The church and Kanye West

A rapper’s outside-the-box marketing campaign holds lessons for a declining church.

By Amy Butler

The church could learn a lot from Kanye West. This might seem a novel idea both to churchy folks and to Kanye, but humor me.

There is much worry these days about the future of the church in America. Theories abound about how to approach the problem of a declining institution. Leadership experts like Ron Heifetz say one major key to effective leadership for the future is learning to identify and differentiate technical and adaptive challenges.

In other words: Is this a problem with an easy, straightforward solution, or is this a problem that is going to require a shift in values, behavior or attitudes?

In some corners of the church world the current decline of the institutional church in America is simply a technical problem: If we could just get the right (pastor, music, bulletin, worship time, website, children’s program, etc.), people would begin filling the pews again and we could go back to church as we know it.

That’s not true, of course.

If we were to think adaptively instead, we would stop hitting our heads against our collective brick wall and embrace the realization that living into the future of the church -- whatever that will be -- means welcoming some deeply fundamental and likely very painful shifts.

Good leadership for the future of the church is going to take thinking adaptively and acting courageously in ways that will look and feel different and unfamiliar, risky and untested. That’s where Kanye West comes in.

I can’t say that I am a Kanye West fan. But I am a fan of a college sophomore who likes to engage in long and deeply intellectual conversations with his mother about the state of race relations in America, how art and music offer searing critiques of a deeply flawed society, and how issues like poverty and racism are defining a new generation of young Americans.

As it turns out, this college sophomore really likes Kanye West. It’s from him that I learned about Kanye West’s newest album, the release of which has been garnering quite a bit of media attention over the past few weeks.

Apparently in the popular music industry there’s a prescribed way one goes about releasing a new album. Even for one of the most successful and celebrated rappers in America today, the routine is to produce a new album and follow a marketing plan that involves releasing one single at a time to select radio markets carefully timed with the new album’s debut in stores and online.

Kanye West likes to mix things up, to challenge convention and think outside the box. He likes to think adaptively, you could say.

For the release of his sixth studio album, Yeezus, West produced a music video of the album’s first single, “New Slaves,” and showed it simultaneously in 66 cities on the sides of abandoned buildings, warehouses and other urban edifices. Through Twitter and Facebook people knew to show up for something, though they didn’t know exactly what. Immediately after the video was unveiled, grainy cell phone replicas were all over the Internet.

Traditional music marketers criticized the approach, but you might guess what happened. West’s unusual marketing campaign caught the attention of fans and created far more buzz about the album than any traditional marketing campaign could have hoped for. Some are calling it the greatest marketing strategy of the century.

Kanye West’s experiment is a great example of adaptive leadership. He put all the assumptions and expectations of popular music marketing on a table, dismantled them one by one, turned them upside down and inside out and began to think about the task of marketing his new album in radically, foundationally different ways.

This is exactly how we must start thinking about the church.

We’re living through a time of profound change within the institutional church. We could keep doing things the same way, trying our best to apply traditional and expected strategies in a desperate effort to recreate what seems comfortable and familiar to us. Or, we could radically re-examine our assumptions and expectations about what it means to be the church and watch to see where we go next.

It’s easy to avoid this way of thinking about church, even among church leaders. I don’t know many colleagues who relish a day at the office challenging long-held assumptions and values and creating a climate of uncertainty and risk. In other words, unveiling an adaptive approach to congregational issues at the next church council meeting might not go over so well.

But the truth is, that it’s going to take courageous leaders and prophetic congregations to midwife the institutional church into its next expression.

I wonder often if we will be able to gather the courage it is going to take to live faithfully into the future of God’s church. What new ideas will bubble up if we begin to radically think outside the box?

I’m watching and listening for creative, adaptive expressions of the church, anxious to hear new ideas and watch them tested in real time. And I’m trying my best to faithfully dismantle my own.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.