This week, as we’ve been discussing the church, I have read two intriguing stories of megachurches that began and grew explosively using an attractional, seeker-oriented philosophy of ministry, but then decided that approach was contrary to Jesus’ call to discipleship. So they closed down the “show,” re-ordered their priorities, revamped their programs, and began stressing spiritual formation and missional living.
Give them credit for trying to move away from the evangelical megachurch circus.
The first is a 2008 article in Leadership called, “Showtime” No More!” by Pastor Walt Kallestad of Community Church of Joy in Phoenix.
The second is the book, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation, by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, co-pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California.
I found hope in reading these stories. Both are worth your time. Both contain many points and emphases that evangelical churches (in the U.S. in particular) need to hear. Both show what happens when church leaders actually take seriously the prophetic voices of people like Dallas Willard, Robert Webber, and Eugene Peterson, writers we have commended here on IM.
Both also raise some questions in my mind.
In 1978, a young Lutheran pastor named Walt Kallestad was assigned to a small church in Glendale, Arizona. Over time, that little congregation of 200 grew exponentially into a megachurch with 12,000 people in attendance. And so Community Church of Joy became something of an oxymoron: a Lutheran megachurch (there are fewer than a dozen in the U.S.).
It all started when Pastor Kallestad attended a conference that included church leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and learned about designing ministries for those who had been turned off by traditional churches. A natural evangelist, Kallestad ate it up and became committed to an approach he called, “entertainment evangelism”: “The only way to capture people’s attention is entertainment, I thought. If I want people to listen to my message, I’ve got to present it in a way that grabs their attention long enough for me to communicate the gospel.”
So our church strategy revolved around the gravitational force of entertainment for evangelism. We hired the best musicians we could afford; we used marketing principles and programming specialists—for the gospel’s sake. Attendance skyrocketed. More people meant more staff, more programs, more facilities, more land, and of course the need for more money. We became a program-driven church attracting consumers looking for the latest and greatest religious presentations.
However, after years of running the “show,” Kallestad became personally burned out and disillusioned by the results. He had built a great church organization, but the church was not producing disciples.
Our church was a great organization. But something was missing. We weren’t accomplishing our mission; we weren’t creating transformed, empowered disciples.
We’d put all our energies into dispensing religious goods and services. But our people weren’t touching our community. If our church, with its sheer number of people, was populated with disciples, we would be feeding the hungry, building meaningful relationships with neighbors, and transforming our community. But we were neither salt nor light.
After pouring more than 25 years of my life into this church, I knew we weren’t developing disciples who were taking up their crosses to follow Jesus. We’d produced consumers—like Pac- Man, gobbling up religious experiences, navigating a maze but going nowhere in particular.
Too many were observing the show but not meeting God. They meandered in and out of relationships but weren’t in real community. They sought their spiritual fix but didn’t give themselves fully to Christ.
After a heart attack served as a wake-up call, Walt Kallestad took a sabbatical to seek God and visit churches where God was moving and people’s lives being transformed. When he came back and observed his own congregation, he saw a marked difference and knew something had to change. In fact, radical changes were in order. “We didn’t need to tweak our methodology, we needed a modelectomy.”
They let their hired musicians go and began using volunteers. They stopped encouraging people to remain anonymous spectators and began challenging them to get involved in the life of the fellowship. Instead of having all “ministry” revolve around the organization, they released people to start their own ministries in the community. They moved from a high control/low accountability style of leadership to low control/high accountability.
They lost thousands of people in the process, but Kallestad thinks they are moving in the right direction.
• • •
In 1990, seven leaders from a church of 200 members in Folsom, California attended a conference at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, IL. As was the case with so many young pastors in those days, Bill Hybels’ challenging question, “Lost people matter to God; do they really matter to you?” caught their imagination, and they went back to their church inspired and energized to reach their community for Christ using the successful methods they had heard about and seen in action at Willow Creek. “We bought into this philosophy of how to do church with total and almost reckless abandon.” (p. 22)
Within a couple of years, over 1000 were in attendance, and during the 90’s they topped 1700 in their Sunday “seeker services,” which was impressive in their small community. The “new community” meetings on Thursday night, specifically designed for teaching believers, had an attendance of about 400. The leaders made annual pilgrimages to Willow, and others began to notice their success and look to them for advice at conferences and events.
However, the constant demands of their ministry approach began wearing on them, and questions began creeping into their minds.
During these days there was a growing and nagging realization that there simply was no way we could attend carefully to a rich and full life with God and still live at the pace we were living. In addition, we also began to grow increasingly uneasy that this model of doing church might be unhealthy for the people whose understanding of the Christian life was shaped by a church culture that treated them as religious consumers. …We might be able to speak on the more radical teachings of Jesus, and we did with some regularity, but our model of doing church was louder. The medium is indeed the message. (p. 28f)
In the midst of the stressful demands and vague unease, many of the leaders were feeding their souls through reading authors like Merton and Nouwen, Foster and Peterson, as well as works of classic spirituality. Then they discovered Dallas Willard and Pastor Mike Lueken enrolled in a DMin class with Willard that proved to be deeply unsettling. And then came the breakthrough.
At their 2000 summer leadership retreat at Donner Lake, California, they read a book by Lyle Schaller that included a chapter on the subject of “consumerism” as a fact of life in contemporary America. In the course of their discussion,
…we began to get some clarity on a troubling truth: attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ.
Throughout the rest of that year and through 2001, they began to teach differently about the purpose of the church. They altered their seeker service and began emphasizing discipleship. They eliminated the midweek believer’s service since its purpose was now being duplicated on Sundays. Over the course of that year, they lost 1000 people.
The succeeding chapters describe the new emphases that Carlson and Lueken began to teach about and implement at Oak Hills.
- The Gospel of the Kingdom: the good news that God’s reign over all of life is now available in Jesus and that followers of Jesus can experience its reality in their lives here and now.
- The problem of consumerism: They began to fight the pervasive spirit in our culture that tells us the most important thing in life is having my wants and preferences satisfied, including my religious cravings.
- The problem of leadership ambition: They saw that our culture’s pastoral ethic of productivity and “success” rather than faithfulness has fueled the fires of ministerial ambition and caused church leaders to value external measures of achievement. One step they took to “unplug” from the leadership style of the consumeristic megachurch was to share oversight of the congregation as co-pastors.
- A renewed understanding of the church: They began to see the mission of the church as, “to invite people to experience the reality of life in the kingdom of God.” They began to emphasize the priority of spiritual formation, to promote a missional approach to outreach in contrast to their previous attractional philosophy, and to engage in renewed worship services that tell and celebrate God’s story by giving priority to solid content and structure while encouraging creativity and freedom within a coherent framework.
The final chapter of Renovation of the Church is important. In it the authors share many of the mistakes they made along the way. They didn’t always lead in a Christ-like manner. They drove change from the top down and were not always aware of what it was doing to people. They admit to being insensitive and impatient, to not listening well and talking far too much, to taking an activist approach and not praying adequately, to not recognizing the danger of creating a spiritual “elite” in the congregation and forgetting those who were at other places in their faith journey, to focusing on the negative and deconstructing what they were against rather than offering positive alternatives. In their zeal to implement a new vision, their theory often was ahead of their own formation and they failed to live out what they were preaching.
• • •
(1) Give these pastors and churches credit for waking up and seeing the problems.
(2) Give them credit for doing something about the problems.
(3) Give them credit for addressing some of evangelicalism’s most glaring weaknesses: selling out to American culture, providing entertainment worship, evaluating success on external measures, failing to make disciples, propping up a Christian subculture that takes Christians away from their mission in the world, and perverting Christian leadership into a competitive, entrepreneurial business vocation which can easily degenerate into personal kingdom building.
But I have some concerns, too.
(1) An aggressive pietism is not necessarily the best answer to consumeristic religion. To their credit, Carlson and Lueken recognize the tendency to become demanding and ungracious in promoting discipleship and spiritual formation, as well as the danger of encouraging spiritual elitism. Nevertheless, I wish more was said in both these stories about the overwhelming grace of God and about the irresistible attracting love and hospitality of Jesus in welcoming us out of our self-centered lives into the God-soaked reality of the Kingdom. Instead, I sometimes get the idea that now it is the church’s job to engineer spiritual formation and missional living simply by altering our message and getting passionate and changing our program so that it encourages people to get busy doing something different.
Whether we’re catering to consumerism or emphasizing spiritual formation, we can still find ourselves promoting self-centered religion. A lot of “law” gets press in these narratives—you must not be consumers, you must engage in serious spiritual practices, you must not merely seek entertainment, you must live missional lives, and so on. Despite its name, evangelicalism is not always strong on providing the objective teaching and means to counter our impulse to provide for our spiritual wellbeing through our own good works.
(2) Can we trust this kind of leadership? From what I’ve read in Walt Kallestad’s article and in Carlson and Lueken’s book, I would infer that these are solid, well-intentioned ministers who are trying to hear from God and lead their congregations in Christ. So what I say next is not personal, but more fundamental than that.
Were these and other pastors WRONG back in the 1980’s about the seeker movement? Did God lead them then, when they set up churches according to the seeker model and promoted “entertainment evangelism”? What are we to say about the dramatic change in understanding they received along the way? Is this just par for the course, a natural part of the journey of faith for a pastor and other church leaders?
And if so, what about all the people who trusted their certainty and passion at earlier stages of the journey? If those folks are not ready to “move on” when the leader takes a right turn and starts running down a different path, are they just out of luck? Thousands of people left the two churches whose stories are noted above. Why should any of them believe the next evangelical church, with no ties to any tradition or foundation bigger than itself, that speaks to them with certainty about God and right ways of living?
Are the methods of “doing church” subject to the whims and enthusiasms of church leaders who “ride the waves” of the Spirit? What’s to say this new emphasis on “spiritual formation” and “missional living” won’t go the way of the dinosaur when the next asteroid shower of church leadership fads hits?
There is a lot to recommend in these stories.
There are some fundamental questions still to be resolved.