Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Learning from Applebee's

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2017 Aug 24

I’m one who believes there is much for the church to learn from the wider world – specifically, the organizational life of entities trying to expand a customer base.

No, the church is not a retail organization.

No, we are not after “customers,” per se.

Now don’t make me qualify this in a thousand common-sensical ways. Let’s just say there are lessons to be learned from those who are trying to connect a “product” to an “audience.”

So let’s learn some.

This time from Applebee’s.

If you’re like me, you throw Applebee’s into the same box as Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s and every other restaurant of that type. I couldn’t tell you the difference between their menu or décor if my life depended on it. To me, they’re all the same restaurant. 

Applebee’s wanted to set itself apart. Specifically, by going after millennials. So they left their family fare, went hip and trendy and waited for the customer base to expand.

It didn’t.

In fact, Applebee’s announced this month they will close 130 restaurants by year end.

According to Applebee’s executive John Cywinski, the chain hoped to lure “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, including a clear pendulum swing toward millennials.” So out went bargain fares and “all-you-can-eat,” and in came barbecue shrimp in a sriracha-lime sauce. 

Result? Sales dropped more than 6% from the previous year.

The official conclusion? “This pursuit led to decisions that created confusion among core guests as Applebee’s drifted from its… middle-America roots and its abundant value positioning.”

Translation: Millennials didn’t go for it, and in going after millennials they lost their core base of customers.

You smell the application coming, don’t you?

There are a vast number of churches hoping new attenders will come by throwing out an old style or ministry “menu” and trotting in something new. They often do it in a wooden and cumbersome way, losing the previously content core of the church in the process, who never understood why the changes needed to be made in the first place.

The goal of Applebee’s wasn’t wrong. In fact, it was right. If you don’t appeal to those outside of your current customer base, you won’t add new customers. 

It was how they did it.

You must be able to make strategic changes to expand your reach while at the same time bringing your current base along with you for the ride. If Applebee’s doesn’t reach younger generations, they will soon file for bankruptcy; if they don’t retain at least some of their core, they won’t have the resources to exist while they reach out.

I feel this is actually easier to do in a church than a restaurant, because you can appeal to a mission – a cause – that trumps personal tastes. There is nothing Applebee’s can do to make a current customer accept a menu they do not want. But there is much a leader can do to motivate a current church attender to die to themselves in order to reach a lost world.

But, again, the key is knowing how to do it.

In my book Rethinking the Church, the last chapter is devoted entirely to moving from “rethinking” to “change.” In that chapter, I detail how to change a church without killing it, how to transition without having a train wreck and how to move forward while bringing everyone along with you. 

There really is a way.

But it is a set of learned skills, ones that many do not know.

Just ask Applebee’s.

James Emery White


Ana Lucia Murillo, “Applebee’s Gives Up On Millennials After Failed Rebranding Efforts,” NPR, August 15, 2017, read online.

James Emery White, Rethinking the Church (Baker).

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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