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EPIC Church for Epic Times
I am an eBay addict.
My most recent purchase is one of the first books published by my Ph.D. adviser. It has been missing from my library for twenty years. I got it for $.50. The postage was more than the book ($2.00). But for $2.50 I felt like I had just reclaimed a lost part of my pedigree. I felt like a kid in a candy store.
Amazon.com and eBay.com are the wonder stories of the '90s. From 1995 to 1999, online auction giant eBay did no advertising, no marketing, yet boasted 6 million registered users and grew from 289,000 items at the end of 1996 to 3.6 million today. With a 23 billion market cap, eBay is now worth more than K-mart, Toys "R" Us, Nordstrom, and Saks combined.
eBay is so addictive because it understands postmodern culture better than the church, eBay also alerts us to what the church must do to get the attention and attendance of postmoderns. For the church to incarnate the gospel in this postmodern world, it must become more medieval than modern, more apostolic than patristic. I call postmodernity an EPIC culture: Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven, Connected.
In the midst of one of the greatest transitions in historyfrom modern to postmodernChristian churches are owned lock, stock, and barrel by modernity. They have clung to modern modes of thought and action, their ways of embodying and enacting the Christian tradition frozen in patterns ofhigh modernity.
The decline of western Christianity is so well documented it needs no rehearsing here. The annual meetings of most churches are like that of the swimming coach who made a difficult speech at an awards banquet after a disastrous year. "We didn't win a single meet this year," he admitted, "but we had a good time and nobody drowned." The plight of mainline Protestantism has passed into the realm of humor. At a recent board meeting of a community agency, someone used the phrase "mainline churches." Someone else asked, "What are mainline churches?" A third snapped back, "The ones with the fewest people."
For the first time in USAmerican history more people are attending nondenominational than denominationally affiliated churches. In one year alone (1997-98), average church size plummeted over 10 percent, with a drop of 15 percent during the same twelve-month period in annual operating budgets. Eighty-five percent of the mainline church is in serious deterioration or comatose. Wonder who are the biggest losers in terms of percent change in weekday activities from 1981 to 19977 For girls ages three through twelve, the four biggest losers were outdoor activities (-57%), conversations (-55%), free play (-26%), and church (-25%). For boys ages three through twelve, the four biggest losers were church (-71%), outdoor activities (-70%), conversations (-60%), and free play (-34%).
I have a friendone of the most successful pastors in the Southwho has a metaphor for the church's plight. He says the church's leaders have Alzheimer's disease. We still love them. We remember and pass on their stories. But they're living in another world. They're totally clueless about the world that is actually out there. The problem is, he laments, they're captaining the ship.
My favorite example of how out of touch the church can be with the emerging postmodern world around it is a throwaway line from Marc Driscoll, Gen-X pastor at Seattle's thriving Mars Hill Fellowship (which is itself planting three more churches). Driscoll says his challenge in reaching postmoderns is not convincing them that Jesus rose from the dead or that there could be such a thing as a resurrection. His biggest challenge is in convincing postmoderns that there was only one resurrection.
Western Christianity went to sleep in a modern world governed by the gods of reason and observation. It is awakening to a postmodern world open to revelation and hungry for experience. Indeed, one of the last places postmoderns expect to be "spiritual" is the church. In the midst of a spiritual "heating up" in the host postmodern culture, the church is stuck in the modern freezer.
The church's crisis is of EPIC proportions. It will take more than a Martha Stewart makeover or spiritual plastic surgery to make church vital to a postmodern culture. Unless churches can transition their cultures into more EPIC directionsExperiential, Participatory, Image-based, and Connectedthey stand the real risk of becoming museum churches, nostalgic testimonies to a culture that is no more.
This book begins with chapters of cultural analysis devoted to what each one of these words means in that acronym EPIC. The book ends with a more theoretical analysis of the social forces and intellectual figures fashioning this EPIC model.
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Some people want to see God with their eyes as they see a cow, and to love him as they love their cowthey love their cow for the milk and cheese and profit it makes them. This is how it is with people who love God for the sake of outward wealth or inward comfort. They do not rightly love God when they love him for their own advantage. Indeed, I tell you the truth, any object you have on your mind, however good, will be a barrier between you and the inmost Truth.
Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart
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Experiential: From Rational to
Toward the end of his life, the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas had a direct experience of God's love. From that moment on, Aquinas stopped writing and called everything he had written "all grass."
It is one thing to talk about God. It is quite another thing to experience God.
A modernist dies and finds himself surrounded by dense, billowy clouds that only allow him to see a short distance ahead. He sees that he is walking down a road paved in gold. Ahead, there is a slight break in the clouds. He sees a signpost and a fork in the road. The signpost has inscriptions with golden arrows pointing to the left and right.
The modernist reads them. The right arrow says, "This way to heaven." The left arrow says, "This way to a discussion about heaven."
The modernist took the fork to the discussion.
Guess which fork the postmodernist took?
The perpetual openness to experience of postmoderns is such that one can never underestimate the e-factor: experiential. Postmoderns will do most anything not to lose connection with the experience of life.
The magic of eBay is that it makes shopping an experience. There's a homegrown feel to eBay. Journalist Stewart Alsop, while analyzing the eBay phenomenon, calls it "nail-biting, thrilling fun."
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There is no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience.
Beginning of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason
The postmodern economy is an "experience economy." Some call this "immersion living." Others call it "The Emotile Era." But whatever you call it, experience is the currency of postmodern economics. In the last half century much of the world has transitioned from an industrial economy (driven by things) to a knowledge economy (driven by bits) to an experience economy (which traffics in experiences).
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Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel.
Brandeis professor Morrie Schwartz to Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie
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The precise nature of this new experience economy has been summarized exquisitely by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the chair, president, and CEO of Carlson Companies, one of the world's largest privately held companies:
Anyone who views a sale as a transaction is going to be toast down the line. Selling is not about peddling a product. It's about wrapping that product in a serviceand about selling both the product and the service as an experience. That approach to selling helps create a vital element of the process: a relationship. In a world where things move at hyperspeed, what was relevant yesterday may not be relevant tomorrow. But one thing that endures is a dynamic relationship that is grounded in an experience that you've provided.
What keeps shoppers returning to a store? The products? Or the experience? As one patron said as he walked away from a new Greenwich Village eatery called Peanut Butter & Co., "This is very much an experience; it's not just a sandwich."
Moderns want to figure out what life's about. Postmoderns want to experience what life is, especially experience life for themselves. Postmoderns are not willing to live at even an arms'-length distance from experience. They want life to explode all around them. Postmoderns don't want their information straight. They want it laced with experience (hence edutainment). And the more extreme the better.
Tom Beaudoin, a body-pierced Gen-X Christian with a theology degree from Harvard, says that piercing/tattooing "reflects the centrality of personal and intimate experience in Xers' lives." Tattooing is a "marking" of a spiritual experience, a "branding" in a body-oriented "brand" culture.
Already USAmerican consumers spend more on entertainment than on health care or clothing. In fact, USAmericans have dedicated more and more of their budgets for entertainment ever since 1987. Can you guess what age group is spending the most? Whenever critics tell me that the "postmodern thing" is but a generational phenomenon, I like to point out that those under age thirty-five account for a lesser share of spending on entertainment than USAmericans aged fifty-five and older. According to sociologists:
It's the senior citizens who have become America's true party animals. The average household headed by a 65-to-74 year old spends more on entertainment than does the average household headed by someone under age 25. Even the very oldest householders are in on this revolution: Those aged 75-plus spent 98 percent more on entertainment in 1997 than in 1987, the biggest increase of any age group.
Whatever happened to the fountain pen? They're leaking ink all over computers. Ask Mont Blanc how much high-tech postmoderns want high-touch experiences with their fingers. Theme restaurants are popping up everywhere. Recently opened are Crash Café in Baltimore, where you will eat to the sounds of crash sites, and Igor's in Hong Kong, a haunted castle where human skeletons will serve you. To keep its "experiences" fresh, The Gap introduces a new product line every six to eight weeks. An "experienced car" is now the preferred term for what used to be called "used car" or "pre-owned car." One car company offers customers the experience of having their next car test-drive by race-car drivers.
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They're all taking it rather well, kind of excited. Vacationers, new experienceswhat can I say?
Jacob Naylor, night manager of Joshua Tree Hotel when asked how guests coped with the crisis of a 7.0 earthquake in October 1999 that rocked southern California and knocked out their power
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REI's "flagship" store in Seattle looks more like a retail amusement park than a store. One of the country's largest wilderness-sports stores (100,000 square feet, 60,000 stock items), the consumer cooperative Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) boasts places for customers to interact with and experience some of the products they are sellinga seven-story climbing wall; a 300-foot waterfall; a 475-foot-long biking trail and test track; a 100-seat café; a rain room for testing how waterproof the Leak-Tex is; a lab where camp stoves can be tried out; etc. The aisles between departments are designed to resemble hiking trails.
Honda has based an entire sales strategy on an "experiential" foundation. Honda's success with its four hundred supplier companies throughout North America is based on what they call "The Three Joys." According to "The Three Joys," each component in the "car experience" (customer, employee, supplier) should enjoy the "experience." Customers should have a positive experience of ownership. The dealer who connects the customer to the supplier should enjoy the experience of bringing pleasure to the customerhigh customer satisfaction. Honda, who supplies the product, should enjoy the experience of pleasing both other parties with such a superb product.
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Engineering. Science. Technology. All worthless ... unless they make you feel something.
ad for BMW's 3 Series cars
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John A. Quelch, dean of the London Business School, the leading business school outside North America, says that "we're not in the education business. We're in the transformation business. We expect everyone who participates in a program at the London Business School ... to be transformed by the experience." The outcome measurement for this prestigious educational institution is a simple one: have we created "a transformative experience?"
Why is tourism one of if not the fastest-growing industry in the world? It creates a new job every 2.5 seconds and generates investments of $3.2 billion a day. Annually, $1.9 trillion is spent on tourism worldwide, accounting for one-tenth of the global economic impact and more than 350 million employees by 2005.
Some scholars interpret the touristic phenomenon as a postmodern ritual that performs the same role as sacred rites did in premodern societies. Heritage tourism appeals to a culture's search for "authenticity," "otherness," "identity," and educational experiences while vacationing.
In 1994, 528 million people traveled for the pleasure of experiences of "otherness." By 2010, this figure is expected to rise to 937 million. Half the world's vacationers head to the sea each yearand half the world's people live within fifty miles or so of salt water. But tourism has reached every region of the globefrom the mountains to the desert, from the polar ice caps to the tropical rain forests. It will soon reach the moon first and then Mars. What will get us there will not be government space agencies but Hilton and Ritz-Carlton.
Why is travel and tourism the U.S.'s largest export industry as well as our second largest employer (after health) and third largest retail industry (after automotive and food store sales)?
Why? Because tourism is an experience industry. The fastest growing segment of tourism is adventure travel, with more than two hundred travel books appearing each month catering to this clientele. Adventure travel will likely become in our lifetimes the largest commercial use of space once reusable launchers reduce costs sufficiently for space tours to orbiting space stations. It is not surprising that in an experience economy frequent mall shopping would plummet, down from 16 percent in 1987 to less than 10 percent in 1998. Yet at the same time the Mall of America (Bloomington, Minnesota) "now hosts more visitors than Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and the Grand Canyon combined." Why? It's not a mall, but an experience center. The same is true for Nashville's OpryMills, which opened in May 2000. A day at the spa is not enough. There must be body salts from Israel, or muds from Turkey and the Oran Sea.
This is not the first time there has been this pursuit of dreams, emotions, and extreme experience. Look at the crusades; every expression of romanticism in history has been a tilting towards the experiential. But never before has the trafficking in experience become the primary currency of a global economic system and the downloading of trivial experience, the new holy grail.
American Demographics esteemed the quest for "experiential faith" and the rediscovery of the soul so pervasive ("one of the nation's most important cultural trends") that it did a cover issue on the phenomenon. We are spending two billion dollars a year on self-help resources alone: books, videos, tapes, and seminars. When the "spirituality" and "self-help" categories are combined, the numbers are truly staggering.
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Luxury isn't the key to happiness.... True luxury ... is living a spiritual life.
Massage therapist Patrick Bishop
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Spirituality is now rubbing shoulders with quacks and respectable scholars in unpredictable ways. Serious biographers in academic treatises are proposing that Gore Vidal is a reincarnation of their subject (in this case William Beckford). There is an explosion of inspirational art, from New Age to Native American. In fact, someone estimated that if one divides the number of art pieces sold by the "light painter" Thomas Kincade into the number of USAmericans, one in five of us own one of his paintings.
The Clemmer Group, a North American network of personal-improvement experts, has concluded that the twenty-first century is the dawning of a massive "spiritual awakening." According to a ten-year study reported by Dow Jones & Company, there is a new paradigm for living among about forty-four million USAmericans who are heavily invested and involved in campaigns of spiritual awareness.
Yet fewer and fewer are turning to the church for guidance in this soul quest. A spiritual awakening is taking place in the culture largely outside the Christian church partly because churches, in the words of award-winning journalist Chip Brown, "were more interested in repressing ecstatic experience than in nurturing it. Rapture, not to say healing, was certainly not on the agenda of the church I was packed off to each Sunday morning."
The number of unchurched adults is rising. The Barna Research Group defines an "unchurched" adult as someone who has not attended a Christian church service during the past six months other than for a wedding, funeral, or holiday service. What it finds is that the numbers of unchurched USAmericans rose from 27 percent in January 1998 to 31 percent in June 1999. That's a 4 percent rise in eighteen months, or eight million new unchurched adults nationwide in a year and a half. The areas of greatest increase in the unchurched? The South (up from 19 percent to 26 percent), the Gen-Xers (up from 31 to 39 percent), and men (up from 33 to 40 percent). When asked their religious preference, 19 percent of Xers said "none," compared with 12 percent of baby boomers and 7 percent of the Silent (Swing) Generation and 4 percent of the GI (WWII) Generation.
Ironically, the spiritual awakening in the culture is being fueled by siphoning off stuff from our own tanks and then remixing it for popular culture.
Is the world stealing our best lines? Or have we given them awayunable to see their relevance to the world in which we live. So we leave them lying there for others to pick up.
And pick them up they do. I first noticed the church's flubbing of its own lines and failure to speak plain and simple with the hit television series Cheers. Is there anyone who doesn't know the tag line for the Cheers bar: "Where everybody knows your name." Does that have a faintly familiar ring?
The movie Field of Dreams was my next wake-up call to cultural thievery from the church's treasure chest. Again, does anybody not know the theme image for the movie? "Build it, and they will come." The faintly familiar feel to this line was brought home after a cursory concordance search unearthed Haggai 1:8: "Build my house, and I will come in all my glory" (my paraphrase). Not build some fantasy field and fantasy figures will show up. But build God's house, and the maker of heaven and earth will appear in all the Creator's splendor and power.
The "No Fear" logo is shameless embezzlement. In one form or another 365 times the Scriptures admonish us to "fear not," "be not afraid"and not just when angels appear. Are we so tone deaf to the sounds of postmodern culture that we can't translate "fear not" into "no fear"?
Nike's "Do It" slogan is a direct lift from Christian texts and traditions. Instead of a narcissistic slogan that encourages you to do whatever you want to do, the biblical injunctions to "do it" tell us what to do and what not to do, why we should "do it," for whom we should "do it," what happens when we don't "do it." When the culture plunders our images, it twists and distorts them so that they mean something else.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Volvo wants to "save your soul." Lotus and Caldwell Banker introduced in 1999 the same marketing slogan: "I am, I am." Allianz lyricizes, to hymnic music, "Wherever you go, I will be with you." The words spirit and spiritual are now marketing terms, as Madison Avenue plays on this pervasive sense that reason cannot address the deeper things of life.
What isn't "spirit" something or other? There are now even "spiritual" cosmetics. You can bathe in "I Trust" bubble bath, and moisturize your body with "Bliss" (Chakra VII by Aveda), for "the joyful enlightenment and soaring of the spirit." Then you can put on the powder "Rebirth" by 5S "to renew the spirit and recharge the soul." Don't forget the nail polish "Spiritual" (by Tony and Tina) to "aid connection with the higher self." One '90s TV commercial showed a bearded welder naming his relationship with his Mazda truck "a spiritual thing."
Corporate culture is seizing biblical images and doctrines and inventing a "New Reformation" and "New Economy" based on them. B. Joseph White, dean of the University of Michigan Business School, says that "business is the most powerful, most progressive social force in the world." I blanche when I hear this and blush that the same thing isn't being said about the church. But it is the corporate sector that is now promoting "servant leadership." Every company has a "mission" and "mission statement." Businesses like Ecotrust have job positions called "circuit riders." Developers are building communities that are "covenant protected." And the ultimate in effective marketing is called "viral marketing," which relies on word of mouth and pass-it-on for spreading. Isn't that how the gospel first spread, as well as the most biblical form of evangelism: viral evangelism?
Most amazing of all, one of the most problematic words for some segments of the church, evangelism, is now the hottest business buzzword. Corporations are hiring "evangelists," and CEOs are restyling their job descriptions to be seen as "evangelists." Guy Kawasaki, former "marketing evangelist" for Apple Computer, wrote Rules for Revolutionaries (1998) in which he helps entrepreneurs build a "sales ministry" that listens to customers.
The language of "evangelist" is especially prevalent in the world of e-commerce. E-CEOs use the word evangelize a lot. Tom Jermoluk is chair and CEO of @Home Network (www.home.net), a Silicon Valley firm that has exclusive rights to provide Internet access to AT&T's cable system. Jermoluk ("TJ" to his colleagues) estimates that "at least 50% of my job is being an evangelistwith our employees, the Street, the press, my partners." Remarks John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com), "`Evangelizing?' I spend way more than half my time on that." Unlike most e-CEOs, he runs a long-established, hugely profitable company. Yet even he has to keep flagging the vision of the vast scope of the Internet revolution. "You've got to evangelize the concept," he says.
The ultimate irony and indictment for the Christian community is to learn that the key professions for the future are the following: healers, peacemakers, storytellers, content providers. Are these not key words of our mission? Why aren't Christians at the forefront of building this new world?
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They have ... eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel.
Psalm 115:5-7 (NRSV)
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