Monday, January 28, 2008

So much for "cutting edge"...


A few years ago Carla and I visited a church here in Seattle that was getting a lot of buzz as a "cutting edge", "emerging", "post-modern", "hip and trendy" fellowship. Their church building even doubled as an espresso shop (I know, that's almost common nowadays, but a few years ago it seemed very cool). Perhaps my expectations were too high after perusing their immaculately crafted, high-tech website. Upon attending, I was horribly disappointed by how utterly typical their church service was. Four worship songs of the Matt Redman variety, announcements, a sermon, collection of tithes & offerings and dismissal. The pastor gave his sermon from a podium on stage while the congregation sat facing him in padded chairs. It was no different from what I had experienced in church for years. Except for the espresso machine at the back.

About two years ago I was in the Bay Area and drove all the way to Santa Cruz to visit a church that was getting a lot of buzz as a "cutting edge", "emerging" church. Their pastor had even authored a book on the "emerging church". I made it to their service and what do you suppose I found? You guessed it: Four worship songs of the Matt Redman variety, announcements, a sermon, collection of tithes & offerings and dismissal. The pastor gave his sermon from a podium on stage while the congregation sat facing him in padded chairs. It was no different from what I had experienced in church for years. Except they had black curtains and candles.

About a year ago I was in Los Angeles and visited another "cutting edge" "emerging" church. The gathering was in a funky theatre/nightclub in downtown L.A. Can you guess what it consisted of? Four worship songs of the Matt Redman variety, announcements, a sermon, collection of tithes & offerings and dismissal. The pastor gave his sermon from a podium on stage while the congregation sat facing him in padded chairs. It was no different from what I had experienced in church for years. Except everyone had tattoos.

Yesterday, feeling desperate for some flesh and blood Christian fellowship, we went back and paid another visit to the "espresso" church in the first paragraph. Four years or so later and nothing has changed, except the congregation has grown a bit.

These visits keep reminding me of the reality that I'm ruined. After what I've learned and experienced; after reading books by the likes of Frank Viola and Robert Banks and being part of a house-church; I can no longer stomach a typical church service. I see right through the "po-mo" or "emerging" or whatever "flavor of the month" window dressing that is being placed around the same old product. It's still the song and dance of professional performance ministry in front of a passive audience.

Now, if you want to talk about cutting edge, how about a group of people gathered to worship Jesus with no agenda other than to encounter Him? How about having no one in charge except the Holy Spirit? How about sitting in a circle? How about a gathering where anyone can speak/sing/pray/prophecy/etc. but no one feels they have to perform? How about a gathering where silence is every bit as important as utterance? That sounds scary and very edgy but actually not new at all. I find it in my New Testament. I find it in George Fox's Journal from the 1600's.

I just can't seem to find it in Seattle in 2008.

But I'm still looking.

3 Comments:

Blogger gooditsraining said...

i love this post! thank you! both emerging churches ive been to struck me as giant scams dressed up in flavored coffee! i still have hope for small groups though! peace, maria

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Danny,
My husband and I are about to take part in a church plant this fall as associate and wife. I totally understand what you refer to in this post, and I'd like to hope we will be different. I've been a part of small groups that sound similar to your house church experience. When you go to a church service on Sunday mornings, what would you like to see? If you had the opportunity to design a brand new type of Sunday morning encounter with say 100+ people, what would it look like? Oh - and on the humorous side, maybe you should look for a Quaker church in Seattle. They fit in great with your description! :-b Please write back. I would love to know your answer.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Danny Coleman said...

Hi Anon! ;^)

I don't know your email address, so I'll respond in the comments section here. First off, thanks for checking out my blog and for posting your comment! I hope the church plant you are participating in is a success. I'll respond to your questions/comments in order:

1. "When you go to a church service on Sunday mornings, what would you like to see?"

I'll preface by saying that a church service doesn't have to be on Sunday morning. Also, isn't it interesting that we use the phrase "church service"? I think of a "service" as something that is done for us. When you think about it, the typical church "service" does seem to mostly consist of a small select group of people doing ministry while the majority are largely passive recipients. Most people, especially in our consumer-oriented culture, think of a church as a "vendor of religious goods and services"; not so much as a functioning body of which they are an active and integral part. "Service" is what we as the Body of Christ should be providing to the lost and hurt and poor and oppressed. There's an old story of a man who visited a silent Quaker meeting for the first time, not knowing what to expect. He sat down and waited for a choir to begin singing or a preacher to begin speaking, but everyone just sat in silence. Finally the man nudged the Quaker next to him and asked, "Excuse me, when does the service begin?" The Quaker responded, "After the meeting ends."

Sorry for the digression. What I would like to see isn't necessarily what works for everyone, so I can only tell you what appeals to me. I would like to see a meeting space that is not designed like an auditorium (where all the seats face forward) but is designed for interaction (where the seats face one-another in a circle or square). Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us." I would like to see no stage or place where some believers are made more prominent than others. I would like to see everything designed with the intent of enabling people to have an encounter with the Living God, function in their gifts and edify one-another. If there is worship music (and hey, I'm a worship musician) it's goal should be to serve to help people dial down and focus on God and then get out of the way. Likewise, I'd like to see leadership that sees their function as encouraging, equipping and facilitating people to step out and minister to one-another as the Holy Spirit conducts.


2. "If you had the opportunity to design a brand new type of Sunday morning encounter with say 100+ people, what would it look like?"

Obviously, the more people you have gathered in one room, the more structure you have to have. Maybe having too many people in one room is actually an impediment to effective functioning of the ekklesia. I know of a church in Ohio called Xenos (http://www.xenos.org) that has an interesting approach: They are a church of several thousand. They consider their primary gatherings--where all the real "church stuff" happens--to be house-churches. On Sunday morning they gather together in a big auditorium for teaching (with no worship or other "churchy" things), but they don't consider that to be "church".

If I had to design an approach for 100+ people, I think I would try something like having 4 phases to the gathering:

Phase 1: Meetings for Learning (aka Sunday School). Have various small, interactive, discussion based "breakout sessions". A visitor to the church might be presented with a menu of options including an Old Testament overview discussion group, a New Testament overview discussion group, a Theology discussion group, various book discussion groups (such as The Shack or The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life or The Purpose Driven Life). These groups would be going on simultaneously in different rooms, so one would have to choose a group to attend. The groups would have a limited duration; say 3 months; so you could do the OT overview, then the NT overview, etc. Each group would be facilitated by an elder, but the goal would be active participation from those attending.

Phase 2: The Meetings for Learning would dismiss into a larger room where a time of corporate musical worship would take place. The goal would not be to provide a slick, cutting-edge performance, but to assist the gathering in entering in to worship.

Phase 3: The musical worship would segue into a time of silent listening and making space for the Holy Spirit to move.

Phase 4: At the conclusion of this time, people would transition to a different room to share a simple corporate meal and fellowship.

Thoughts:

a. Notice that there is no "Mr. Wonderful" pastor running the show or being the center of attention. Rather it would be a plurality of elders with servant hearts that would facilitate.

b. No announcements! People are smart enough to read a bulletin and/or website for themselves.

c. No offering! Secured drop boxes could be placed in the foyer.

d. No paid clergy! If there were a salaried staff, it would be administrative and would report to a council of elders and to the congregation as a whole.

e. I have no idea whether or not this would work or be practical!


3. "...maybe you should look for a Quaker church in Seattle. They fit in great with your description!"

Funny you should mention that! My wife and I visited a small Quaker church a few months ago and fell in love with it. We have been attending ever since. There are different types of Quaker churches (or "meetings", as Quaker call them). This one is an Evangelical Quaker Meeting (which means they *are* Christians!). On Sundays they have a traditional "silent" gathering from 8-9:30 (which I love but seldom attend due to the early hour), then discussion-based "Meetings for Learning" (see Phase 1 above) from 9:30 to 11, then a "programmed" gathering from 11 to 12:30. The "programmed" meeting looks more like a "typical" church service with worship songs, etc. Although the pastor typically shares a message at this meeting, she tries to keep it brief and leaves plenty of space for silent listening and for others to share as they feel led by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes there is prayer and ministry as people bring up concerns. They are open to Charismata and don't have a problem with laying on hands and praying for healing and whatnot or with people speaking in tongues (albeit, in Quaker fashion, which means endeavoring to keep things genuine and understated).

I hope something, somewhere in all of that is of use to you! Thanks again for visiting!

3:20 PM  

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