Market Strategy ≠ Church Growth: So Say Evangelicals

I know I haven’t posted in awhile. The busy Lenten season, National Lutheran Schools Week, along with a family of four young kids has been keeping me on my toes. Nonetheless, I came across another fascinating critique from within the evangelical church found on Skye Jethani’s site www.outofur.com. It was a two part interview with Jim Gilmore entitled “Risky Business.” I have posted it here in its entirety. I may not totally agree with his short answer on “ministry” in the church as well as a few other small tidbits, nonetheless it is an utterly fascinating critique. See what you think.

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I first discovered Jim Gilmore when his book, The Experience Economy, was handed to me by a nationally known church consultant in 2002. If I wanted my church to grow, he explained, I had to employ the marketplace strategies in Gilmore’s book. Years later I wrote about my encounter with the church consultant in my first book, The Divine Commodity, and how I believed his advice was misguided. I specifically mentioned the danger of applying Gilmore’s book to the church. A few months later my phone rang. It was Jim Gilmore calling to thank me. That was the start of our friendship.

Jim’s bio will fill you in on his business chops and publishing accolades, but he’s best described as a “professional observer.” And his skills are highly sought after by companies and universities. When I’m curious about a random topic, an email to Jim will include a reply with five must-read books on the subject. He seems to know something about everything! He’s also the only person I know who teaches at a business school, seminary, and architecture program. As I continue my research for my next book, I spoke with Jim about the current state of the church and how Christians should think about engaging the world.

Skye: You spend a lot of time in the gap between the business world and the ministry world. Why do you find this space so important?

Jim Gilmore: Because business is the most corrupting influence on the visible church today. I only became fascinated with this space when I learned of so many pastors reading our book, The Experience Economy. I would normally have been delighted to have readership emerge in any pocket of the population, except the book was not being read to obtain a better understanding of the commercial culture in which congregants live, but in many cases as a primer for “doing church.” I found it particularly troubling when our models for staging experiences in the world were being specifically applied to worship practices.

The talk of “multi-sensory worship,” the installation of video screens, the use of PowerPoint, having cup-holders in sanctuaries — and I’m not talking about for the placement of communion cups — and even more ridiculous applications really took me back. I even read of a pastor who performed a high-wire act, literally–above his congregation. All of this effort to enhance the so-called “worship experience” arose at the same time that I detected a decline in the number of preachers actually faithfully preaching the gospel through sound exposition of the scriptural text.

Skye: Why do you think it’s so dangerous to use what’s effective in the marketplace in the church?

The church is to stand apart from the marketplace. The church is not a business; she should sell no economic offerings. In an age when more and more of life is being commodified — we are going beyond just the buying and selling of goods and services and now charging for life experiences and personal transformations — the church needs to refrain from participating in this activity. Just because experiences and transformations “sounds like what we do,” as one pastor once told me, that is not a reason to abandon the very limited role for the organized church as prescribed in scripture. The church should not number itself among other worldly enterprises, performing roles properly assigned to other institutions. Instead, the church should be the place where individuals are equipped for when they go forth in their daily pursuits.

I am greatly influenced here by Abraham Kuyper’s spheres of sovereignty and recent “Two Kingdoms” thinking. We are dual citizens of an eternal and a temporal kingdom, but we should not confuse the two. If in sharing this perspective I turn some of your readers off, well, let me point to someone of a very different theological stripe: Robert Farrar Capon. I love his treatment of the parables of Jesus. Every pastor who truly wants the best for his flock should read his three books on the parables. Capon makes it very clear: the church and pastors are not here to help improve peoples’ lives. Leave that for the marketplace and private charity. No, they’re here to provoke people into understanding the need to die to self and to be found in Christ. No orchestrated experience can substitute for good old fashioned preaching of the gospel.

We were at a conference together last year, and you got very uncomfortable when a presenter repeatedly said, “The church is in the transformation business.” Was he wrong?

The church does not exist to help guide transformations, and this goes for two types of transformations. The church has no role in guiding personal transformations in individuals, which only contributes to turning Christianity into what Christian Smith has described as therapeutic moralistic deism. Neither should the church see itself as guiding collective transformations–ushering in some new worldwide ethos-system, the kind of “parousia” nonsense that Brian McLaren fantasizes about.

The church exists to proclaim the gospel: to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, to exercise proper church discipline. And that’s about it. The rest we should do as private individuals and in collective efforts with others outside of church.

Skye: So what is the solution to the captivity of ministry leaders to business models?

I’ve got a theory: to the extent that the church does not know its Bible, really know the Bible, the more it seeks distraction in terms of participating in other ministries and making junkets to ministry conferences.

We truly neglect the reading of God’s Word today. We give it lip service, beginning with pastors. But I have heard too many pastors who obviously know more about Seth Godin’s Purple Cow than know about historical-critical interpretation of the Bible.

And I’ve got a very simple suggestion. Pastors should preach through the book of Galatians and read the epistle in its entirety every day in the process. Encourage your congregation to do the same. Luther called Galatians the Magna Carta of Christianity. If we committed ourselves to that, we probably wouldn’t need most of these ministry conferences. Let me add, no church should ever send any pastor to any conference if they have not first read Luther’s commentary on Galatians.

Skye: How is ministry a different calling than leadership in other areas?

“Ministry” in the church should not be singled out as distinct from other vocations in terms of being ministry. I’ll tell you who and what is very helpful here: Os Guinness and his book, The Call. We do a great disservice when we treat those who do not hold positions in the church as somehow not equally called to ministry. We set up a false sense of guilt. Worse, we end up with some of the most unqualified men in the pulpit.

Skye: I’m working on a book, in part, about vocation and how Christians should relate to the world. Who has influenced your thinking on that issue?

Again, I find Os Guinness so helpful here. As he puts it, calling means “Do what you are” not “You are what you do.” And I’ve always held as a conviction what I heard James Boice preach during my college days at Penn: Labor where God has placed you. How should one relate to the world? Don’t develop grandiose schemes for greatness, just labor where God has placed you. Don’t do some rain dance; dig some ditches.

Skye: And how should pastors think differently about the culture?

Why, oh why, do they have this need to “engage the culture”? The culture ain’t interested back. Now, I think pastors and elders, and deacons, and all church members should seek to understand culture. I teach a course in cultural hermeneutics at Westminster Seminary California. Here’s what I tell my students: Invest the minimal amount of effort for the maximum amount of understanding so that you can know the cultural norms in which your congregants are situated.

Some simple suggestions: Read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and your local newspaper daily; these are wonderful filters for what is happening of significance. Channel surf TV once a week on different nights of the week, with your spouse, so you know what others are watching. Read movie reviews more than you actually watch movies. Movies, while the dominant medium of our time, are an enormous waste of time. Visit the magazine rack once a month; take note of the headline topics, and look especially for premier issues of new publications. Walk the mall. Watch what people wear, and notice what they do. If you look closely, you’ll find it quite easy to engage culture simply by calling attention to what you observe. Jesus had this skill of observation. Seek likewise to look, really look, for yourself. I think just noticing what others miss as they walk by, head buried in a screen, goes a long way in this regard.

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