Beliefnet

Excerpted by permission from FaithWorks magazine.

What do you expect a church to do for you?

What we expect from a church may be changing as our culture--and in particular our economy--changes.

Consumers are now concerned not only with the quality and price of the products and services they buy, but with the "experience" of buying them. And sometimes the experience itself is the product.

From elaborate theme restaurants to exotic adventure vacations, the experience economy is catching on. You can design your own eyeglass frames or your own virtual roller coaster. People are paying to work on a shrimp boat or construction crew.

How will Christianity fare in a culture that puts a premium on the marketing of experiences?

Does any of this matter to Christians? Should the church see itself in the business of providing spiritual experiences for seekers or is the concept foreign to the gospel?

There are sharp disagreements among Christian leaders over these issues.

As our culture becomes more focused on experiences, churches will place more emphasis on the experiential nature of faith, predicts Larry Osborne, one of the senior pastors of North Coast Church in Vista, Cal. But in a sense, he said, there's nothing new there. "People have always had spiritual experiences."

Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have long described salvation as a personal experience with God. Yet much of their evangelism has focused on building a rational argument for God. Much worship has been more passive observation than active participation.

The experiential nature of the Christian faith is often lost, said Doug Lawrence, minister of worship at the 5,000-member Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, Cal.

"The church in the experience economy must move beyond simply providing services to a new sense of--you should pardon the theologically impaired term--enchantment," Lawrence said. "It will be expected and needed to engage people in this new culture."

The staff of Perimeter Church in Atlanta has spent a lot of time lately talking about how the experience economy affects their ministry, said staff director John Purcell. "We are really interested in the concept, not only because that's where the culture is going but because . that's what the church is in the business of--transformational experiences."

That doesn't mean Perimeter Church is going to "theme everything," Purcell said, but the church is paying attention to how the culture is influencing their church members. "We have to understand what they are getting in the world. We don't want to just mirror the marketplace. But we can learn from it."

North Coast Church in California has been designing its worship services from an experiential point of view for several years--before they even heard of the concept.

When the congregation outgrew its 600-seat sanctuary, church leaders thought about opening overflow rooms but knew they needed to do more. So they created a different worship experience--a video café with live worship music in a casual setting but with the same sermon shown on a video projector.

Rather than "punishing" latecomers by sending them to an overflow room, the video café is an attractive alternative that reaches a different type of worshipers. It has been so popular that occasionally the café fills first, and the main sanctuary becomes the "overflow."

Two more alternative experiences have since been added--a traditional service and a Gen-X service--creating four distinct, simultaneous, themed worship experiences, each with live worship music but sharing the same preacher and sermon.

North Coast Church has about 4,000 or more people in worship on a typical weekend, with most of them attending the video cafés. "It's a megachurch that doesn't feel like one," says Osborne. "Each preserves a small-church feel."

In the world or of it?

Much of this debate centers on how much the church should reflect the culture. To some degree, all churches reflect a culture, either past or present. Some do so intentionally, some accidentally. But it is almost unavoidable.

The megachurches emerged during the 1980s' services economy, providing such diverse services as health clubs, bowling alleys, private schools, bookstores and addiction recovery groups. They are blamed for fostering a consumer mentality among church shoppers.

It is not yet clear if or how churches will take on the marks of the experience economy. But Pine and Gilmore, themselves Christians, say that would be a mistake.

"We get emails from pastors and churchgoers and fellow Christians who say, `We would love to use your book as a primer to stage a more compelling worship experience.' We tremble a bit at that," said Pine.

"God is the audience of worship," Pine said. "Therefore, we need to worship as the Bible prescribes, not with the imaginations and devices of men." Worship should center on celebrating Communion, "the most profound of human experiences," he said.

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