What Churches Can Learn From Chick-fil-A (Article + Podcast)

Full disclosure: I’m not a Popeyes hater. And, at the risk of being burned as a heretic, I don’t think Chick-fil-A has the world’s best-tasting chicken sandwich. I did the Popeyes versus Chick-fil-A sandwich challenge, and Popeyes tasted better by a wide margin. I’m probably risking my life making this admission because I pastor in the treasured heartland of Chick-fil-A headquarters. I live a stone’s throw away from the first CFA, in the epicenter of the eat-more-chicken world headquarters. CFA is revered around here, to say the least.

That said, I still choose to eat at CFA nine times out of ten. So, even though I typically prefer the food at Popeyes, I almost always go to CFA instead. I think the reason for that oddity contains a lesson that every church should notice. Don’t worry. I won’t give a cheesy lesson about God’s chicken or anything like that. The reason I go to CFA over and over again is simple: the service and the experience.

Recently, I enjoyed a delicious meal at Popeyes. I mean, the food was really, really good. But I stood in line for twenty minutes to order. A very unpleasant cashier took my order without uttering one friendly word. After ordering, I waited another twenty minutes for the food. In the meantime, the restroom was so disgusting it made my eyes water. I had to clean my own table before eating. And, the greatest tragedy of all, the soda machine wasn’t working. A little detail I discovered after paying for a large beverage. My food was still delicious, but the service and the experience were terrible.

I wish that were an anomaly at Popeyes, but it’s not. While that was more extreme than usual, there’s almost always some variation of that scenario when I “attend” a Popeyes. Otherwise, I’d probably “attend” Popeyes over CFA nine times out of ten. In contrast, I can’t remember ever waiting for more than a few minutes for my food at CFA (even when the line was wrapped around the building). My family and I are always greeted with a smile and genuine friendliness. If they make a mistake (which is very rare), they go overboard to correct it. The dining areas and restrooms are always neat and clean. Without fail, a nice CFA person will stroll by and offer to get refills or extra condiments for the table. I’ve been to high-end fine dining establishments where their service didn’t rise to CFA’s level of customer kindness and consideration.

The lesson every church can learn from CFA is so simplistic it almost escapes us. The human experience is more important than flavor. Let me put it this way: fancy buildings and programs are great, but not if we forget how to treat people with common kindness and courtesy. It’s not enough for churches to offer lots of options and bold flavors if they can’t connect with people on the most basic human levels.

Your church doesn’t have to be the best at everything to make people want to come back over and over again. Some churches get so caught up trying to be awesome at everything they wind up doing everything pretty poorly. At the heart of CFA’s success is its simplicity. They do four things really, really well. One, they serve a small menu, but it’s always fresh, consistent in quality, and in stock. Two, they are extremely friendly and welcoming in a sincere and honest way. Three, if they make a mistake, they own it and fix it. Fourth, they are fast and organized so that they can take care of you promptly.

If every church borrowed this model, they would see immediate growth results and visitor retention rates. Your church doesn’t have to offer a giant “menu” of programs. Find a streamlined “menu” that fits the needs of your community. Ensure your church menu is sustainable, always fresh, and of good quality. I didn’t say it had to be the best in the world, but it does need to be consistent and fresh (in the sense that it maintains enthusiasm and doesn’t become stale, dull, or mediocre). A church should do fewer things well than to do tons of things poorly.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to smile and speak to people when they walk in the doors of your church. It’s not enough for the pastor alone to be friendly. The entire culture of the church must be intentionally and genuinely friendly. Many churches think they’re friendly when, in reality, they are mildly nice at best. Every church could learn a lesson from the culture of kindness CFA carefully cultivates and maintains. Many churches pray for revival but kill every chance for growth with their inward cliquish behavior.

Every church makes mistakes, drops the ball, misses the mark, and gets the “order” wrong in some way or another. Churches are full of humans, and humans make mistakes. When that happens (and it will), accept it and go the extra mile to make it right. Most people will forgive mistakes if they are acknowledged and corrected.

In a church setting, we aren’t taking orders and trying to get people in and out in twenty minutes or less. However, we will repel visitors if we are disorganized and disrespectful of their time. When services start late or run over for no good reason, we reek of disorganization. When people don’t know where to go or what to do next, we make visitors incredibly uncomfortable. Of course, we never want to hinder the Spirit or prioritize organization over the flow of the Spirit. However, I believe adequately organizing churches creates an environment where the Spirit is not quenched by incompetence.

Over the years, I’ve helped many churches that stood for truth and fervently preached sound doctrine, yet they could not keep guests coming back. It wasn’t because their doctrine was heretical, their location, or an insufficient building. Instead, they struggled with some combination of all the areas mentioned above. As they addressed these issues intentionally, they began to grow organically. The apostolic Gospel works, but sometimes our Popeyes mentality sends people across town to a different location. We owe it to a lost world to run our churches with even more excellence than a fast food chain.