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.

"We believe that as the church largely embraces the principles of business [and] looks like a for-profit enterprise, you run the risk of coming off as inauthentic," Pine said.

Rather than emulating the experience economy, the church should provide a radical alternative, the authors said. The church should sell nothing--not even books, meals or trips--but give them away.

Others, however, said the point of view presented by Pine and Gilmore relies heavily on a Calvinistic theology that places the church in opposition to culture.

Lawrence, the Menlo Park worship minister, agreed experience is at the heart of the Christian faith. "Our primary means of understanding the awesomeness of God has been experience," he said. Moses' encounter with the burning bush was "an experience that led to a profound transformation."

"I can certainly see that the evangelical church could take this about the experience economy and misuse it," he said, "but there is no doubt in my mind we are an experiential church. In some great, heavenly sense, we are part of a continuing experience of God's greatness."

"It is archaic thinking that we can separate ourselves from the culture," said Lawrence, whose church--a 125-year-old evangelical Presbyterian congregation--ministers in the Silicon Valley. "We need to constantly be thinking about how the culture is impacting the people we minister to. It's foolish to ignore it. But that doesn't mean we are embracing the folly of culture."

The test of content

Most of the church leaders interviewed said Christianity is well suited for a world that values experience.

"We already have the greatest transformational experience--conversion," said John Purcell of Perimeter Church.

"Good communicators want to pay attention to the audience," said Steve Stroope, pastor of Lake Pointe Church, a Baptist congregation near Dallas. That means making sure that people with different learning styles--visual, auditory or experiential--each have a way to connect with the message. "But we need to use the creativity God has given us to allow people to engage," he adds.

Both Stroope and Purcell said worship, for instance, should engage people as participants, not entertain them as spectators.

An experiential point of view is neither a threat nor a cure-all, said Larry Osborne of Vista, Cal. "It can lead to some horrible things and some marvelous things. It's only a medium. And every time a new medium comes on the scene, we think it's the end of the world as we know it."

"The question is not, `Are we going to provide experiences?' But are those experiences going to help the gospel or hinder the gospel? Are they going to reach many or few?"

As with secular experiences, Osborne said, the test is the content--Is it of value? A church that focuses on offering meaningful experiences but which abandons its biblical message "will be a flash in the pan."

Doug Lawrence of Menlo Park predicted Christianity will thrive in the experience economy, even as the church adapted through past cultural changes. "I think the church will be fine, but it will have to be more diligent in its efforts to intentionalize its programs and services of worship." To begin, he said, worship planners must view worship from the participant's point of view, then judge whether it is authentic, theologically sound and "transformational," that is, "will people be changed by having this moment."

Theming the experience

Lake Pointe Church near Dallas is using theming in its children's facilities to enhance the experience. Built near a lake, the church's children's building has aquariums and an indoor dock, where "fish" are caught with magnetic fishing poles. Children can play on a gym set like the ones they find at McDonalds. All grade-school departments have video projection equipment and computers equipped with Powerpoint presentation software. A slide carries elementary children down from classrooms on the second floor. "If we had put the slide outside, it would have cost as much, but nobody would have noticed it," said Stroope.

Stroope has heard the criticism--that such techniques are extravagant, gimmicky and manipulative. He doesn't buy it. "The experience economy doesn't water down our message. . We have stayed true doctrinally. Our people are not critical because we are still delivering content--what God has always offered in Jesus. But we use the best from the world to engage people."

"The experience economy is selling people a fake experience. What we have to offer is a real experience." That's particularly important with youth and young adults, who are very sensitive to faux faith, he said. "Youth want authenticity." So Lake Pointe won't use any plastic rocks or fake waterfalls in the youth facility they are building. "They are wanting experience, but they want a real experience."

Gearing a church's ministry to the experiential expectations of today's culture is a good strategy as long as there is authenticity, substance and balance, Stroope concludes. "We have to be careful, like with all these movements, not to let the tail wag the dog."

"Use all the tools," he advises. "Don't let the tools get in the way."

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