Simple Church

Friday, September 07, 2007
In the late 1990s, Royal Philips Electronics was a slow-footed behemoth whose products, from medical diagnostic imaging systems to electric shavers, were losing traction in the marketplace. By 2002, a new CEO, Gerard Kleisterlee, determined that the company urgently needed to address the dynamic global marketplace and become more responsive to consumers' changing needs.Philips deployed researchers in seven countries, asking nearly 2,000 consumers to identify the biggest societal issue that the company should address. The response was loud and urgent. "Almost immediately, we hit on the notion of complexity and its relationship to human beings," says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. Consumers told the researchers that they felt overwhelmed by the complexity of technology. Some 30% of home-networking products were returned because people couldn't get them to work. Nearly 48% of people had put off buying a digital camera because they thought it would be too complicated.

Strategists recognized a huge opportunity: to be the company that delivered on the promise of sophisticated technology without the hassles. Philips, they said, should position itself as a simple company. Ragnetti was dumbstruck. "I said, 'You must be joking. This is an organization built on complexity, sophistication, brainpower.' " But he and Kleisterlee responded with an even more audacious plan. Rather than merely retooling products, Philips would also transform itself into a simpler, more market-driven organization.

That initiative has been felt from the highest rungs of the organization to the lowest. Instead of 500 different businesses, Philips is now in 70; instead of 30 divisions, there are 5. Even things as prosaic as business meetings have been nudged in the direction of simplicity: The company now forbids more than 10 slides in any PowerPoint presentation. Just enough, they decided, was more.

The campaign, christened "Sense and Simplicity," required that everything Philips did going forward be technologically advanced--but it also had to be designed with the end user in mind and be easy to experience. That ideal has influenced product development from conception--each new product, like the ShoqBox, an MP3 mini-boom box, must be based on a user need that's tested and validated--to packaging. Philips invited 15 customers to its Consumer Experience Research Centre in Bruges, Belgium, to see how they unpacked and set up a Flat TV. After watching people struggle to lift the heavy set from an upright box, designers altered the packaging so the TV could be removed from a carton lying flat on the ground.

Early results of the business reorganization, particularly in North America, have been dramatic. Sales growth for the first half of 2005 was up 35%, and the company was named Supplier of the Year by Best Buy and Sam's Club. Philips's Ambilight Flat TV and GoGear Digital Camcorder won European iF awards for integrating advanced technologies into a consumer-friendly design, and the Consumer Electronics Association handed the company 12 Innovation Awards for products ranging from a remote control to a wearable sport audio player.

Maeda, who, as a member of Philips's Simplicity Advisory Board has had a front-row seat for this transformation, is impressed. "The best indication of their sincerity is that they're embracing the concept at a management level," says Maeda. "It isn't just marketing to them. That's quite a radical thing."

(The Beauty of Simplicity - Fast Company)

In late August Jordon Cooper ran a post talking about this article that spoke of the value of simplicity in technology. People like their technology to be simple to use. You can see that in the Ipod, with it's single dial, or Google with it's simple interface. Both examples of companies that have struck a simple cord with people.

But, one of the complexities of this need is that people also feel something has less value if it is simple to use. Dan Ariely, a business-school professor from MIT says;
"If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

It's less exciting and may be perceived as less valuable if it's less complex.

The call to simplicity in technology is driven by a desire in society for greater simplicity, even if sometimes we fear that the simple things are less valuable. That's quite a conundrum. We want simple, yet we fear it will make us seem poor, insignificant or second class.

This is reflected in how we behave as churches too.

We want our lives to be simplified, but we still like the band leading us in new choruses each week. We want the basics, but we still want the speaker to tell great stories and show us great pictures every Sunday. We want to pare down, but our church still needs the gym and kitchen and good seats and a great sound and video delivery system.

We want simple, but having simple may mean we are less than, and we don't want to be considered less than.

So the question rattling around in my head these weeks is, what does Simple Church look like?

What would it look like if we reviewed who we are and what we do and what we own and how our structures and activities worked, and simplified them?

And would North American's even attend a Simple Church?

The question is not rhetorical.


  1. The is a distinction between simple and unsophisticated, between complex and fully functional. I shall think about this.

  2. Excellent post. I will pray and think, think and pray. This could be a large discussion...

    Thank you, good food for thought.


  3. I think a simple church is a church where the gospel comes before all else. Where people can live with a crappy sound system (or what have you) because the gospel is preached, and when the gospel is preached Christ is present.

    So I will say Randall that a simple church is a church that is able to be content with just the presence of Christ and no bells and whistles.

  4. Is it possible for us to be simple as a church; to respond to needs of individuals within the group – like watching the unpacking of the TV and responding to that need in an appropriate way? Do we have the freedom to respond to situations or do we have to work through organizational structures in order to initiate a response? Can we improvise, act spontaneously, set aside protocols where they are not appropriate in order to meet people’s needs?

    If we have a huge diversity of programs in order to attract people to our “church” and we drive ourselves crazy trying to keep them going so that we look big and important, we will soon lose our ability to respond to anything as mundane as an individual in need.

    So, I guess we could go back to really simple – no sermon, no songs, no classes – just sharing God’s word, praying and breaking bread. I think I could do that. But would it be better or just another style? And would this “simpler” style make Christ more accessible to the communities we live in or less so?

    Maybe, like Phillips, we just need to be deliberate in what we choose to expend our energy on, making sure it fits in with what our real goals should be; then concentrate on doing that well.

  5. What if the issue isn't "simple" vs "complex" (i.e. type of structure/system) ,but something along the lines of obedience. For some, obedience looks like a very complex structure, and for others, it is a very simple structure with few technological / musical systems.

  6. Have you ever read Harry Blamire's book from 1963 called The Chrisitian Mind? Although it is a bit dated (as in more modern than postmodern), the section on mechanization mentality and his differentiation between function (what a machine does) and purpose (is what persons have) could have some bearing on the search for the Simple Church and how we lost that aspect over the past centuries.

  7. My brother was chewing my ear recently about the trend from DIY to DIFM (do it for me). He runs a big company in Australia that sells household items, so it's a practical issue for him. Simplicity can up in the discussion because people want an item to do the limited range of tasks they want from it quickly and easily.

    We can see this mapped out in things like the iPod, becaus they are not multi-task objects. A few musician friends of mine have recently abandoned complex DAW rigs for much simpler configurations for the same reason - they want to just record and play quickly and easily.

    But, church is never simple in this sense - well not unless we adopt a cathedral approach that is. Church will always have a layer of complexity because it responds to different human issues.

    Of course, the other side of DIFM is simple laziness. Sometimes we just *want* other people to do stuff for us...

  8. Hey, those are some good though provoking responses. And all over the place, including a book to check out.

    Actually you made me thing of the subject in ways I hadn't even thought through yet. Good on ya.

    The significance of obedience, the distinction between simple and unsophisticated, worship styles, just the gospel. Indeed, it probably isn't a simple thing, as in black and white is simple.

    I like the fact that there are different ways to accomplish the same kinds of things that we do as church.

    For instance, in another church that I served at, we didn't have the money to hire an individual to work with the youth, so the adults took on the work themselves. They formed relationships with the youth and participated in their lives, which in the end worked really well.

    There are different ways to be the church, I guess my concern with a post like this is just that sometimes we make things so complex and I don't know why.

    Do we think we will attract more people who like many activities? Will they think the complex ministries have more value than just a couple of people hanging out together in Christ's name?

    It's a good one for me to keep working through.

  9. I like the idea of simple church, in the sense of the Shakers' "tis a gift to be simple". Just as long as it doesn't become "dumbed down" church.


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