So do you remember how you used to purchase a song? Way back when you had to go to a place called a record store. And then you had to buy an entire LP and pay for 12 songs you didn’t want to get the one you did want. And today, to the extent we even buy music, you go on-line, and download the one song you want and make a customizable play list. This is the trend of unbundling, and it’s effect is being felt everywhere.
I heard this provovative comment from David Wilkens, a Harvard Law Professor, speaking at an event at Hamline University. His address was about global trends and its implications on the practice of law, but those same trends are affecting religion too. This one of unbundling hit home with me.
Wilkens further explained that buyers today are way smarter and more sophisticated and have access to a whole lot more information. That has changed the fundamental nature of competiion. It used to be about reputation and experience. Now it is about outputs. What are you offering that is of value to me? And those outputs are being measured by sophisticated metrics such as Craig’s List, Angie’s List, Rate My Professor. It has changed the nature of production. It is no longer about law firms but networks, with information, ideas and people being co-developed. The good news he said is that the world is becoming more complex, and people are going to need help figuring out this complexity, but they are also going to push aside the idea that the only way to do that is to get a customized, built from the ground up solution. They are not interested in a beautiful legal product but they want a solution to a problem that is repeatable and affordable and that reality is allowing different kinds of competitors to compete to solve these problems. The traditional legal business is being hollowed out by these other competitors taking pieces of it.
So when was the last time your church has a monopoly on all the people who moved into your community seeking a Christian community or even one with your particualar brand? It used to be that way. There are folks who remember starting their church in the 1950’s and 60’s where they would put up the sign “new United Methodist Church” and all the United Methodists in that community would go there, and to think about starting a second United Methodist church in that community was unheard of. Why would we give people a choice? And when people came to us, we met them on our terms. They got Jesus and spiritual community in the way we packaged it. There was a onse size worship fits all, and it only happened at 10am on Sunday mornings.
So how is that working for us today? The resource providers to religion and spiritual practices have mushroomed. I can go to a paid spiritual director. I can read all sorts of books that I can download on Amazon and read in the comfort of my home. I can go to a yoga class, or take a spiritual pilgrimmage with a travel group. I can go on a mission trip with a variety of non-profit organizations. I can buuld houses with Habitat and feed children with Feed My Starving Children, and I can have an Outward Bound experience in the summer to stretch myself emotionally, mentally and spiritually. All good things, by the way. And that is just to name a few that come to mind, let alone all the choices I have for worshipping communities. The church is not the only place to meet my spiritual needs. So how do we respond to this phenomonon?
One of David Wilkens parting shots to the law community was that they needed to innovate to meet this changing landscape. He said, “whatever you think about billable hours, flat fee billing is not the iphone.” I would say adding a contemporary worship, or screens in our sanctuary, is our flat fee billing. We think we are being innovate and creative (and it is a step) but an incremental one at best. No matter how much we might wish it differently, the information revoution has changed everything. People don’t need to come to us to learn about Jesus. But they are still looking for someone to help them to make sense out of all the competing information out there and they are looking for help for the problems in their lives and hope for their future. So how do we need to change our delivery system because they aren’t going to come to us for the LP anymore if that is all we have to give them?