Courage to Define Reality and Face Results

The most controversial and unnerving session of this past June’s Arts Conference at Willow was one in which author and pastor Dan Kimball first shared insights from his book, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church, and then a panel of church leaders wrestled with some of Dan’s findings and with the future of the church. Our main focus was the weekend gatherings, when the church comes together, and what needs to change going forward. We tried to cover too many subjects, and longed for more time to hear the perceptions of our excellent panelists and the interaction with the attenders. But through the wonders of blogging, our conversation can continue.

During the panel discussion, Sally Morgenthaler challenged us to consider her point of view that worship evangelism, which she advocated and wrote a book about in the mid 90’s, is not effectively penetrating our culture. I admire Sally for her courage, especially her willingness to revisit some of her own assumptions which have defined what she was always known for. Sally’s words probably raised the blood pressure of a lot of arts leaders, because the thought of starting over, trying to define a new paradigm, and possibly abandoning a lot of our current practices is both daunting and disconcerting. Besides, aren’t most Christians fairly satisfied with the state of corporate worship?

As I continue to reflect on these vital issues for the local church, including my own, I am reminded of the words of our pastor Bill Hybels, who says that part of a leader’s most important job is to define reality. Are we really willing to look objectively at our individual church communities and ask these kinds of questions:

• Are truly non-churched people really showing up in any significant percentage at our church on Sunday mornings?

• How many of our visitors or new attenders are actually Christians who have transplanted from another church?

• For those who truly are not yet in the faith and who come on Sunday, what is their level of engagement with the church service, specifically the parts of the service outside the sermon/teaching time?

• What is the reaction and response of non-churched people to the forms of communication we employ in our churches – to our music, our spoken words, our visual communication, our videos, our drama or our dance? Are we communicating with relevance, cultural sensitivity, authenticity, creativity, and excellence?

• Sally asserted that much of Christian worship music all sounds the same, and is distinctly different from the direction of secular music. Do you agree? If it is true, what does this mean and should this change?

• How much are most non-believers actually drawn into extended times of congregational singing (what we often call worship)? Are we limiting ourselves too much to music as an art form?

I could go on, but these are just a few of the questions bouncing around in my head and heart these days. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments. All of us are trying to figure out how to build up believers AND extend ourselves to those not yet in God’s family. We won’t all land in the same place. But do we have the courage to ask the questions, challenge our own status quo, and face the truth about what is and is not really taking place on Sunday mornings? I for one don’t want to duck my head in the sand, pretend these issues are not real, and simply coast on what we’ve always done that seems fairly acceptable to most Christians already in the fold. The kingdom will not advance unless pastors and arts leaders boldly ask these kinds of questions. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and a spirit of discovery together as the wider community of faith, I believe we can make progress…I believe we must. In too many places, business as usual is not working. There, I said it. What do you think?


Zondervan - Dan Kimball: They Like Jesus But Not the Church

Christianity Today - Sally Morganthaler


Conference Blogger said...

Hey, I'm Drew from Kansas at Antioch Family Worship Center. We love your blog and actually have adapted to the idea ourselves. We are currently in our beginning phases, but have been partially satisfied with what we have come up with. There is still alot left to do, but just thought you guys might want to check it out at


brad andrews said...

I recently spoke with Sally in a phone conversation and posted some excerpts at my blog @ She asked me to post her thoughts here and the Willow Creek Arts blog:

Have we trained our people to care about the wrong things? Particularly, high production at all costs?

Sally: This describes so many of the large churches – over 1000 – that I have worked with and seen over the last few years who ironically have stopped growing, many of them are in denial that they are actually losing ground – they are saying that they are at least maintaining – where the last few years that is hard to even say that because the losses are becoming pretty evident.

The really savvy leaders are asking the deeper questions. However most leaders, especially if they are of the baby boomer variety, even young boomers, old X'ers who were trained by boomers, are going for the band-aid – let's get a VJ machine, let's get another screen, let's increase the production value - thinking if they increase the excellence factor – the cool factor – that it will fix whatever problem.

It is a paradigm that is all about 'people come because it's a good show' and if people aren't coming, the show isn't good enough. That is the paradigm that came of the 90's which really came out of a pretty strong 80's performance paradigm. It got entrenched in the 90's. Many churches added praise and worship choruses in the 90's. Make it good, if you are slacking, make it better.

What impact does the worship space have on worship?

Sally: Buildings are us. Buildings determine what we do and how we do it in worship. They are not neutral. If all we have is a box and a stage, it is driven by a broadcast value. Those churches are built for presentation. They are not built for interaction. They are not built for anything that would come close to a mystical experience.

Short of going back and asking how the environment impacts the worship and how we are helped to engage with God at a different level and with other, all we are left with is to tweak what they were built for which is performance.

To ask the question is very scary for many large churches. Because then we have to say, "We have the wrong kinds of buildings…"

It is an identity issue if a church's identity is performance. When someone says 'let's create some intimacy' it doesn't jive with a performance mentality.

If a church is going to spend more money on technology to increase the excellence to bring more people in, that fits into the performance value. Making a room smaller, taking the stage and eliminating the distance – which is a huge issue for emerging culture – doesn't feed the performance identity.