ASK ANY SALES MANAGER and he will tell you how important it is for his sales force to have confidence in the product they are selling. If they are confident that their product is the best on the market, they will hit their targets with ease. There will be a spring in their step and they will have no fear of competitors.

If however the sales force believe that theirs is an inferior product, morale will be low. They will clamour for product improvements and new models. When they meet customers they will be half expecting them to buy a competitor’s product, and sympathising with them if they do. They will fail to meet targets, and rapidly come to believe that there is little they can do. The blame will be laid at the door of research or product development or marketing, in fact anywhere other than the sales department.

In business, you have to devise products that meet customer needs. You won’t do very well for instance, if you try to sell potato peelers in a country where the staple diet is rice. A successful product is one that customers want to buy and do buy. So companies are prepared to invest heavily in focus groups, consisting of a cross section of customers, to find out what features and functionality the customer desires. The results form the agenda for research and product development departments. They may also help to mould advertising campaigns to stress the features of the product that will have the most appeal to potential customers.

Now some people see the Christian faith as a product, a product that can be recast and remodelled in the light of trends in society. Others see the Christian faith as a revelation from God and therefore timeless and unchanging – and hence non-negotiable.

It would appear that the powers that be in the Church of England subscribe to the former view, if a report by Victoria Combe in The Daily Telegraph on 18th February is anything to go by. “Church plans market research to gauge views of ‘customers'” trumpeted the headline.

“The Church is to borrow New Labour techniques to conduct market research with focus groups to find out what its “customers” want from churches and priests. The groups, which will begin in 20 dioceses later this year, are part of a wider strategy to make the Church of England appear more businesslike and efficient.

“The scheme will be run by the Church’s new “board of directors”, the 19-strong Archbishops’ Council, which had its first meeting this week to discuss new methods of leadership and management.

“A marketing strategist, Jayne Ozanne, 30, has been appointed to the council to run the research. Her previous products include Fairy Liquid, Lenor fabric softener, Kleenex tissues, Simplicity sanitary towels and Huggies nappies.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, who is co-chairman of the council with the Archbishop of York, has initiated the reforms in the belief that a better-run Church will attract young worshippers.

“Dr Bill Beaver, the Church’s director of communications, said: “If we are going to make a contribution to the nation the Church has to be more businesslike. People are not going to go on a faith journey with an organisation which is in a shambles.” When asked if the project would look at worshippers as customers, Dr Beaver said, “absolutely”, adding that finding out what people wanted of the Church was “good business practice”. If this council wants to make real changes and be a force for good, it has to know where the shoe pinches,” said Dr Beaver, who previously worked in marketing at NatWest Bank.”

Now we know The Daily Telegraph hardly has a reputation for accurate and sympathetic reporting of Church of England affairs, but it is sad if they are right that the new Archbishops’ Council is following in the footsteps of New Labour – and will advocate the espousal of anything that focus groups say might fill pews. Are we going to follow Tony Blair’s modus operandi of abandoning principle and running with any policy that focus groups say would be popular? Do we really want to model the Church of England on New Labour’s rapidly tarnishing image?

As it happens, I met a bishop last month who had a radically different set of priorities. Not for him the slick image makers and consultants. He had a refreshingly businesslike approach (of which I hope the revered Dr Beaver would approve). Mindful that the Church has a pithy and succinct mission statement, given by its founder, no less (Go and make disciples), he has decided that in his diocese he will make a priority of doing exactly that.

Not for him the millennium candle with a prayer that doesn’t mention Jesus (his diocese has better things to do with its money!). His diocese has enjoyed a compound growth rate of 6% per annum throughout the Decade of Evangelism. He has told his clergy that he expects every parish to bring Jesus a millennium birthday present on 25th December 1999 – and what better present than 20 new converts? There is not much doubt that God would find that very acceptable, since Jesus himself said that there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The diocese intends to mark the year 2000 by planting at least ten new churches. The sites have already been marked on the map. There is of course the problem of money and like most dioceses there is not a lot of that about. Indeed they failed to pay full stipends to their clergy last year. In fact if it wasn’t for the fact that the Bishop hasn’t drawn his stipend for over a year, the Diocese would have been calling in the receivers already. It must be obvious by now that the diocese concerned is not in England. How could it be?

Even if nobody in the diocese has heard of Fairy, Lenor, Kleenex, Simplicity or Huggies, what does it matter? Congregations of subsistence farmers facing crop failures through lack of rain can nevertheless build a church and make it grow. Evangelists are prepared to go and plant churches for £15 per month plus a bicycle – and grow their own food to make ends meet. A Bishop is prepared to set an example. It could only happen in Tanzania.

Gerry O’Brien spent three weeks in Tanzania during March. He is a lay member of the General Synod.