Understanding the Authentic Experience Economy

What the Church Can Learn From Interpreting Culture Carefully

Experience EconomyJames H. Gilmore has been on campus this week teaching the course, “Understanding Commerce, Culture, and Congregations.” Monday was commerce, Tuesday: culture, and this afternoon, congregations. Jim is co-founder of Strategic Horizons LLP, a business consulting firm. It’s not what you might suppose, however. He’s not here to bring us the latest insights from the world of business about how to be “successful.” He’s doing an excellent job, however, in explaining what’s going on around us. This is a course in cultural hermeneutics: learning how to find “cultural texts” (indicators of what is happening or signs of the times) and learning how to read those texts. He’s preparing seminary students to become skilled students of the culture even as they become skilled interpreters of God’s Word.

In order to live the Christian life we need to know the faith but we also need to know our culture. It seems like a two step process learn the faith and then understand the world. Formally, learning the faith is fairly straightforward matter. We need to hear God’s Word preached and we need to read it with the church by learning to speak the language of the church as the church confesses the faith

Finding the sources to explain our culture is not as straightforward. First we have to define culture and then we have to find some way to interpret it. That is one of the many things that Jim Gilmore does. He’s an economist by training from the Wharton School. He specializes in provoking people but in a good way—he provokes them to think in new and creative ways about the world around them, to interpret it more carefully, to dig below the surface in order to understand themselves, the market, and their product.

I’m finding the course stimulating because it’s helping me to continue to think about not only what to communicate to God’s people but how we do it. Conservative, confessional Reformed folk can be a little nerdy. We don’t do “hip” well and we look odd when we try. So, we need to work a little harder to think well about those to whom we speak, how they hear what we say, and whether we are saying things in ways that befit the message that we bear.

He’s the co-author, with Joe Pine, of two books, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want and The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage, recently republished in a new edition. I’ve been reading Experience Economy this week, taking notes in class (which has been a good, humbling experience—to sit on this side of the lectern again for a while). The book isn’t about the QIRE (Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience) but rather it is an explanation of how modern economies develop, from the agrarian, to the industrial, to service, to economy, and eventually to transformation. One of his theses is that everything, except one, can be “commodified.” As he pointed out in the Office Hours interview we recorded yesterday (to be broadcast at a later date TBD), the great economist Adam Smith did not think that service could be “commodified” or sold as a commodity but it happened. Now, the leading edge of business is selling experience or participation in the process. He points to businesses such as Build-A-Bear, where customers pay for the privilege of becoming temporary factor workers. He argues that, if more businesses turned to the experience-economy model they would do better. The experience economy is really selling time.

AuthenticityThe latest book is Authenticity and we’ve been hearing some of that in class. It’s on my list of things to read. There is much that pastors and churches can learn from him about how the world works, where the culture is, and how to interpret it. Gilmore always hastens to note that though, in business, everything can be commodified one thing cannot be sold: grace. In that sense, the experience economy is not a model for churches and pastors. Part of what he’s saying to us is that business should be what it is and the church should be what it is. In that sense, business is the antithesis of the church. Put in theological terms, the business world is a covenant of works: do this and live. In a market economy, those businesses that “do” will live. Those businesses that don’t, won’t.

For believers, however, the church administers a covenant of grace: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” We are stewards of the announcement of the Kingdom of God, of the advent of salvation by grace alone, through faith (resting and receiving) in Christ alone. To be sure, to those who do not believe and to those who never come to faith, the church administers a the law, a covenant of works but the church’s principal vocation is to bring good news in the Word and sacrament.

We administer the covenant of grace to people largely fulfilling their God-given vocations in fast-changing, liquid (Zigmund Baumann) culture. It can be bewildering. We interpret God’s world via God’s Word but to do that well means more than simply getting the order right. Theoretically, that’s the easy part. We still have to get down to the hard work of understanding what’s actually gone on around us and why (beyond the obvious answer of “providence”—that’s a given for a Christian interpretation of the world). Experience Economy was a huge success and TIME Magazine said that Authenticity is one of the 10 ideas changing the world so it’s quite possible that I’m behind the curve. I’m still processing what I’m learning but I thought it would be helpful to post a brief  vade mecum so that you’ll have the opportunity to read Gilmore and Pine in case you hadn’t.

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  1. There is much that pastors and churches can learn from him about how the world works

    That’s a sentence you don’t find on Heidelblog very often!

    Gilmore always hastens to note that … business is the antithesis of the church.

    Ahh, that’s more like it.

    This sounds fascinating. Looking forward to the Office Hours — any chance these lectures were recorded for distribution as well?

    • Rube,

      We can and should learn from a wide variety of sources. Gemeene Gratie. I’m sorry if I’ve given an impression to the contrary.

      What we shouldn’t do is imitate the culture thoughtlessly. A lot of what passes for cultural analysis among Christians is shallow. Jim’s good at getting below the surface.

      No, the course isn’t available online etc. This is the second time he’s offered this as a Jan term, 1-week course. Tuition to audit is reasonable.

  2. Neat to see that cultural hermeneutics are taught at WSC. Honestly, I would not have expected that a whole class would be devoted to something like this. I though that was only done at the more new school institutions like Fuller or GCTS. I think it’s a good thing. Where folks go wrong is with the response or application the think is required by the cultural shifts.

    Here is a somwhat related article on the popularity of “Authenticity” in popular culture and how it is now regularly used to see you something. NYTimes runs regular pieces like this under “Cultural Studies” and they are quite interesting.


    • Mark,

      In order to be confessional we need to pay attention to what is happening around us. We have to confess the faith in our time and not simply repeat what has been said as if nothing has changed around us.

      There is a way between mere traditionalism and hipster-Christianity: confessionalism. That is why I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession that we ought to confess our faith in our time being faithful to the substance of what we have always confessed.

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