values:

“It’s not a coincidence that Amazon was born in this country. More than any other place on Earth, new companies can start, grow, and thrive here in the U.S. Our country embraces resourcefulness and self-reliance, and it embraces builders who start from scratch. We nurture entrepreneurs and start-ups with stable rule of law, the finest university system in the world, the freedom of democracy, and a deeply accepted culture of risk-taking.”

(Bezos delivered this speech directly to the US Government, so if his delivery comes across as pandering…that’s because it is 😅)

In his book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, economist Tyler Cowen also explores the role of American cultural values in shaping “Big Business.” In particular, the attitudes and behaviors of American consumers:

“The American economy is relatively effective, compared with other countries, in weeding out the worst firms through competitive pressures…this is another way of saying that Americans do the ‘creative description’ part of capitalism—that is, the process by which people vote with their wallets as to which is the best restaurant, car, or suitcase, and the losers go out of business—better than the rest of the world.”

America’s culture places a great emphasis on the quality of consumption — Americans enjoy being the center of attention from companies and are indignant when they do not get what they want. Amazon is the behemoth it is today because that’s what you get when you pair unrivaled “customer obsession” with the insatiable American consumer.

How American Consumers Have Shaped the Church

I believe these same cultural and economic values of the American consumer are also the driving force behind the creation of another uniquely American institution: the megachurch.

There are roughly 1,750 megachurches in America (that’s an average of 35 megachurches per state) according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s 2020 Megachurch Report, which defines a megachurch as having a regular, pre-pandemic attendance of 2,000 or more people. These churches typically have seating for 1,200 people at one site and in 2019 they operated on a median budget of $5.3 million.

That is a lot of very large churches.

Renowned artist Makoto Fujimura (who happens to have been baptized in my Japanese hometown) dives deeply into the ways in which American culture has shaped the modern church experience in his latest book Art and Faith: A Theology of Making:

“In our churches, we have often treated the gospel like a commodity, shopping it around if we were peddlers, or worse yet, savvy performers. When our churches look like gigantic malls, hotels, or even strip malls, and when we proclaim “salvation comes free, at no cost,” we are unwittingly falling in with the architecture and the language of a transactional consumer economy…the context and method for sharing the Good News tap too often into the consumer mentality…it’s no wonder that the culture is confused as to what churches are meant to represent.”

In the “transactional consumer economy” that Fujimura describes, church becomes much like an Amazon Prime membership: a passive subscription to the things we want in life. The bigger the church the more you can get — friends, childcare, summer camps, a sense of purpose and belonging, comfort in routine, etc. Everything from A – Z.

And this consumerist mindset is reinforced by the prevailing narrative promoted by many American churches, which Fujimura labels “plumbing theology:”

“In hearing many sermons across many denominations, I have found that we tend to depict the gospel as a message of “God fixes things” — which is what I mean by plumbing theology…thus, when we go to church, it can seem like we are being given a new tool to fix the broken pipes every week. We are to take that tool home and use it diligently to fix the pipes of the broken world, and the next week, we go back to receive a new tool and instructions on how to use it…but meanwhile, there is no conversation about why we are fixing the pipes and what the pipes are for.”

The effects of America’s “transactional consumer economy” multiplied by churches promoting a “plumbing theology” are why, I think, COVID-19 has forced American churches into an existential crisis. As I wrote back in April of last year (“Week 13: Creativity”), the pandemic is forcing Americans to face the question:

“what is church if it can’t be a large, in-person gathering?”

When the option to gather in-person is stripped away and the only remaining aspect of church is the sermon, the subscription model breaks down (“what am I getting out of church, anymore?”) and exposes the underlying culture of consumption built into the core of the American church experience.

The Purpose of Church

Like “company,” the concept of “church” is complex and multifaceted and probably requires many different definitions. But how would you define “church” as simply as my CEO defined “company?”

No really, I’m asking you! I’ll pause here so that you can come up with your best, most simple definition.

Got one?

I gave my dad this challenge (he has both created churches from scratch and has a PhD in a related topic – hi Dad!), but after a multi-paragraph, academically tortured response even he copped out by quoting what Jesus is recorded as telling his disciples in the book of Mark:

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Similar to our simplistic definition for “company,” my dad (via Jesus) gave us the who (two or three people), the what (gathered), and the how (in God’s name).

But we’re still missing the why — for companies it’s to make money, but what is the purpose of church? Why gather in God’s name? Jesus summarizes the two most important teachings of the Gospel as:

“Love God. Love your neighbor.”

Just like the success of companies hinge on their ”customer obsession”, it seems the success of church — their ability to love others — hinges on their ”God obsession.” Customer obsession drives revenue, God obsession drives love.

But compared to the cold, hard revenue that companies can point to as proof of their success, “love” as a purpose is frustratingly squishy. While not in the form of dollar signs, the apostle Paul does provide success metrics for love in his letter to the church in Corinth:

”Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Love, as Paul defines it, does not sound synonymous with an inwardly focused consumption. These words — protect, trust, hope, persevere — are making words. Words of creation.

Fujimura proposes that the church should trade in their “plumbing theology” for what he calls the “Theology of Making:”

“The consummation of God’s plan as it unfolds in the Bible is not a utilitarian restoration but an imaginative New Creation…the Theology of Making is the theological undergirding of culture care. Culture care has a broad thesis for the culture at large, both within and outside of the church.”

Although the purpose of companies and church are different, their success is built on the same mindset and cultural values of creation. What Fujimura calls the “Theology of Making,” Jeff Bezos calls the “Day One” mentality:

“Since our founding, we have strived to maintain a “Day One” mentality at the company. By that I mean approaching everything we do with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One…It’s still Day One for this country, and even in the face of today’s humbling challenges, I have never been more optimistic about our future.”

Being “optimistic about our future” requires hoping, which according to Paul, is an act of love. As I wrote in a recent Valleyist, “What’s Next for America?”:

“Hoping not only requires the sustained mental and emotional energy of imagining a future that does not yet exist but also the physical energy to turn it into reality.”

In other words, creation.

In March 2020, shortly after tech companies began working from home, Marc Andreessen published a post entitled It’s Time to Build:

”Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings…Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.
Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another.

“Demand” is often used in the context of consumption — customer demand, for example — that evokes the image of an impatient, outstretched palm. But in this case I think “demand” means to hold one another accountable, to work collectively towards a better standard — to trade in our spirit of consumption for a spirit of creation:

"We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building. Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building?”

These calls to creation and love sound equally exhilarating and exhausting to me.

Maybe you feel the same.

So to the overwhelmed and inspired, I leave you with a benediction from Tampa, Florida artist Iamdoechii: