March 6, 2013
The Art of Asking
It’s time to stop treating “our people” like tools.
Punk-cabaret musician and incorrigible creative Amanda Palmer shared a powerful talk at this year’s TED conference on “The Art of Asking.” In her speech, Palmer talks about how simply asking fans for things that she needs has revolutionized her creative life. It’s overhauled how she makes and profits from her music.
By replacing a hard transactional model of exchange (I give you an album, you give me 14.99) with a soft, participatory one (I give you all my albums, you give me whatever it’s worth to you), she’s recaptured the old, community-oriented dynamic of music. Like a street busker, a pub performer, a local act at open mike night, you give Amanda what her music is worth to you.
Though she’s certainly not the first to implement a pay-what-you-want model (I think that was Radiohead’s In Rainbows, and heck, now it’s the entire point of Noisetrade), Palmer takes the strategy way farther than the checkout page. She asks for a piano to practice on while she’s touring, and a Twitter follower opens up her house in London. Homemade food, opening bands, couches to sleep on, you name it, she’s probably asked for it, taken someone up on it, shared and enjoyed it.
By doing this, she’s brought her audience up onto the stage, humanized them by allowing them to assign value to her work. And in this relational exchange, she sees them. Like the eight-foot bride in the beginning of her talk, she looks them in the eyes, hands them a flower, and (even in the abstraction of digitized commerce) gives them the chance to choose her.
As a musician, Palmer’s model threatens the foundation of the traditional record industry, which is built on outdated ways to create and distribute music. But it also cuts left, striking at the root of illegal downloading culture, by reorienting the relationship between artist and audience, between the “creators” and “consumers” of recordings. You don’t need to lurk around on some Swedish filesharing site to get her back catalog. You can go to her website. And download all of it. For free, if you want, free and theft-free. Or for $10, $40, or whatever it’s worth to you. She asks the central question—“how does a musician make a living?”—differently, and it is getting a powerful response.
“Ask and you shall…”
Of course, she’s not alone in asking for things. At the first glance, ministry culture frequently faces the opposite problem to that faced by the record industry. Rather than demanding our 14.99 for the “album,” we give our product away for free. But are we really that different?
No. I think that there’s a largely unspoken dynamic that is constantly evaluating what we’re able to get out of the people who walk through our doors.
In order to exist, we need funding, volunteer hours, philosophical engagement, and so on. We need a lot, and we usually have to ask for it.
Yes, church leaders live in a world based on asking. But in my experience, not the kind that Palmer describes. You know what I’m talking about. Functionally, we reduce the people who join us in our church communities either to assets to use or liabilities to limit or fix. This comes out unconsciously in our thinking, in our preaching and small-grouping, and worship leading. Once you recognize it, you begin to see it everywhere.
I talked with my friends Laura and Ashley about this. I wanted to hear if I was crazy or not. If I am, they are too. They (both mature Christians, and involved heavily in their local churches) described what it felt like to be seen as an asset rather than as a person.
They talked about being on the worship team 6 weeks running without a break, and without anyone checking in or asking how they were doing. They talked about sitting through a moving sermon that resulted in a manipulative giving speech that (generous givers though they are) left them feeling guilty and even angry. They talked about how their churches used money language when talking about people: We’ll invest in you… we need to steward our human resources… you’re so richly gifted... They’ve become so used to being asked poorly, that it’s become an assumed part of church.
That resonates with me, and odds are it does with you do, too. I also know what it feels like to be on the asking side: leading ministries that need the church’s generous involvement to function. If you’re understaffed, overworked, and thoroughly stretched thin, who even has time to be aware of their asking?
But how do we change this? I propose that it all comes down to seeing.
Tools or people?
What is broken is the “hard transactional” model of exchange that has supplanted older models of more relational exchange. Fixed price economics, versus the messy, gloriously human act of barter.
In relational economies, people truly see one another. In his bizarre, seminal essay On Art and Life, John Ruskin, observes that those responsible for spearheading communal mission and creativity “must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.”
If you lead people, you are constantly choosing to engage with them either as tools to be used or human beings to be empowered. This is true in art and architecture. This is true in faith and mission as well. It’s true in writing, which is my craft, and leading ministries which is likely yours.
Even a quick scan of our ministry culture reveals us talking inhumanly about the people whose neighborhoods we share, whose resources we steward, and whose time we allocate. How often do we “use” people? It’s hard to be honest with ourselves, but if we could elude self-deception here, we would likely be ashamed. We know that using people is incompatible with humanizing them. We also know that humanizing them is inescapable if we wish to love them. What we don’t know is how to change.
I was a youth ministry intern once. I found out that if I yelled to a room full of semi-attentive high-schoolers that we needed to unload a van, nothing would happen other than a staring fest. What worked was when I grabbed students I knew or wanted to know, looking them right in their pimple-ringed eyes, and said, “Hey, I’m moving some chairs. You want to come along?” They were “inefficient” (I had to ask five or six times instead of just once), but the invitations worked. Always. Every time. And they built relationships that continue to this day. I wasn’t just asking for something, I was seeing them, saying that I believed that they were useful, and my pick if I needed someone to go on a mission with me.
What Palmer’s talk highlights is the bare, but unpredictable effectiveness of this kind of asking—asking that sees. This also looks like what we see in the Gospels to me, where Christ (always the seer) was willing to both give lavishly and receive lavishly. He was unafraid to ask things of his community, and very willing to take requests himself.
The path of seeing
When we truly realize this, we will identify our “toolish” strategies, as deep as they may run, and systematically pull them up like old carpet. We need to begin asking big things, humanizing things of our neighbors, of our congregations, of our families, and offer them our best in exchange. And then, in a move that even Amanda Palmer may find difficult to comprehend, we must continue on this path of love long after it has ceased to overtly benefit us or our vision, giving, and humanizing, and seeing people as Christ did and Amanda does, until we have no more flowers to give, because they are all in the hands of those around us.
On that path of deep, creative self-giving, on that path of love, true generosity, and seeing, I suspect that we will find far better transactions than those we have become accustomed to. We will release more gifts, empower more people for discipleship, and invite people into far deeper growth than shallow, asset-based asking. People can do so much more than things, if we will only ask them.
And in that asking, I suspect that we will be as changed as they.