A New Road on Your Consensus Map

Four principles about consensus maps for those in full-time ministry.

by Cal LeMon

Does perception always equal truth?

Think about your experiences as a consumer at Wal-Mart. It is ultimately your perception of cost, quality, service, and reliability that keeps your feet jogging miles of asphalt and linoleum to find the best deal. If your perception changes, you will find another big box destination for your cash and confidence. The same is true for your ministry.

Every ministry has a consumer. Whether you are leading from a church office, a faith-based educational classroom, a mission station, or a conference room at the Assemblies of God national office, your ministry has consumers. And consumers either keep coming back or find alternatives … all based on their perceptions.

Dr. Gerald Zaltman, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, has written a captivating book, How Customers Think. Zaltman provides a neuro-psychology approach to understanding the power of perceptions in long-term consumer loyalty. I am convinced the author has some important information for the church.

There is basic neurology that supports Zaltman’s observations. Between our ears, roaming around in the cerebral cortex (the wrinkled, unappetizing mass that remembers where we left our car keys and glasses) there are 10 billion neurons. Neurons are brain cells that start bouncing around between our ears when we are thinking. These cells get exercised when we try to put together a cogent sentence while preaching. (You can always blame that last sermon on neurons.)

Over time these neurons start etching out pathways that are cerebral road maps we keep traveling because we know this territory and it offers us safety. When we keep observing the same territory and experiencing the same affect (emotional response), we create consensus maps.

If you want to go out to eat this evening, your consensus map will determine, whether you will choose Chili’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, McDonalds, Subway, or House of Pancakes. In this list there are one or more restaurants you will not choose. If so, your consensus map actually made the choice.

“Pastor, we just don’t feel we are being spiritually fed any longer in this body of believers and sense God is leading us elsewhere.” Have you ever heard this devastating comment from a parishioner? This ex-adherent in your congregation has just written a new consensus map.

I am convinced there are four principles about consensus maps for those of us in full-time ministry.

All Consensus Maps Lead to Your Front Door

First, a consensus map brings people in the door.

Bodies and bucks fuel a new congregation, a growing mega church, a Christian school, or a mission project when there is an attractive consensus map. We are all consumers. When people believe a provider is outdated or out-of-touch with us (i.e. Montgomery Ward, Woolworths, Oldsmobile), we head for greener pastures.

The illustration about the parishioner who was not being fed came from my experience as a church planter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I could not believe, standing in an ornate parlor at Harvard Divinity School — our first worship location — this would-be saint could change consensus maps so quickly. His absence was even more devastating when my neurons had a huddle and reminded me he was the only person who could play the piano for our fledgling flock.

Here is the difficult news about consensus maps. You may not have any control over how or when people establish these rigid mental constructs.

What is the consensus map that pops into your new cortex when you hear or see Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or the Papacy?

People decide political futures based on the words: conservative, liberal, right wing and left wing. We immediately scroll an agenda behind those words and then make decisions.

In leadership, it is tough to be out of control of the environment. We have learned that all of our protestations cannot redraw a consensus map. Our Lord endorsed this principle when He chastised the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34). The “heart” was the legalistic consensus map the Pharisees had determined would always be impervious to the warmth of divine grace that walked among them.

There are some perceptions none of us can change. It is not a good use of our lives or ministries to rail against concrete consensus maps.

Redrawing Your Consensus Map

Second, take responsibility for changing what we can control. Specifically, what are the sensory stimuli in our hands that craft a consensus map?

Think about it. Do you declare the Word with expertise and clarity? Is your theology lecture vibrant, well documented, and challenging? Do you return phone calls within the same day? Is the church foyer clean and orderly? Are there misspelled words in the weekly bulletin or monthly online newsletter? Is children’s Christian education where the least of our financial and staff resources are invested?

Your consumers are watching, reading, and listening to what you can control. They make value judgments about the integrity of the gospel and your calling to ministry when they gather, sift, and sort nonverbal messages to determine if you mean it when, with silky familiarity, you repeat these words: “Only one life will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Signage on Your Consensus Map

Third, you need to constantly reinforce consensus maps for them to last.

Complete these commercial aphorisms. “Maxwell House coffee … good to the last_______.” Nike, Just _______.” “Seven Up, The Un______.”

These companies penned these verbal ditties a long time ago. Unless you are 9 years old, you probably got 100 percent on this fill-in-the-blank quiz.

All organizations know they need to constantly repeat the consensus map they want to establish. Am I suggesting engraved coffee coasters, monogrammed balloons, and another free ballpoint pen with a passage of Holy Writ inscribed just below the pocket clip-on? That is not the mental or spiritual reinforcement I am suggesting.

I am a strong proponent of both a vision and mission statement for any expression of the body of Christ. A vision statement is where you want the ministry to go in the future. It needs to have a serious stretch factor so the words move the reader to see something that presently does not exist.

A mission statement is a clear set of existential expectations. In other words, this is what we are supposed to be doing now. We measure how we are spending our time, money, and resources against this clear driving force. With many organizations, from my experience, the mission does not often change.

Matthew 28:19 is one of those old … always new mission statements. Our Lord knew the Church would need to march to a cadence He started on that cold triumphant first Easter morning. “Go and make disciples” does not have an expiration date.

Your Eternal Consensus Map

Finally, churches do not always have their consensus maps crafted on a PowerPoint presentation in a well-appointed, spotless sanctuary at 11 on Sunday morning.

I am convinced the environment can be psychologically depressing, the sermon anemic, and the physical space between believers longer than a football field, and the consensus map of irresistible grace can still be profound.

Let’s go back to Harvard Divinity School and the embryonic beginnings of Cambridge Christian Center. It was Easter morning and, yes, the only person proficient at the piano was being spirituality fed in another expression of the body of Christ somewhere in the greater Boston area. The three small children interspersed among the 22 adults did not get the message that sitting still and appropriately bowing their heads on cue was an Assemblies of God expectation of all small parishioners. They made us laugh with their unbridled love of life and the moment.

The a cappella rendition of “He Arose” was musically wanting. (We soon discovered who did not have vocal gifts to share with the congregation.) The offering was miniscule. The folding chairs got harder with every minute. Then the Holy Spirit redrew our consensus map.

Within a few moments we all knew we were in the presence of our risen Lord. Our gaze and hands turned upward as we were ushered into a cathedral of praise.

Frankly, my corporate clients cannot understand this scene. Their interior designers feel compelled to create harmony and corporate warmth in the lobby. The annual Christmas party must provide the seminal moment of good cheer as a payoff for working 12 and 14 hours a day. And companies require their publications to have the organization’s logo and mission statement printed on every page.

But we are the people of the eternal consensus map. We must remember our consumer’s perception is reality and, in some cases, we cannot do anything about what we see and hear around us. Second, I believe the church has to wake up and smell the presence of consensus maps in our ministries and be vigilant about serving our Lord with expertise. I am also a proponent that our ministry needs to constantly reinforce our presence with an active and constantly reviewed vision and mission statement.

Now, add to those assumptions the eternal consensus map echoed by the people of the Spirit: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6).

The ultimate attraction for our ministry is not whom we see in the mirror, but whom our consumers see in us … which is the new road on the consensus map.