March 12, 2012
Risky Business (Part 1)
A business expert warns pastors not to emulate marketplace principles.
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.
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.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview.