What is it people want?
For example, what is it that Walmart, in the minds of its shoppers, offers? Shoes? Groceries? Toys?
Walmart offers “cheap.”
And that is precisely what people who go to Walmart want.
And because Walmart is in alignment with what people want – meaning, they know it’s what people want and so they give it to them – they are successful.
Play this out with other successful relationships.
People want Apple to offer “cool.” So does Apple. So everyone is happy – despite the prices.
People want Google to provide the location of things on the internet. It does. So we keep googling.
Starbucks? We want legally addictive stimulants, but with cache. Starbucks is happy to comply, which is why Starbucks is now the world’s third largest restaurant chain.
But what happens when things don’t line up? What happens when people want cheap, but the company wants profit?
Or people want to find what they’re looking for online, but the search engine wants to direct me to ads and sites that I don’t care about but have paid for the traffic?
Or people want to walk into a store and find exactly what they want, but the salesperson wants to push certain items and up their commission?
Or people want to watch the movie, and the provider wants to show me commercials?
There is a radical disconnect, and the relationship suffers.
Or just ends.
Let’s apply this to the church.
What is it that people entering a church want?
I would suggest that in the minds of “shoppers,” they want the church to offer spirituality. Community is a plus, but that’s not what they are primarily expecting when they walk through the doors.
I know I’m using a crass comparison (the marketplace) and even crasser terms (“shopper”). I know that the church isn’t a company; we don’t want to be consumer-driven where the “customer” dictates the product; and that mere “spirituality” is a far cry from the dynamics of life in Christ.
But let the point play out.
People do come for spirituality. They don’t know to come for much more in our day. So that’s what they are looking for. It’s the one thing they think the church has to offer their lives that they don’t already have, and that they may not be able to find anywhere else (though that is fast changing).
Churches that provide spiritual experience and an introduction to a spiritual life create an alignment with the person that continues the relationship.
Churches that don’t experience disconnect.
In many ways, this is a significant shift in thinking for those who seek to connect with the unchurched population. In the eighties and nineties, churches were seen as being out-of-touch and out-of-date. As a result, many responded by contemporizing the church. They updated the music, implemented drama and media, and addressed contemporary topics with biblical wisdom. All of which, I might add, I am all for and have written about many times, such as in my book Rethinking the Church and, of course, here on this site.
Some, however, went too far. They seemed to feel that the goal was to reflect culture as opposed to building a bridge into culture. In the end, alignment was lost. People came wanting spirituality only to find the world they were already in. They wanted God, and they got the Doobie Brothers.
Today the mistake is similar, except now it’s the perceived need to match the world in terms of technology and, perhaps even more, the “hip.” I’ve written on this as well, in a blog titled Contemporvant.
And again, all fine - to a point. The point where it ceases to be fine is critical, and again comes back to alignment. People are coming for spirituality; how sad it would be if all they got were designer t-shirts and the latest display from Apple.
If you want alignment, you won’t just try and give them “Disney” with your children’s program; you’ll give the parent what they most want, which is religious education and character formation for their child.
If you want alignment, you won’t just give them creative tie-ins using music from Coldplay or Radiohead, but a sense of encounter with the living God.
If you want alignment, you won’t just highlight your Mac’s and sound and light, but a direct and compelling message that brings Christ to bear in such a way it intersects the deepest needs of their life and calls them to radical followership.
You will often hear church leaders say that they are not competing against other churches, but against every other available use of time on a Sunday morning. Or lately, that they are competing against the entertainment industry or technology of the world.
But do we really think that we’ll win people to the church with Starbucks, Netflix, contemporary music, and high-tech presentations? I think not. If they want Starbucks, they’ll just go to…well, Starbucks. And to Netflix. And to iTunes. And to Apple. It’s not that we shouldn’t make ample use of technology, only that it’s not the greatest felt need of the people who enter our doors.
In truth, we are competing against the spiritual emptiness of the world. When we align ourselves with that need, we actually have something to offer the world that it doesn’t already have.
James Emery White
For the marketplace angle on this, see Seth Godin, “Alignment,” posted April 25, 2011. Read online.
To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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