The Church in an Experience Economy

Monday, July 13th 2009
Jul/Aug 2009

White Horse Inn host Michael Horton recently had a special opportunity to talk about Christ in a post-Christian culture with James Gilmore. He is the author of several books, including Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Harvard Business Press, 2007) and The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Harvard Business Press, 1999), both of which he co-wrote with B. Joseph Pine II. Mr. Gilmore is a partner at Strategic Horizons consulting company in Aurora, Ohio.

One of the goals of our series this year is to understand how we can be Christians in a post-Christian culture, which seems to be dominated by experiences. Even worship has become the worship "experience." How is it that we're living in what you have coined as an "experience economy"?
There is a book whose primary argument is an economic thesis purporting that experiences are a distinct form of economic output. One way to think about how that migrates over to this issue is whether or not we believe that business is the dominant social institution of our time. If business is pursuing experience, it seems natural that other institutions as well, such as the church, would grab onto that idea. The not-for-profit sector also speaks about the "donor experience"-we no longer just give money; we have to stage some event in order to solicit the money. So, in multiple spheres of life and culture, we see this desire for experiences. But what we address explicitly in the book is the desire for consumers to have experiences today.

How can you sell experiences?
You attach a price to it. In general terms, you call it an admission fee, just like you pay to go to Disneyland or to see a movie. If you pay an access fee, or if you pay a fee to spend time at some place or event, that's the way to explicitly charge for experience. But it also exists in subtler forms: a monthly subscription to Netflix is a subtle but significant difference from paying for each Blockbuster movie rental. In some sense, the service is subsumed inside of the experience. And once you see that subtle but significant difference, it creates opportunities to think, "Oh, let's do that with other items as well." If you can charge a subscription to movies, you can charge a subscription to handbags, which is happening. Rather than purchasing an expensive handbag, one has an annual fee, paying only for the time the bag is used and mailing it back to the warehouse when done.

To some extent, we've so saturated the world with goods that we need instead to find ways to charge only for the time using the goods. And, again, it's a subtle but significant difference. We argue that structurally, in industry after industry, competition will force this kind of realignment to occur, because service jobs are going away just like manufacturing jobs have gone away, and they're not coming back. Our book addresses a long-term structural shift in the very fabric of advanced economies.

Do you see a parallel between what's happening in the economy generally and the proclivity of church leaders to use terms like "worship experience"? Have terms and phrases like that fallen into our vocabulary by accident?
I haven't studied it rigorously, but I suspect that's the case. Perhaps the term worship "service" emerged with the service economy. In "worship wars," what people clearly experience as consumers in the marketplace has found its way into the church. I'm not necessarily sure that this is a new postmodern phenomenon. The practice of setting hymns to old drinking tunes and so forth has been around for a long time, and is probably not an altogether bad thing. But I think there's a mixture of good and bad in our church environments.

What do you see as the good that we could use and the bad that we should avoid?
I always struggle with not bringing my own personal tastes and preferences into this. As a son of a former Air Force chaplain, I learned to be somewhat accommodating or willing to let loose some rope if you will-or a noose in some cases. I have some main concerns in this area. First and foremost is the rise of business activity within the visible church; that is, charging for things: from charging at a book table to a couples' retreat, or to separate fundraising for flowers. Although much of this has been going on for a long time, there is a significant update. Instead of the book table, we now have the "Holy Grounds Coffee Shop and Book Shop." It's this commercial activity that most troubles me. The church is not a business and should not sell economic offerings. As I see the digitization of media, it seems to me all the more reason to give away these items for free. If your church writes new hymns or new praise choruses, why not make it freely available to others? If you write commentaries or if you publish your sermons, why not make that freely available instead of using it as a revenue source? It seems to me that God ordained means of funding the churches through the tithe and offerings; and the extent to which a significant portion of revenue comes from places other than the tithe and offerings, the church becomes a business, which is a corrupting influence.

It becomes beholden to whatever it's dependent on.
It can be and I don't think necessarily even consciously. Oftentimes people don't think about this; they just go through the motions. Many churches-even smaller churches-have certain practices they do because it's what they've always done. Why should individual donations pay for Easter lilies instead of paying for them out of the general funds like we do everything else? But we see a need to do these things for some reason. A small bit is probably not that corrupting of an influence; but if it's in a major activity of the church, I think it corrupts in ways unthinkingly, because it doesn't maintain the purity of the church.

And a lot of this is happening. The experience economy may be a context in which there's been a sort of proliferation of activities and in which we can lose focus on the primary, limited purposes of the visible church. For instance, how many churches are full of activities but don't practice the Lord's Supper every week? I would rather see it start there. I've had pastors approach me who read The Experience Economy in seminary. They ask, "How can we make the worship experience more compelling, more engaging?" My answer is that we already have this institution ordained by God and given to us; we can't get any more multi-century than the Lord's Supper. I worry sometimes that our work gets taken as sort of a primer for worship.

That's pretty remarkable, because your book has received a lot of attention as sort of summarizing a cultural movement and what's going on today in the macro-business world; and yet when people in churches ask you how they can make this transition into the church and how the church can become part of the experience economy, you're saying that the church is different from a business.
Yes, absolutely. Pastors, church leaders, and laypeople read the book, but they need to understand that its thesis is a structural shift in the nature of the economy in terms of what people desire to purchase as consumers. To some extent, I think the church should be the one institution that completely refrains from that activity; it should be the one place where people can escape from that activity because it is the place that offers the free gift.

So, the whole connection between the gospel and the life of the church-not necessarily the life of all Christians, because we live in two worlds-should be defined together; the gospel and life in the church are related.
We are in two worlds and in our church homes where we labor for our local congregations as I think we should. To me, this offer of the free gift should have a derivative effect of all the activities of the church. They too should be for free. And also, I think it should influence what is performed as an organized body and what is done in the private lives of members. The other thing I see going on is that many activities are brought into the formal management or staging of the organized church, as opposed to maintaining the relationship with people's lives in the world when they come to the visible church for discipline, for oversight, or for counsel. I think this is a previous era when the farmer would meet with elders to adjust weights and balances to say how much did you really charge me? Is your scale accurate? You would be held accountable in your private endeavors outside the church. When the church becomes the platform for these worldly activities, you would think there would be greater oversight, especially within the visible church, but we don't bother to look at it. In fact, a lot of these activities, when they come inside of the church, are a mechanism not to be looked at, at least not to the scrutiny of "what are you doing with that business enterprise?"

I just read T. David Gordon's wonderful book Why Johnny Can't Preach. What struck me in this book was the lack of performance reviews or feedback mechanisms for the sermon of the pastor. We don't talk about that, let alone talk about these other things. I think more Christians should be encouraged to pursue experience and transformation pursuits in their private lives. In fact, I think it's right for the church to ask, for example, some member of means who is working for some business that does not have an explicitly Christian worldview, "Why are you still working there? Perhaps you should take the capital that you've earned, that you're sitting on, and put it at risk and start some new venture, in this world of experiences, in this world of transformations, and have a Christian happen to run that business."

I think we did have this in past eras and that some of the great manufacture enterprises and service enterprises were founded by Christians. They understood the difference between the two worlds. But I think sometimes we as Christians are not participating as fully in the invention of new experiences and transformations in our private lives because we've retreated to doing those activities in the church. How many aspiring rock musicians are playing in the house band of the church instead of being in the marketplace? I'd rather have them in the marketplace. Acts 17:17 says that Paul went daily into the marketplace to reason with whoever happened to be there. To me, that's the theme verse: go into the marketplace. Experience and transformations offer opportunities to do that, as opposed to doing the experiences and transformations inside the church.

It's interesting to see how you followed your book The Experience Economy with Authenticity and the concern in our culture with authenticity. We often encounter in the church: "Oh, now this is what we need: be a real Christian." What do you mean by authenticity? What's happening here and why is it being appropriated in the church?
This one definitely is not just in the church but everywhere. You can't escape eating at a self-proclaimed "authentic" Mexican restaurant, or driving a "real" car, or using the "real" Yellow Pages ad nauseam; that is, people self-describing their offerings as authentic or real.

It was seven or eight years between books for us, although many business writers pump out a book every six or twelve months. Not us. We like to focus our attention on longer-term, structural, more significant trends. It's not even a trend; it's more of a structural underpinning of what's going on. The basic notion of Authenticity is that we argue in each wave of economic history that there has emerged a dominant consumer sensibility, or a reason to buy, a motivation. In the agrarian economy, that sensibility was availability. You went to an actual market, a physical place, because you were in the market for turnips. You are going to buy five dollars' worth of turnips, so you turn to Farmer Brown and ask, "Any turnips today? Because if you have them, I'm buying them." Availability was the main concern and not price. Price would only be a concern if the price were to spike, but this would happen only if there was scarcity.

It wasn't until the shift to an industrial economy that cost emerged as the primary concern. What mass production did was drive down the cost of goods so that nearly everybody could afford to buy one of whatever they chose to own. And today in the United States, a little over 99 percent of the population owns one of every physical good category they want. We forget that our ancestors bought their first-ever radio, their first-ever dishwasher, their first-ever dress pair of shoes, their first-ever belt, or even their first-ever hairbrush-because mass production made things affordable, and so affordability became the dominant concern.

Then with the shift to the service economy, quality emerged. That is, when you suddenly are paying somebody else to change your oil instead of changing it yourself, to mow your lawn instead of mowing it yourself, or do your nails, or cut your hair-then you care about the performance or the quality of those services or the quality of those goods. And now in the shift to the experience economy where you pay to augment parenting in an American Girl Place, you pay to have the Geek Squad come and repair your computer, you vacation in places like Atlantis, or you get a drink at the ice bar, vodka bar, and it's five degrees-all these almost unreal, surreal kind of environments that are constructed. In this kind of experience economy, we think this creates the desire for real. People want authentic. So the lens through which consumers evaluate something today is whether it's real or fake. It used to be that if people didn't like something they'd say, "Aw, that's a piece of junk." You don't hear that too much today. Today, if people don't like something, they'll say: "Oh, that's so fake; that's so phony." This is now, we argue, the dominant term of derision and it is what people most value. Similarly, when they look at a church and when they look at a preacher, they say, "Aw, that's a fake church-it's not real," I'd argue that they bring that consumer lens. It's not about the quality of the preaching anymore; it's about how authentic and real the preaching is. That's the mentality they bring to it.

It seems that what a lot of younger people mean by "authentic" is that it isn't like their parents' church with all the bells and whistles, which was sort of creating the Disney experience of God. They want to encounter God as he is, even if it terrifies them.
That's certainly one manifestation of it. We sometimes jokingly say that Europe is authentic to Americans because it's older than we are. Disneyland is real to anyone who was born after 1955 because it's older than they are. So especially with Emergents going back to ancient church. They want to go back to something that's more authentic versus all this fakery of our parents' generation, but they don't recognize that some of the practices in reaction to that are equally contrived.

The key here is to know what the church does and do it well-that is, Word and Sacrament ministry-and then go out into your vocations as Christians, working side by side with non-Christians, and do the best that you can do, to the glory of God.
Abraham Kuyper's "spheres of sovereignty" is what I'm arguing here. To folks who are well versed in Reformed circles: let's go back and read those lectures at Princeton.

Monday, July 13th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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