Have you ever done something that was exhilarating, unique, or maybe a bit scary? Maybe an experience that changed your life? Perhaps you have skydived, eaten exotic food, swam with dolphins, rode a rollercoaster, or traveled to a dream destination. If you have done something like that and the only thing you could take home was a memory, then you have been part of the Experience Economy. In this article, Dr. Garland Owensby shows how Gen-Z is pursuing the Experience Economy and how the church can use this desire to reach them.
I was seated on a 2,000-pound rodeo bull seconds away from the chute opening. The teenage cowboy asked me if I was ready. I couldn’t think of anything else but holding on for dear life, but I slowly nodded my head, questioning how a rational man of my age could find himself in this position. The chute opened and this wild rodeo behemoth took off, bucking wildly. Six-seconds later, I lay on the ground, covered in sawdust, and hurting like I’d been thrown from a moving car. Why? Because I want to live the kind of life that when someone says, “I’d never!” I can reply, “I did!” No one can take that equally frightening and exhilarating experience away from me. I own it forever how long my memory persists. I did not just pay $10 to ride a bull at a Cowboy Church. I paid $10 for an experience...and the worst bruise of my life.
The Experience Economy traffics in memories and bragging rights. There are three basic components in the Experience Economy: the memory or experience is the product, the transformation becomes the product, and it is what comes above and beyond the product.
Perhaps you have heard someone describe themselves as an “experience junkie.” That person lives for life experiences. Younger generations are reporting that they value experiences more than material possessions. There is something for the church to learn from Gen-Z’s desire to participate in the Experience Economy. Allow me to advocate for a biblical Experience Economy that does not promote a shallow entertainment experience or mere bragging rights, but rather offers the hope of transformation and fulfillment through an encounter with the biblical Christ. Kerry Taylor, EVP of MTV International and chief marketing officer of Viacom UK, stated that Gen-Z desires family, friends, traveling, having fun, and creating deep connections. She said, “As a brand, it’s our responsibility to find ways to deliver on that happiness.” Is there anything on that list that the church cannot offer? You may point out traveling but a couple a mission trip with friends with whom you have deep connections because of small groups, and you have something a Gen-Z will find fulfilling.
3 Components of the Experience Economy
1. The memory or experience is the product.
People pay thousands of dollars for front row seats at a concert by their favorite artist or spend extravagantly to see their team play in the Super Bowl. It is the memory and the experience which they are purchasing. You may be thinking, “I wish people fought over front row seats for my sermons,” and I wouldn’t blame you for that way of thinking.
In the biblical Experience Economy, we advocate for a product that is intangible and yet firmly biblically-based. As Jesus said, God is spirit and we must worship Him in spirit and in truth. We offer a restored relationship with our Creator. We offer the forgiveness of sins. We offer hope. We offer the opportunity to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control among other believers. We offer deep, authentic, relationships in the body of Christ. We offer transcendent experiences through prayer, worship, or a Spirit-empowered conversation.
"When people walk into our churches, are we offering an experience by which they create lasting memories?"
Are we being used by the Holy Spirit to deepen relationships and build community? Is the Holy Spirit moving freely in our worship experiences? If the space for experience isn’t made, you will find younger generations exiting the church for other fulfilling experiences.
Mike Yaconelli, the founder of Youth Specialties, wrote, “Why do so many youth ministries spend all their time talking about God instead of helping young people experience God?” Getting Fired for the Glory of God. Again, we want to have an experience at church, but we do not want one absent of the Scripture or its principles.
2. The transformation becomes the product.
I was able to travel to Israel for a tour of the Holy Land. Before I went, the tour leader told me that the experience would change the way I read the Bible. I listened but thought perhaps he was overhyping the value of the experience. After the trip, I knew he was right. In the context of the Experience Economy, the trip offered not just the opportunity to travel, but it offered the hope of personal transformation.
Many people make resolutions to lose weight. They are unhappy with their current weight and desire to lose the extra pounds. Look and listen to the advertisements for weight loss. The testimonials focus on the past condition and the physical, and sometimes emotional, transformation. Everyone wants the experience of transformation. We long to be changed. We pursue transformation. We flock to movies about transformation, whether they be superheroes or historical figures. Humanity is drawn to the hope of transformation.
Jesus did not sell a product when He recruited the disciples. He sold a transformation. “I will make you fishers of men.” The promise of transformation was enough to make them drop their nets and leave their families. Biblical Experiences will lead to transformation. Steve Taylor writes, “…experiences must lead to transformation and honoring Jesus as the master of human transformation.” When the Holy Spirit provides us with a supernatural experience, we must reflect on how that experience is leading us to transformation and honoring Jesus.
In one of our SAGU chapels, a student came to me during the altar time and said that he had been praying and felt two hands pressing hard on his back. He reported that when he looked up, there was no one there. He said he believed that Jesus or an angel had been pressing on him. I responded, “That’s great. Why would God do that?” He stammered, “I don’t know.” I challenged him that if God gave him a supernatural experience, it was not just for the purpose of having an experience-God wanted to teach or tell him something. After a few minutes of talking and reflecting, he said, “I think God wanted me to know that He is here, and He is with me.” I responded, “Great! The Word of God says that He IS HERE, and He IS WITH YOU!”
Spiritual transformation, life transformation, is the product in the biblical Experience Economy.
3. Experience is what comes above and beyond the product.
When I receive my tax document indicating how much my wife and I have given to the church, there is always a statement that says, “No goods or services were received in exchange for your contribution.” It not only is a legal statement; it is literally true. I may leave the church service with a big, warm, sweet interior glowing, but it didn’t come in a package. It is intangible. It is spiritual. The very meaning of spirit, the Greek word pneuma, is breath or air.
The parking lot, the foyer, the welcome center, the sanctuary. All are locations that can create an atmosphere by which visitors and church members are more inclined to an experience with God. How can the flow of traffic or the parking lot attendants can create a positive first impression? What is the foyer communicating? Is it a place conducive to relationships? Is the location of the welcome station easily identifiable and are the greeters welcoming? Does the sanctuary create a space where people can have a sacred experience?
As you seek to create an atmosphere in which people can experience the Holy Spirit, remember that we cannot and should not manipulate that experience. We are space-makers. We are intentional in allowing the biblical Holy Spirit to be the source of the experience rather than our slick production values or our dynamic personalities. Joel Lusz wrote, “An experience without God’s truth is entertainment. God’s truth with no experience is boring.” And there is the essence of a biblical Experience Economy. The experience comes from God as the biblical Gospel is proclaimed.
P.S. Let me know the scariest, craziest, or most unique experience you’ve ever done.
P.S.S. If you ever want to ride a bull, let’s go together. I know a bull and I wouldn’t steer you wrong.
https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/gen_z_is_more_frugal_and_experiencefocused_than_millennials/41136, Accessed on February 9, 2020.
Jay Delp and Joel Lusz,,Just Shoot Me! (Grand Rapids, MI: Youth Specialties/Zondervan, 2002)
Steve Taylor, The Out of Bounds Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Emergent YS/Zondervan. 2005), p 88
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