Creating Church Experiences Worth Experiencing


The experience economy isn't just an economic reality; it's a church necessity. It you want to engage people, you must create experiences worth experiencing.

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Welcome to the Experience Economy

Actually, we’ve been living in it for a decade or two, even if you and I haven’t realized it. Most of us are old enough to remember the previous service economy. The economic progression away from the service economy has been evolving for quite some time and has real implications for your church.

Let’s chat for a minute about this economic progression to better understand how it affects our churches.

The Evolving Economic Reality

There have been four distinct stages of the US economy: Agrarian, Industrial, Service, and Experience. In a way, the history of economic progress can be illustrated in the four-stage evolution of the birthday cake — which sounds weird, but hang with me.

During the AGRARIAN economy, mothers made birthday cakes from scratch, mixing farm commodities (flour, sugar, butter, and eggs) that cost a few dimes. As the goods-based INDUSTRIAL economy arrived, moms paid a dollar or two to Betty Crocker for premixed ingredients. Later, when the SERVICE economy took hold, busy parents ordered cakes from the bakery or grocery store for $10 or $15 — ten times as much as the packaged ingredients. Now, in the EXPERIENCE economy, parents neither make the birthday cake nor even throw the party. Instead, they spend $100, $200, or $500 (or even more) to “outsource” the entire event to a business that stages a memorable event for the kids—and often throws in the cake for free!

The Experience Economy Fundamentals

Several years ago, I was in LA visiting a friend. As we walked down the street to grab lunch, we passed by a store that charged people to pet puppies and kittens by the hour. I assumed I had read the sign wrong. This must be a pet store or a humane society. But no. At this establishment, people could pay to pet puppies and kittens by the hour.

And it was packed, by the way.

I thought that was insane. Turns out, it’s brilliant. That’s the experience economy.

Conceptually, the experience economy defines the shift in economic value from products and services to experiences. In this economy, businesses focus on creating memorable and engaging customer experiences as a primary offering. These experiences go beyond the functional aspects of a product or service and aim to evoke emotions, connect with individuals on a deeper level, and provide a sense of personalization and authenticity.

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore coined this term in their book “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage.” Here’s how they describe the experience economy:

“An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.”

Several companies have thrived in the experience economy by effectively leveraging this concept, such as:

Disney: Disney is renowned for its ability to create immersive experiences in its theme parks. From the moment visitors step into a Disney park, they are transported to a world of magic and wonder, with attention to detail, storytelling, and customer service being central to the experience.

Apple: Apple has successfully created a brand experience around its products. From the sleek design of their devices to the intuitive user interface and seamless integration across different devices, Apple has built a loyal customer base that values the overall experience of using their products. 

Airbnb: Airbnb transformed the travel industry by offering unique and personalized experiences for travelers. By allowing people to rent out their homes or spaces, Airbnb created a platform where travelers can have more authentic and local experiences, immersing themselves in the culture of their destinations.

Starbucks: Think about Starbucks. Starbucks isn’t in the coffee business. You’re paying for the cozy ambiance. You’re paying for the skilled and friendly staff (in 2022, Starbucks announced they would spend $1 billion on higher wages and better employee training). Why? Because the experience matters.

Sports is attempting to adjust to this reality, too.

The list of companies unsuccessful in making the shift is long, including Blockbuster, KMart, The Sports Authority, and Sears. And many, many churches. 

This experience economy is clear to see and here to stay — at least for a while. And we better understand it and adjust to it. 

The Church in the Experience Economy

How long has your church hosted in-person services and experiences?

I became the lead pastor of Woodstock City Church in November 2008. This one role alone means I have over a decade of hosting church services and other in-person gatherings. Your church leadership experiences may be a little shorter or decades longer. Either way, you get the point. Many churches are stuck in an in-person gathering rut.

Let’s back up a little more, though: How long has THE Church hosted in-person gatherings? We don’t know the exact format of the early church gatherings, but we know they had them! That’s one of the reasons I love this passage in Hebrews…

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
— Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)

I love knowing these first-century Christians gathered in person. And as a church leader, I equally love to know these first-century pastors ALSO struggled to get people to attend their church! There’s something comforting about that.

As church leaders today, it’s evident that we need to adjust our in-person experiences. This is challenging because we all have our own habit (or rut) of doing things the way we’ve always done them.

In every organization, serving the model becomes our mission.

I see it all the time, including — or especially in — the local church. Think about it: Perhaps you created the model! Or you inherited the model others still love AND assume is “just fine, thank you very much.” I bet your congregation is a bit resistant to changing things. And, of course, there are always those who believe THEIR way of church is THE theological prescribed version of the gathering.

One thing we can all agree on: We need to gather in person. And we need to adjust and improve our in-person gatherings.

Creating Experiences at Woodstock City Church

When I began leading our church, we didn’t use the “experience economy” language. Still, we understood the experience was a draw. We celebrated how great the band opened our service with “Faithfully” by Journey. We even had a term for these secular songs: Openers. “That opener was so cool!” I remember working to find a way to use pyrotechnics on the stage! 

If this seems ridiculous, don’t laugh too much. It worked back then. Our church grew from a couple hundred to thousands on a Sunday — not just because of our secular “openers,” but that was part of the secret sauce. We created a church service worth attending. It felt unmissable. It was predictably great but unpredictable. And, if you missed it, you couldn’t come back next week for it.

Churches like Willow Creek and North Point helped us all understand that the experience matters, especially if you hope to be relevant to your community and attract unchurched and de-churched people. 

In this experience economy, the experience still matters. But, the experience today must be unique to where people are today.

What Experiences Do People Want From Their Church?

Most, if not all, church models in place today were built before the introduction of the experience economy. We didn’t say it this way, but churches provided a “service” back then. We literally provided services, but our gatherings focused on offering attendees a service of worship, sacraments, and sermons. Especially sermons!

Content was king in the service economy, but content is a commodity in the experience economy.

For 2,000 years — or at least for the past 40 years — content was the king of the gathering experience. You had to be in the room if you wanted to hear the sermon. To experience worship, you had to be in the room. If you didn’t want to miss out, you had to be in the room. Content was king…until the internet made content a commodity. 

Think about how much has changed.

As I said, I began leading a church in 2008. The internet wasn’t new in ’08, but we weren’t exactly leveraging it inside the church, either. Back then, if you wanted to hear the sermon, you had to (1) be in the room or (2) have a friend purchase the CD. And BTW, that CD was only available to purchase as you left the room! I remember standing in the back of our auditorium, watching our production volunteers duplicate CDs for sale!

It’s crazy how much and how quickly our world has changed. Today, I can listen to any pastor preach on just about any topic anywhere I am. I can hear, or watch, or listen and watch. Content is no longer the driving force of the in-person gathering. Now, content certainly has a critical and essential role to play in our in-person experiences. But if you assume people will come for content, you’re thinking wrong. I bet your attendance is telling you that, though.

If the gathering experience can no longer be build by content, what is the foundation for the experience we must create? 

If we are remodeling the in-person experience, what is the foundation? 

I’m so glad you asked!

A Connection Experience

If you’re hoping people will show up to HEAR something, don’t hold your breath. If we get the EXPERIENCE right, we are well on our way to creating a more connected experience beyond the content.

This is the secret to your church experience: CONNECTION.

As people move through a discipleship journey, church gatherings become more and more connection-focused. But our connection goes beyond community in the church. We want to help people connect to:

CONNECT TO THEMSELF: As we create more space in our gatherings, we make room for introspection and self-reflection. This is a critical new element needed in our physical gathering spaces.

CONNECT WITH OTHERS: Theologically, relationally, and experientially, people need people. Connecting with others is one of God’s primary mechanisms to grow our faith. So in our various gatherings, we need to prioritize connections with others.

CONNECT WITH GOD: Finally, and most importantly, people want to experience transcendence, not welcomes and worship and sermons. Part of our gathering design must include space for the presence of God to become present in the lives of our attendees. It’s a shame when people come to church looking for God and only find us.

As we adjust our physical gatherings, we must focus more on connection. After all, nobody should ever out-connect the local church.

Don’t Ignore What Your People Experience

Like it or not, every person in your church and community lives in the experience economy. Their experiences create and dictate their expectations. There is a reason many former thriving product and service companies are out of business. The days are numbered for any organization, company, or business ignoring the reality of our current economy.

That goes for churches, too.

Focusing on the experience doesn’t necessarily mean making it louder or more entertaining. It means focusing on how people physically and digitally experience your church and their Heavenly Father, from parking lot to parking lot.

One more thing: I talk a LOT about this and include practical suggestions and examples from other thriving churches in my Rethinking Your Church Model Masterclass Experience. The next group begins August 10. I’d love for you to join and learn more about how to rethink your approach to church to better reach your current community and grow disciples through a systematic approach.

Here’s a quick description of what we’ll cover:

SESSION 1 – BUILDING A BETTER CHURCH CULTURE: In our first conversation, we’ll focus on the foundations of our communities, what’s changed, and how we must adjust.

SESSION 2 – THE CHURCH ENGAGEMENT JOURNEY: We examine a new church and discipleship model design for today’s culture and your community.

SESSION 3 – LET’S FIX THE PHYSICAL: Your in-person experiences are critical to a comprehensive discipleship pathway. But they need to change.

SESSION 4 – LET’S INTEGRATE DIGITAL: Every person has approximately 70 hours of discretionary time outside of Sunday morning. How are you leveraging this time?

SESSION 5 – DELIVERING A NEW MINISTRY MODEL: Best practices for implementing a new model, including staffing structures, funding, and metrics.

SESSION 6 – FUNDING AND VOLUNTEERING IN THE MODEL: Incorporating best practices for accelerating generosity and volunteerism within the model.