What the Church Can Learn from Chick-fil-A

Update: Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy died September 8, 2014, at age 93.

The cows started writing on billboards in the Twin Cities metro earlier this year. End of Burgerz — Koming Soon.

These bovines can’t spell, but we got the message — especially those of us Minnesotans who are transplants from the South. Here comes Chick-fil-A, at long last. Time to Eat Mor Chikin.

Christian Roots and Controversy

It’s no secret the chain was founded by an unapologetic Christian from the Atlanta-area. Now in his nineties, Truett Cathy has operated his restaurants on overtly Christian principles since the 1940s. His son, Dan, the franchise president, is known for his support of Christian causes and his opposition to so-called same-sex marriage, which drew national attention last year.

For the Cathy family, it goes deeper than closing on Sundays, playing Christian music, and putting “glorify God” in the corporate purpose statement. For decades, they have tried to apply the biblical worldview and ethic not just to the surface, but to press it into the culture of the chain, not only in the dining room but behind closed doors.

Learning Bible from Chick-fil-A

As I made my first visit to a stand-alone Chick-fil-A here in the Twin Cities last week, and then consulted Truett’s book, I noticed five biblical principles, among others, at work in the corporate culture — principles our local churches and leaders might benefit from being reminded of.

Let this much be clear: The church doesn’t need Chick-fil-A. We don’t need successful Christian businesses, athletes, films, and reality shows for the advance of the gospel. The tip of the spear is the local church. But when we can glean a few pointers from another body reading our Book, we might as well take notice.

1. Numbers Are Not the Name of the Game.

This may be the key insight for Chick-fil-A over and against other franchises. From the beginning, Truett has strained to show that it’s not simply about the bottom line. “Profit is not the name of the game,” he says. “It is only the scorecard for some of our accomplishments” (How Did You Do It, Truett? 55).

The effects of this emphasis are pervasive in the company’s culture. It makes it possible to close all day Sunday, and observe the six-and-one creation principle (Genesis 2:2), when other restaurants make more than 20% of their sales this day. It encourages the leadership to focus relentlessly on long-term health and stave off the endless temptations to cut corners for short-term growth and “success.” It leads to concentration on the quality of the chain, and each individual operator and restaurant, rather than outrunning the supply lines and compromising quality for quantity of stores and sales. Which means growing more slowly — and taking so long to get to Minnesota! — rather than swelling as quickly as possible. Truett writes,

To succeed we knew we had to start small and grow slowly. This is where so many start-up companies today make their mistake. Dreamers dream big, and they want to reach their goals quickly. There’s nothing wrong with big dreams. But my experience tells me that we’re more likely to reach our dreams if we climb with care and caution, putting one foot in front of the other. To some, this may be the biggest sacrifice of all — giving up the dream of instant “success.” (17–18)

It’s a helpful reminder in the church about something we should have learned long ago. It’s not a numbers game. Discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19) is not only about quantity, but mainly quality. When well-established and constantly called to mind, this principle has a pervasive effect in the local church as well.

2. Keep the Bathrooms Clean.

Truett says, “Keeping [the restroom] clean doesn’t require special skill, just discipline that comes from being concerned for the customer” (47). Put another way, Do unto others — it’s Jesus’s “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31), which, “You can’t beat . . . as a business philosophy.” One of Truett’s most common sayings is “Courtesy is cheap, but it pays great dividends” (35).

Sadly, some local churches drift into the mindset that the cleanliness of the facilities and the care of the grounds aren’t important — after all, the church’s real business is spiritual. But such is a failure to demonstrate Christian love and kindness. It’s a missed opportunity to consider others more significant than ourselves and look to their interests (Philippians 2:3–4) and serve.

“If you really aren’t interested in serving others,” says Truett, “you don’t need to be in the restaurant business in the first place” (37). The same is true for pastors, elders, and church staff. The church’s leaders and employees are there not to be served, but to serve.

3. Go the Extra Mile — With Joy.

It’s my pleasure. That’s the response you’ll often get when you thank a Chick-fil-A employee for their service. And those of us at Desiring God like to point out that it’s not just Christian, but Christian Hedonistic. It’s part of “second-mile service,” with roots in Matthew 5:41. It’s not just the Golden Rule, but more — making the extra effort and taking the initiative to serve the customer in surprising ways.

How much more should this be true in church leadership. We both aim at creating joy, and do so fueled by joy. We pastors and elders endeavor for our people’s “progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). We are workers with our people for their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24). And we bend every effort to “do this with joy and not with groaning” (Hebrews 13:17). It’s my pleasure, as an authentic expression of a joy-filled heart of service, is a beautiful pastoral response to our people’s words of gratitude.

4. Cultivate Trust Among the Leadership.

Fostering trust among a growing leadership team is seriously time-consuming. Without being free from a bottom-line-only focus, it’s doubtful it will happen. But such trust-building, says senior vice president Perry Ragsdale, is “the biggest key to our success” (56).

Chick-fil-A won’t take on new franchise owners just because they have the money. More important than funds is character, integrity, and trust. Which makes finding new operators a lengthy process and slows down the speed of how quickly the chain could expand otherwise. But it’s worth it in the long run. Says Truett, “The most important decision we make at Chick-fil-A is selecting restaurant Operators . . . . Our franchise Operators determine the success of the chain” (64).

But not only does the franchise carefully guard the gate, but once leaders are in, they seek to cultivate among them an openness to dialogue, discuss, and disagree. When leaders have been carefully chosen on the front end, and there’s intentional effort to grow trust among the team, asking questions and expressing concerns becomes a huge asset, rather than threat, to the organization. And so with pastors and elders in the local church.

5. Keep the Main Thing Central.

The name Chick-fil-A has limited what the chain can do. There is plenty of room to try new things and add waffle fries, chicken nuggets, or desserts, but with chicken in the name, they won’t offer pork or beef. And that unbending commitment to what is central has produced big payoffs in the long haul with brand and mission clarity.

The Christian church is a “creature of the gospel” — created and sustained by the gospel, for the defense and advance of the gospel. The church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” of the gospel (1 Timothy 3:15). It is the good news that Jesus saves sinners that is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), that is our heart and center, that must be affecting and shaping all we do. The church is a veritable Gospel-fil-A.

We do more than just preach the gospel. We must. But we must do the other things in right relationship with our essential message. It is so easy to get distracted from the main thing. It’s so common for wonderful peripheral things to slowly displace the center.

Amidst all the complexities of growth and contextualizing for new locations and demographics, Chick-fil-A has kept chicken central. How much more must the church labor and strain — with great gladness and deep joy — to keep the gospel of Jesus at the very heart of who we are and all we do.