7 Practices the Catholic Church Can Learn from Ikea

Ikea Francis

Whenever I told someone I was a double major in theology and economics, the response was almost always the same: “Oh, that’s an interesting combination.”

Of course, businesses are interested in profits, not prophets; the Church is concerned with souls, not sales. Still, with due respect for the obvious differences, the Church and the business world actually have much in common.  

Emerging from a ragtag group of disciples in a backwater of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church currently constitutes 17% of the world’s population. Since its humble Swedish beginnings, Ikea has grown into the world’s largest furniture retailer, operating in and adapting to diverse cultural contexts.

As fellow multinational operations, they can learn from each. With that in mind, I submit seven practices the Catholic Church can learn from Ikea:

  1. Always focus on the mission.

Ikea has a guiding vision of what it sets out to do: “create a better everyday life for the many people.” This motto, including the curious phrase “the many people,” has become a mantra for Ikea employees. They do this by offering stylish products that are very, very cheap. There’s even a term for products that are jaw-droppingly cheap: “breathtaking items,” or “BTIs.”

This comes with downsides. One of the main reasons their furniture is so cheap is that it requires customers to assemble it. A day spent wandering the maze of an Ikea store and assembling furniture is horribly stressful; it has even been dubbed the “Ikea relationship curse.” Ikea has attempted to make assembly easier, but it still often pushes work onto the consumer in order to offer great prices. And, despite the headaches, people keep coming back because of this low-cost focus.

The Catholic Church has not always been so focused. The Latin American bishops in 2007 led by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio deplored “a Catholic faith reduced… to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices… to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing.” Echoing Pope Benedict, they wrote, “Being Christian is… the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This is what the Church is about — but something we have not always made clear to people.

  1. Listen and learn.

Central to Ikea’s success in so many different cultural contexts is its ability to listen and learn. Ikea surveyed thousands of people around the world, asking about their morning routines. In response, Ikea tailored products differently to suit the people of Shanghai — who are out the door most quickly (56 minutes) — and the people of Mumbai, who had the slowest morning routine (144 minutes).

Catholicism’s centralized hierarchy can make it challenging to deeply listen to local churches. Still, Pope Francis’ recent comments indicate that there is a movement towards greater listening. He recently called for a “listening church” in which “everyone has something to learn.” He continued, “Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Sadly, too many Catholics have felt that their experience has not been listened to, but there at least seems to be movement in the direction of greater listening.

  1. Look at people’s lived experience.

Rather than merely relying on people’s word, Ikea researchers see things for themselves. Beth Kowitt of Fortune explains, “The company frequently does home visits and — in a practice that blends research with reality TV — will even send an anthropologist to live in a volunteer’s abode.”

This practice has produced interesting results. Ikea researchers found that most subjects in Shenzhen sat on the floor and used sofas as a backrest. “We for sure have not designed our sofas according to people sitting on the floor and using a sofa like that,” notes one Ikea employee involved in the study.  But Ikea was willing to adapt its products to how people actually used the furniture.

For all of us who exercise some sort of ministry or leadership in the Church, this could be a needed challenge. The little bubble of reality in which I live isn’t the experience of most people. In his recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes that “pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are” [230]. We cannot simply expect busy people to come to us; we have to go to them.

  1. Own — and learn from — mistakes.

Ikea’s own mistakes have been some of its best teachers. When Ikea first opened in the US, they were selling far more vases than they expected. It was not because Americans had a particular passion for displaying cut flowers. Rather, Ikea’s European-sized drinking glasses were deemed too small for Americans, who often prefer drinks with ice.  Americans thus bought the larger vases — to use as drinking glasses!

Ikea celebrates such blunders because they have learned from them. “We are world champions in making mistakes,” says an Ikea design manager. “But we’re really good at correcting them.”

Some might think that Catholic leaders are also “world champions in making mistakes.” Fewer, however, would say, “We’re really good at correcting them.” It happens — thankfully, it happens — but sometimes our learning can be glacially slow.1

  1.  Innovate constantly.

At one point, Ikea had an internal “air hunt competition” to see who could come up with the best way of getting rid of air in packaging — the less air, the more product one can ship in the same space. This is quintessentially Ikea. The winner had the idea to stack and then vacuum seal tea lights, rather than packaging them loosely in a bag as they had previously done. The prize? A two-week vacation to Thailand.2

It’s not as if everything in the Church is open to innovation. We’re not going to drop one of the sacraments or add another gospel — and we’re not likely to be winning trips halfway around the world! But Ikea’s example shows the importance of constantly reading the “signs of the times” to see how we can be the best version of our Church in our contemporary contexts.

And again, Pope Francis seems to be pointing to this already. He advocates abandoning the attitude that says, “We have always done it this way,” and writes, “I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.”3

  1. Understand how cultural differences can strengthen the core message.

Ikea’s business model depends on huge economies of scale; they don’t change their products for each particular market. Instead, they’re really good at showing how different Ikea items can fit in different cultures. The sample rooms in Ikea stores are crucial to this.

Kowitt gives the example of how sample bedrooms can have the same beds and cabinets.  The Japanese version could add tatami mats, the Dutch sample bedroom could use slanted ceilings, and the US version could cover the bed in pillows. Ikea is able to sell many of the same products around the world so effectively because they understand what makes these places different. They seek first to understand a culture and how their products might fit in, before setting up shop.  As a result, Ikea is “ferocious about not expanding too rapidly” according to one consultant.

The Catholic Church similarly offers the same “products” around the world. Whether in Boston, Bangui, or Bangalore, Catholics hear the same Mass readings and have the opportunity to receive the same sacraments. A constant challenge/opportunity for the Church is to learn from diverse cultures. By doing so, we can both show how the Gospel can speak to diverse experiences and see how different cultures can shed new light on the Gospel.

  1. Engage the digital world.

Ikea has a great social media presence. To introduce their 2015 print catalogue, Ikea Singapore posted a hilarious video in which they parodied Apple’s iPhone 6 announcement. The excited Swedish “Design Güru” says, “It’s not a digital book or an e-book. It’s a bookbook… You can actually feel the pages move as you swipe!”

The Catholic Church has a long way to go. Not a few dioceses and parishes still use websites that would have been behind the times in 2006,4 let alone in 2016.

Fortunately, things are improving. I was pleasantly surprised to see “How the Catholic Church Made a Social Media Splash During the Pope’s U.S. Visit” in the Wall Street Journal. And our Design Güru-in-chief, Pope Francis, was even named the most influential world leader on Twitter for the second year in a row. The Church is — however slowly — developing more of a digital presence.

***

It may seem strange to look at a multinational company in order to learn to be a better church, but the Catholic Church in many ways is a multinational company. We have a mission that seeks to reach cultures and places the world over. And we have a lot to learn. The Church will never preach the Gospel of Billy Bookcases, or have a feast day for the Poäng Chair of Peter. But like Ikea, we are in the business of helping “the many people.” And we do well to learn from the practices of Ikea — not to boost sales, but to bolster souls.  

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This article was inspired by the fascinating profile of Ikea in Fortune by Beth Kowitt. I highly recommend it.

The cover images are from Flickr creative commons users Gerard Stolk and Aleteia Image Department.

  1. For example, Pope John Paul II acknowledged in 1992 that the Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo — 359 years after the condemnation!
  2. I conducted a simple comparison of tea lights on ikea.com and target.com, and the difference in price was striking — one might even say “breathtaking.” You can buy 100 tea lights at Target for $22.99 or purchase the same 100 tea lights at Ikea for $3.49!
  3. Evangelii Gaudium, 33.
  4. I struggled to resist the urge to provide links.

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