Growing up two books always sat in our hall next to the phone, the phone directory and the screaming yellow coloured “yellow pages” I think Yellow Pages was ubiquitous in just about everyone’s house and business premises. When you wanted to find a particular business, service or institution you got the yellow pages and you “let your fingers do the walking.” The company behind Yellow Pages not surprisingly became a darling of the stock market as more and more countries were given their own “Yellow Pages.” We were all it seemed committed to dear old JR Hartley and his ways of searching for stuff. All was going so well until the 90s and the internet’s arrival.
What a difference a decade or so makes, today yellow pages’ parent company has warned that its shares are virtually worthless. The Financial Times summed up the cause of this once famously profitable brand. “The telephone directory publisher, formerly known as Yell, said core earnings had suffered because of a fall at its legacy product of printing paper telephone books” Through the 90s into the 21st century Yellow Pages kept doing what it had always done, it printed Yellow Pages Directories, the problem was that people began discovering google. Every year the number of people bothering to look at the Yellow Pages declined as more and more people discovered it was far quicker to “google” for the information they were looking for. Yell woke up to what was happening and have tried to develop an on line presence but it looks like its all been too late, they are crippled by debts from years of printing books no one consulted or wanted. The demise of Yellow Pages happened because its leadership kept carrying out its mission in the ways that had been successful in the past and realised too late that there directories were appealing to an ever shrinking section of the population, those with no access to the internet.
I remember at least 7 years ago Alan Hirsch passionately warning church leaders that they were making the same mistake, that is they were persevering with a form of mission which whilst it had been successful in the past was destined to appeal to an ever shrinking section of the population. Basically the church in “Christendom mode” the church that had operated in a culture which had some sort of Christian “home field advantage” carried out its mission predominately by reaching out to the fringe around the congregation. As a pastor in the 1990s my prime focus was on those who came to us for “hatches, matches and despatches” people who approached us for religious “services” and so were at least open to coming to church. Around the turn of the century I attended a Purpose Driven Church conference in sunny California and was urged by Rick Warren to focus my efforts in evangelism on moving people from the CROWD (the fringe) into the CONGREGATION. If you google (who has a yellow pages these days?) “civil celebrants” you’ll see the problem, numerous people offering to do secular versions of “hatches, matches and despatches.” Ask any undertaker and they well tell you that the number of humanistic funerals are surpassing the number of religious funerals, more people are being married in places as diverse as hotels and on the top of mountains than church buildings, and “christenings” for those who aren’t church members are now rarer than a Scotland win in international football.
As I see it the problem is that most church leaders are still acting like the directors of YELL did until fairly recently, they are still committed to mission in the way that has been successful in the past, attracting the fringe of the church to attend events in the church building. The church now, like YELL should have a decade ago, needs to face up to the fact we live in a Google world, the number of people seeking religious services from the church is a market on a par with those who still let their fingers do the walking in the Yellow Pages, shrinking and probably soon all but gone. Certainly in the UK there are too many churches fishing in the shrinking pond of people who are open to be attracted to church for that form of mission to be effective. Churches are have to become more and more competitive in attracting the diminishing number of people who are open to being attracted to church. I wonder if this is why were areseeing growing numbers of “larger churches” if not mega churches in cities in the UK. Is it because they can put on a better show than smaller congregation and so are more successful at attracting those open to coming a long to church? Like the fishermen of the North Sea we are overfishing a diminishing stock, not of haddock, but of church fringe people.
I am praying we wake up to the reality of a spiritual google world more quickly than the directors of Yell woke up to google’s digital world. Our commitment to past successes in mission may be the biggest danger to our effective mission in the future.