Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Wheels of the Bus Go Round and Round

Two and a half days in Disney World makes me think about the company’s marketing genius. The parks are all very service-oriented in order that people have an enjoyable experience and favorable impression. Disney products are all tied together: movies, toys, CDs, and so on. Clearly, Disney people do a lot of research, planning, and market research.

Years ago, between being called to church service and actually starting such work, I picked up a book about church growth, written by Robert Schuller. One of his major suggestions for congregational growth was … oversized parking lots, which not only accommodate people but communicates a sense of confidence. This church knows it’s going to grow!

I was annoyed by that, and still am. It’s true that land-locked churches with insufficient parking have a significant problem. On the other hand, I question any church-growth method that would work just as a method, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can certainly work through methods as the Spirit wills, and I don’t want to denigrate business-related techniques for reaching customers. But I do think some congregations emphasize positive-thinking strategies and marketing research for their success and consequently relegate prayer, the Holy Spirit, and God’s will to the status of important after-thoughts.

If I had to think of church in terms of marketing and products, I think a theologically appropriate image---more encompassing than a marketing strategy or of a business expanding its customer base---is that of a professional tour. When you’re on a tour bus (as my family and I were a couple summers ago in Europe), you’re on a common journey with people--and you all know what that journey is and are eager for the experience. You trust your driver and guide (an analogy would be your pastor) and you don’t get rid of your guide just because something s/he does annoys you! (It would be self-evidently absurd for a tour group to dismiss their guide, wait on the roadside for the company to send another, and later on another, and later on still another!)

Tour groups keep (and sustain) their guide. They also don’t get rid of other people on the tours. If you’re a group member, you definitely start to see each other’s worst characteristics as the trip progresses! And you’re all very different people, some quiet and observant, some loud, some haughty, some … smelly. Some people lead the group’s impromptu singing, others just read a book. But the sense of common purpose and the feeling of “we’re in this together” typifies the experience and encourages a spirit of mutuality. A group wouldn’t cast out a member so that s/he could shop around among other tour groups for a more congenial one!

All of this is very informal thinking. But I like to think of metaphors that encompass several aspects of church experience. What would be the common experience sought by church “tourists”? That would be expressed by Philippians 3:12-14: Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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