Lessons from Chick-fil-A for the Church

I have always loved a challenge.

When I joined Chick-fil-A as a 21-year-old kid, I was the youngest owner and operator the company had ever had in any location, and I inherited a terrible store with rotting salads, nasty chicken, and even nastier coworkers – one poisoned my coffee on my third day of work!

I spent my first year improving the product and hiring better people, and by 1996 I’d won the company’s highest honor, the Symbol of Success award, for a year over year sales increase of more than 30%. And then I quit it all, moved to Vegas, and helped start a church – using many of the same principles.

Christians love Chick-fil-A for its values (and its waffle fries). But many church leaders don’t realize Chick-fil-A actually uses evangelism principles to attract new customers and build brand loyalty. By studying their business practices, we can find best practices for growing our churches.

For example….

Sampling

We’ve all walked by stores in the mall offering small samples to entice us into buying a meal. Tasking one outgoing employee with handing out samples of chicken was a huge strategy for Chick-fil-A stores in malls like the one where I worked.

I don’t recommend you stand outside your church with food skewered on toothpicks. Instead, think about what you’re offering – a warm, welcoming worship experience – and create an online campus so new people can “sample” your church. Create a strategy to empower your congregation to invite their friends to join them online for a service and use social media to drive traffic.

Be Our Guest

At Chick-fil-A, we often handed out “chicken invite cards.” These small cards offered a freebie – often a complimentary sandwich – and we encouraged employees and customers to share them with friends as a way to introduce them to Chick-fil-A.

Churches also used to create invite cards, often to a special series or a special weekend with a well-known speaker or celebrity guest. I’m still a fan of this strategy, but these days I encourage people to use their phones for the invite instead. Four weeks out, ask people to pray for someone who needs to hear the special sermon or speaker. Three weeks out, challenge people during a service to turn to the person next to them, share who they’re praying for, and pray for each other. Two weeks out, ask everyone to take out their phone and send a text or calendar invite to their person and repeat it one week out.

The Cows

Everyone recognizes Chick-fil-A as soon as they see the fun black and white spotted cows on a billboard or flyer. Chick-fil-A has great clarity on their brand and it’s a creative anchor that has driven marketing strategies for years. Even those who don’t eat at Chick-fil-A often recognize the iconic cows.

It’s important that the brand of your church speak just as clearly to your community. What does your brand say about your work? Your vision? Your values?  In some way, your church brand should communicate that individuals are growing, the community is stronger, and the world is better because your church is there.  

Training

Training was and is one of the highest values of Chick-fil-A. The company wasn’t content to create great food at a great price; when I was there in the ‘90s they hired Ritz Carlton to revamp the customer service training, and it’s still paying off. Walk into a store today and you will be greeted immediately. Say “Thank you” and even the 15-year-old behind the counter will respond, “My pleasure.”

Of course you should have appropriate training for your employees, but think about “training” all of your people. Consider a series focused on creatively training people to start conversations with their lost friends and challenging them to put it into practice. One church we know does a great job with this in the fall; after a series training people how to interact with their neighbors, they give away kits so each individual or family can be the “anchor” of their neighborhood on Halloween. The kits include cider and hot cocoa, glow necklaces, and a list of ideas (such as grilling hot dogs in the driveway) for how participants can create fun, informal connections with their neighbors on Halloween. The goal is for each person to invite at least one family to dinner or to Christmas Eve services.

Know thy Customer

At Chick-fil-A, Truett Cathy used to limit owners and operators to just one store. He wanted us to be pastors to that community – “chicken pastors.”  He wanted us to know who lived near our store, what their lives were like, where they worked, and even if they were married and had kids.

At Intentional Churches, we teach that every church should know their primary newcomer, their one “sheep” they would leave the other 99 sheep to find. Mission Church in Ventura, CA named its primary newcomer “Johnny Cash,” and described him as a guy in his late 30s, probably not married but in a relationship, probably bringing some kids, and quite often dealing with addiction issues. This filter shapes how they approach sermons, life group curriculum, the look of their campus, children’s programming, and more. The better you know the people who live in your community and who your church is designed to reach, the more strategic and effective you can be in reaching them.

  1. What are you doing to create a warm and inviting place for newcomers to “sample” your church?
  2. Are you equipping your people with tools, strategies, and training to reach people in your community? How can you do this more?
Doug Parks

About Doug Parks

Doug served for seventeen years as the Executive Pastor at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. Over the last several years, Doug has been helping churches throughout the country develop a plan to grow and a prioritized way to execute the plan.

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