In order for you to understand what follows I will, very regrettably, have to do a bit of recent USA church history with you.
We are now emerging out of a rather short era in US church history that I have dubbed the “relevancy era.” The now way over used cliche that drove the “relevancy era” went something like this, “The church of the past was too insular and exclusive. So we should be super inclusive and relevant to the modern times.”
They sought to accomplish that goal by changing everything about the church, from worship styles (from hymns to rock), to pastoral expectations (from a thinking listener to a noisy vision caster), to when and why we gather (from bible studies to bowling nights). Hence the end product of the “relevancy era” was celebrity pastors (see Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll), diverse and ever changing worship styles and much fewer but much larger congregations.
While many of the changes were good and even necessary, there is now a sense that we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Some of the “relevancy era’s” breakout stars seem to have woken up and realized that even though they call themselves “church” they have very little to do with the Biblical Jesus or the historical Christian tradition. In fact, some have admitted that if they succeeded in producing any new Christians at all, those Christians were very shallow, biblically illiterate and quite ignorant of the ancient traditions of our faith. As an example of that last one, it greatly humors me that the “traditional” songs in our hymn book are all less than 150 years old. It seems to me that if we wanted to sing “traditional” Christian songs we should figure out what Augustine and John Chrysostom were singing!
With that aside, we are now seeing a movement away from mega churches with hip rock bands and celebrity pastors. This is a movement towards small group discipleship, smaller congregations and liturgical forms of worship (that sometimes do sing what Chrysostom was singing!)
And I could not be happier about all those things.
But in case you are not happy about it or still confused by all that above, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken have written a wonderful narrative about their own transition from a pastor as an entertainer CEO model to a spiritual director model.
They tell their story beautifully and succinctly in “Renovation of the Church.” They were seeker sensitive pastors of a large suburban church that boasted over 1700 attendees per Sunday. Gradually they began reading about spiritual formation and eventually found themselves at a vision casting retreat admitting that though they had 1700 people coming, they did not have many people who showed up on Sundays who cared about Jesus.
They came home from the retreat and over a course of a few years changed everything about their ministry model. They switched up the worship style, the discipleship structures, the times and places the church met and their expectations of leaders. . .and lost 1000 attendees.
As if to offer proof that their 1700 laity were not good disciples, one group of laypeople, angry about the changes, wrote a long, mean and painful letter detailing everything they hated about the new church. They wanted it “their” way and when they weren’t getting their way any more it made them bitterly angry. The sad part of the letter was that they had been attending the church for over 5 years and still it had not occurred to them that writing hate mail is against the expectations of Jesus. The church had catered to their needs so well, they thought they had a religious “right” to have their wants met. This was the type of attitudes that Carlson and Lueken found they could no longer tolerate as Christian pastors and why they gladly took 700 disciples seeking Christ over 1700 consumers seeking entertainment.
Amidst stories like this, both writers take time to write beautiful chapters that highlight why they had to make the changes they made. Kent Carlson offers particularly poignant chapters about the harmful effects of pastoral ambition and how we should worship. Lueken provides great primers on the gospel and spiritual formation as it pertains to a church’s structure.
Together they both tell a great story that gives substance and emotional heft to the current trends in US Christian culture. And just like the current Christian culture the story is both heartbreaking and full of God’s amazing grace, a grace that will always meet us where we are and insist we return to or stay on God’s straight and narrow path.
Therefore, “Renovation of the Church” is a must read.