Earlier this week I read a report from the IBM Center for Applied Insights related to marketing and came across an interesting line of thinking. The report authors were making the case that proper use of technology now allows marketers to develop “personalized marketing strategies.” They provided Land’s End as an example. The catalog retailer “is able to coordinate customer relationship management and campaign management with catalog bindery to create custom, individualized mailings.” Huh? In other words, Land’s End has info on you (the customer) and they use this info to create a catalog just for you. This is considered “personalization.”
In his recent book The Power of Habit, author Charles DuHigg shares a similar story about the cheap-chic department store Target. The retailer has so much data on each customer, that they can accurately predict which customers are pregnant. Yes, you read that right: they know you are having a baby before half of your next of kin know. And what do they do with this juicy tidbit of data? They customize the circular you receive in the mail to include ads for baby-related products such as formula, diapers, and strollers. But Target knows that if a new mother gets a circular that is too baby-centered, she will freak out, asking, “How do they know that about me?” Her response will be to avoid Target. So Target throws in ads for a few items that expectant mothers don’t typically buy, like beer and riding mowers, so that the soon-to-be mother will not know that her circular is vastly distinct from the one her next-door neighbor received. Target’s approach to personalization is to keep the intimacy one-way and unseen.
Aside from at least a mild amount of creepiness, what strikes me most about this trend is how unilateral the intimacy is. The retailers know a lot about the customer (enough to customize their marketing efforts!), but the customer knows very little about the retailer. In former times, a retailer was a person who could know and be known. You might buy a suit that was tailored by a craftsman with whom you had a relationship. Or the curtains for your home might be hemmed by a seamstress who knew your name and who had a name. But who is Target? And if Target knows that you’re pregnant, what should you know about him/her/them?
All of this has me considering church in 21st century America. I fear we may be loosing a valuable sense of intimacy between pastor and member. In a world where pastors tweet and congregations have Facebook accounts, it’s easy to think an intimate relationship exists when all we really have are some dots of data loosely connected by our own assumptions and personal preferences.
Ministry leaders are wise to consider the place (and misplace) of intimacy with those they shepherd. Frequently, there is a dynamic of “knowing but being unknown” that occurs between pastors and church members. Each party knows certain things about the other, but there is not a real relationship; there is not an identity-forming intimacy.
For instance, when a pastor preaches to a crowd of a few hundred (or thousand – or even a few million now with podcasts) week after week, those who hear the sermons can develop a certain familiarity with the pastor. They think they know the pastor. After all, they know the names of the pastor’s kids, where the pastor went on vacation, and how the pastor likes his coffee. But sermons are one-way. The congregant knows a lot about the pastor, but the pastor knows next to nothing about the congregant.
The inverse is often true in smaller churches, where the pastor is expected to know the intimate details (ailments, relationships, and back story) of each church member, but few church members really know or want to know the pastor. In these cases, the pastor can serve almost as a hired hand – or better said: a hired ear, a hired heart, and hired soul.
When intimacy exists without equilibrium, someone is using someone. Target does not care that you are pregnant, they simply want to capture you as a customer during a formative stage of your family’s financial development. They know that if you start shopping at Target when your family is getting started that you will keep shopping there for many years to come. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s not real intimacy.
False intimacy must be avoided. Church leaders need to be cautious that we not express false intimacy (I’ll let you know me, but I don’t want to know you) in order to use people (get them to attend so that we have a big and successful church). On the flipside, we also have to be careful that we not allow ourselves to be used by church members who demand that we know them but who care very little about knowing us.