5 lessons that Google can teach the Church


The irony wasn't lost on me that we were using Google maps to try and find our way around the Google campus. Alas, the app wasn't having much joy in helping us find the visitor's centre and so we had to resort to asking strangers for directions. Weirdly for one of the world's most influential companies, signage was not a strong point. Nevertheless, we finally made it and we were met by an energetic young Christian woman with a passion for God and her work. She gave us a whistle-stop tour of the campus and because theologians can never turn off their training, I hereby present to you five things I think the Church can learn from Google. Having good signage is not even on the list...

1. Bring your whole self to work

This idea is somewhat of a mantra within Google and one of its practical outworkings is that you can bring your dog to work and have him sit at your desk. More profoundly it reflects a design philosophy of the structures and procedures of being a Google employee. On the sprawling campuses there are mobile masseuses, fitness classes, swimming pools, an onsite physio, barbecues, and dry cleaning operators. Plus Nap Pods where you can grab 40 winks in the middle of the day, should you be so inclined. Every form of service that you can dream of is available and mostly free to the Google employee. Google tries to think holistically about the lives of their workers and not just about the working hours that an employee owes the company. Some people call this experience the 'golden handcuff' as it is difficult to leave a company that provides so much for the people that work for them. Perhaps the Church could take a leaf out of the Google playbook. We dedicate a lot of time and energy on the Sunday morning experience of our congregations and too little on the everyday lives of our church members. If we are not careful, we too quickly turn church into a weekly worship service rather than helping our people to worship through weeklong service. I would love to see a church that was training and helping the congregation to not just bring their whole selves to church, but to bring their whole soul to work too.

2. The power of social architecture

Whoever is designing the internal corporate climate in Google must have read and digested the book Nudge. The authors Thaler and Sunstien explain that a 'nudge' is any aspect of "choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives... Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not."

Google make sure you are never more than a 100 yards from free food and drink. There are various kitchenettes dotted throughout the campus as well as the main free dining hall. There are also huge refrigerators stacked full of drinks. But the majority of them are healthy options: juices, ice tea and water, with only a few fizzy drinks. Just as Nudge advocates, positioned at eye level are granola bars and fresh fruit and hidden from sight are the kettle chips and Pringles. In order to get to the chocolate you have to stoop down to the floor. Google are encouraging those healthy options when it comes to grazing in between meetings. There are no signs or posters to cajole and influence you into these choices, just thoughtfulness regarding the psychology of their architecture and organisation. It would be great to follow suit in our churches, rethinking the design of our worship spaces to encourage people to make healthy habit-forming choices when it comes to using their homes as places of social influence, for example. Traditional churches that meet in rows facing the preacher can discourage a sense of community. Modern churches that meet in the dark may discourage people from following along in their Bibles. Generous hospitable churches could breed habits that mean the congregation become more generous and hospitable too throughout the week.

3. Creativity can be nurtured

Engineers at Google are encouraged to get creative. This is not just a corporate slogan – engineers are allowed to spend 20 per cent of their work time developing independent projects they are passionate about. That's an interesting approach to management. It recognises that employees are going to be motivated to work hard at things they have a degree of autonomy over, and also that creativity is in the workforce, not just in the management. It would be great to see Christian businesses encouraging employees to dedicate a percentage of their time to engage with social action and community projects. It would also be great to see churches working out how best to tap into the creative potential of their members. I have seen too many churches unwittingly encourage members to take a passive role, or simply to add their energies to existing programmes by joining rotas or giving money. But Google offers us a different model – imagine if churches made 20 per cent of their finances available to encourage their members to get creative in social entrepreneurial projects or evangelistic outreach?

4. Be part of a global revolution

I felt a lot like a grandparent at Google as it was the youngest workforce I have ever seen. Of the thousands of employees, the majority seem be in their 20s. This is not unique to Google. Silicon Valley is the new global gold rush with young adults from around the world prospecting in the area in the hope they can be a part of the next start up sensation. Huge fortunes are being made by rock-star entrepreneurs. The A-list celebrities in town are not movie stars, but engineers and scientists, nerds and entrepreneurs. Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Larry Page are the names that people are dropping into conversation or trying to spot on the streets of Palo Alto. It is innovation that is celebrated here. There is a sense of destiny about Silicon Valley. I have heard it said that just as New York is a global centre of financial influence and Los Angeles is shaping the global entertainment industry, so Silicon Valley is influencing the way the world thinks, communicates and dreams. Too often the Church has no sense of its mandate to be a global influencer. Too often we are playing catch up with culture; copying it rather than trying to create a culture that will shape the world. In our churches we are keen to celebrate preachers and worship leaders and while these are important roles, we perhaps forget to celebrate the engineers, scientists, designers and technicians amongst us. We need to wake up to the huge opportunities around us to influence our world for the Kingdom of God, and recognise that most of that influence is in the pew and not in the pulpit.

5. Build a culture of confidence

I noticed a sense of confidence, assurance and in most circumstances a healthy sense of pride among those that worked for Google. I didn't meet a single employee who was embarrassed about their position. In the gift shop, anything that carried a Google brand was flying off of the shelves. Indeed, people who work at Google are happy to identify themselves as 'Googlers', so strong is the sense of identity with the company. All of this despite the global scandal of Google's tax payments, despite their failed April fool's prank and even the washout of products such as Google Glass, Google Wave, Google Plus and Google Wallet.

Contrast this with Christians who have a real sense of unease when asked in public about their involvement with church or their allegiance to Christ. It is can be embarrassing to be affiliated with Christianity because the Church is often seen as a liability with sex abuse scandals, in some parts of the world questionable alliances with political parties and in some areas homophobic and discriminatory practice. But for many Christians there is a lot of fear about publically identifying with Christ for fear of repercussions. Perhaps there are some lessons about corporate culture, innovation and development from Google that will help the Church learn how to instill the same kind of confidence in its members.

It was fascinating to me how much of a company's culture can be gleaned from a whistle-stop tour. I wonder what values and impact an hour's visit to your church would impress? As we used Google maps to get home and I tried to ignore the number of emails that had come into my Gmail account, it struck me that Google's organisational culture had helped shaped their products which were shaping my life. If we invest time and energy into our corporate life as the Church, we can shape not only the lives of our congregation, but we can also bring gospel influence in our world today.