What Businesses Can Teach the Church About Staying Culturally Relevant
Part of what a futurist does is try to find the invisible stories going on that we don't see immediately, but which can affect us. We're all operating with multiple stories simultaneously. I want to offer some vocabulary around these invisible stories, because the stories we’re part of have far-reaching implications for churches.
The Stories that Shape Us
There's the grand story that we're in—God’s redemption of a fallen world through his son, Jesus Christ. We're all trying to find that story and discover our place in it and live that story out.
There are epic stories—stories that reflect the ages of our time. Paul talked about the epic story we’re involved in, that our war is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. I like to define principalities as governing domains of thought and behavior. In other words, paradigms. Culture is a governing domain of thought and behavior that's invisible, that we don't see all the time, but affects how we interact.
Then there's our personal story, where we oftentimes find we're down in the weeds, and these other stories buffer us, and bump against us. The challenge that we face as organizations is that, when the story of our time, our birthing as an organization, gets out of sync when the season changes in the epic, or the culture, or the country. Then we find our organizations struggle.
Meta stories exist at the intersection of grand, epic, and personal stories. Meta stories show an individual how the three previous stories become one story that crafts a narrative of the time period, generation, group of people, or situation and can shed light on the deeper nuances of what it is describing. Meta stories expose the overarching themes in a given time, place, and with a specific set of people.
For instance, when Baby Boomers were coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the mass-market communication medium was also undergoing a massive shift from print to broadcast. Moving from the newspaper and magazine as the primary source of curated news to a television where news, world events, and other goings-on were less censored, Baby Boomers grew in a world that seemed a lot messier than the one that their parents grew up in.
Television, the epic story in this case, changed the way that people thought about themselves and their personal stories, and in turn created a meta story of the world being far uglier, far messier, and far less appealing than the world in which print was the mass medium.
When something disruptive, such as television for Boomers, comes along and changes the pattern of everyday life, when the epic stories change, institutions must change their stories to remain relevant.
For years, telephones were something left at home. However, when the iPhone came along, the epic story changed. Now, individuals had an on-demand content provider that could bring them any movie, any song, any video, any miniscule bit of information at the touch of a button. Therefore, curated content providers, like universities, churches, seminars, and publishers had to change the way they told their stories to show the benefits of community and learning together. Their story of being the place for content was interrupted, and they needed to change their story to continue to attract people who now had an on-demand content provider on their persons at all times of the day.
Telling a New Story
Sometimes, though, institutions miss the cultural shift and refuse to change their story for the current times. Case in point: McDonald's. As the epic story of what people want for food has changed—moving from wanting cheap and quick food that kills them to desiring healthy food that’s easy and convenient—McDonald's failed to see the shift that was taking place. Instead of adapting to this new story, they launched a campaign to offer all-day breakfast. Rather than changing their menu to include healthy and convenient options, they simply are offering more of the fast and quick food that is killing their customers.
Similarly, the church sometimes acts like McDonald's. Rather than discerning shifts that are happening in the culture and meeting the real needs that are revealed in cultural shifts, churches add more programs, more ministries, and work double-time to stay relevant. It’s only in adapting our epic stories that we remain relevant and engaged in the “story” of our times.
McDonald's and many other businesses have much to teach the church about the role of story in its effectiveness and success. To hear more about what we can learn from other people’s stories, watch my talk from Aspen’s 2015 Alignment Conference.
What lessons has your church gleaned from others’ stories? Share a comment so we can all learn!