Experience Church, Stripped Down

February 16, 2006 by

I am often asked by pastors how far is too far. From big screens and big hair to modern worship and candlelight services, there are so many ways to do, have, and present “church.” From the mini to the mega, from the old-fashioned steeples to the churches who lease space in night clubs, the experiences are virtually endless. Quiet and sincere. Loud and glorious. Seeker sensitive. Evangelistic. Dancin’ in the aisles. Liturgy. Laughter. Multi-media. Cup holders. You name it and there is a good chance it is available or been tried.

Yet the questions remain: How much should I do? What should I avoid? What is cool? What works?

Here’s a simple approach I’ve learned…

If the electricity went out, and your walls fell down, and your biggest givers died, what would you have left? Would you have a community of people still seeking after the heart of God? Would you still worship even without a band? Would you still be able to learn about God even though you can’t show a video or a PowerPoint slide? In other words, what you have when everything else goes away is what your church is really all about.

I recall the words of Brennan Manning in his book The Importance of Being Foolish:

Consider how our churches have explored and exploited our need to replace the numbness in our lives with a passion for something, anything. We’ve created worship in which music is meant to stir the emotions but the soul is left unmoved, in which the words spoken are little more than manipulations of the heart. We have created cathartic experiences filled with weeping and dancing in the Spirit that leaves us with the sense that we have touched God but that fail to give us the sense that God has touched us. We run to churches where the message feels good and where we feel energized and uplifted–but never challenged or convicted. “It is not surprising that spiritual experiences are mushrooming all over the place and have become highly sought-after commercial items,” writes Henri Nouwen. “Many people flock to places and persons who promise intensive experiences of togetherness, cathartic emotions of exhilaration and sweetness, and liberating sensations of rapture and ecstasy. In our desperate need for fulfillment and our restless search for the experience of divine intimacy, we are all too prone to construct our own spiritual events.”

We can hide behind great church brands and marketing campaigns. We can plow new grounds in getting the world to take notice of our creativity. We can even make a name for ourself in our communities. But what remains when the lights are out and the sound is unplugged? When the hurricane wipes it all way. When the earthquake swallows your best intentions.

When God speaks, I’d rather be in a position to listen than scrambling for the microphone to make sure he’s heard. Instead of getting so jazzed up about showing a Bruce Almighty film clip, I want to make sure I’m seeing God’s real miracles every day.

Post By:

Brad Abare

Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it.
Read more posts by | Want to write for us?

17 Responses to “Experience Church, Stripped Down”

  • Paul
    February 16, 2006

    This is a needed message in the church today. Thanks for this. With all we try to do to be effective, and there is nothing wrong with that, it is nice to hear what is most important.

     | Permalink
  • Geoff
    February 16, 2006

    Hi — interesting site! I like the idea of trying to call the church to ensure that we are not putting our trust in focus groups, marketing, and advertising, to make the gospel appeal to the world.
    However…. isn’t the title of your blog an exact example of what you’re fighting against?
    You’re using a hip, trendy name (saying something “sucks” is actually originally a reference to oral sex; and whether you realize this or not, it’s a pretty crude phrase in any event) to try to sell Truth. Am I wrong about this, or should you remove your log before you point out someone else’s speck?
    Either way, have a nice day.

     | Permalink
  • matt
    February 16, 2006

    Thank you for the thoughtful post.
    I hope Geoff comes back to CMS and reserves judgement long enough to discover it’s treasure.

     | Permalink
  • Stu McGregor
    February 16, 2006

    tempting to flame Geoff for his drive by there. but hey, he’s right, whenever i saw some sci fi movie where someone was sucked into the vacuum of space, i always suspected it was just a metaphor for oral sex…now i know.
    but back to the posting.
    i’ve been toying with this idea too. and so this year i want to try a couple of services where we actually turn the power off…just to see what shape might emerge.
    Also, i’m so suspicious of the hype now…even contemplative hype. but the real issue for me is I don’t know what else to do at this point. the next thing i try will have the novelty factor which always inspires…
    thanks for the quote from brennan as well…very nice indeed.

     | Permalink
  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    February 16, 2006

    Hey Geoff, thanks for stopping by. Let me first say that we get comments on the name all the time. I’d encourage you to check out our response to all the jaw-dropping over our use of the word ‘sucks’. This isn’t the first time we’ve had people say what you did.
    Secondly, yes, we do use a catchy name and [hopefully] a cool design for our site. But if you strip away the pretty colors, fonts and layout, you’re still left with an engaging conversation here [at least that’s the goal]. I think Brad’s trying to make the same point about church. There’s nothing wrong with promoting the church and doing bigger stuff–but what really matters is what happens when you strip away all the extras.

     | Permalink
  • Sister Mary Hasta
    February 16, 2006

    Got here by link-hopping, and boy howdy, am I ever glad I did! You’re articulating things I’ve been trying to say for years (and saying them a lot better than I ever could)!

     | Permalink
  • Aaron
    February 16, 2006

    This is probably more of a counterpoint than a response but the love of Jesus Christ is by far the most important message in all of humanity and is worthy of every single resource and technology we have available.
    People bring their friends/family/coworkers to our church because they know that we will stop at nothing to share the message of Christ in a real way that people understand. There are no sacred cows.
    I think the key is variety. Our church has what we refer to as an ‘average’ week at journey. That consists of medium rock style worship music, a few video clips (some movie clips but mostly origional or purchased ministry production) or a drama, etc…
    But there are times when that gets taken up to loud hard rock worship music, and in your face almost offensive video clips.
    Other times it is a guy with an accoustic guitar sitting on a stool and someone sharing their story.
    Sunday morning (or whenever you do primary worship) is like the team rally.

     | Permalink
  • Peter
    February 17, 2006

    I like what Aaron said above [People bring their friends/family/coworkers to our church because they know that we will stop at nothing to share the message of Christ in a real way that people understand. There are no sacred cows.]
    I think that it is dangerous for us to think we could ever fashion a service to facilitate God touching us. We just can’t do that.
    For all you pastors out there, and marketing guys, and program directors, and whatever…
    Try this…
    Stop staying up for Letterman or Leno or curling on the late-night Olympics… Get up an hour earlier, sit with a Bible open in front of you, and just shut up and let God wash over you. Give Him a silent space to do it.
    I am seeing what appears to be far too many marthas and not enough marys in ministry.
    Will I “stop at nothing” to create a church environment where people can encounter God, and maybe… just maybe… God will encounter people, too?
    Yeah… Boy howdy…
    I’m going to start with the church environment in ME… THEN I’m going to use the movie clips and the stories and the cool stage designs and the really loud U2 songs!
    Sorry… I’ve got to shut up and get back to some good old fashioned silent listening prayer now…
    Bless all of you on your day! Very good article!

     | Permalink
  • nate klaiber
    February 17, 2006

    Incredible post. Something that has been on my mind alot lately (especially since our church just jumped into a $300K building project). Your quote of Brennan Manning hit the nail on the head (he is an incredbile speaker and author).
    I can’t even add any more to the original post – very well said.

     | Permalink
  • alex
    February 17, 2006

    “Stop staying up for Letterman or Leno or curling on the late-night Olympics… Get up an hour earlier, sit with a Bible open in front of you, and just shut up and let God wash over you. Give Him a silent space to do it.”
    communication is the key to any successful relationship. somewhere, we were taught that babbling is most efective/efficiant when praying. praying became a time to give God your shopping list and walk away. i have been finding it incredibly encouraging when i hear other people, like Peter, give the advice to just sit and listen, and shut up when before God. it has been life changing; and i promise, if you’re in any kind of leadership position, your prayer life will affect even the people you lead.

     | Permalink
  • Peter
    February 17, 2006

    I think it was Martin Luther who is credited with saying “I pray one hour every day. But if it’s going to be a very busy day, I pray TWO…”

     | Permalink
  • Michelle
    February 18, 2006

    In all that noise can God’s Voice really be heard? Sure but it is faint. Are we making it easier for His sheep to hear and follow HIM or MORE DIFFICULT? When the Church looks so much like the world you can’t tell the difference we are in trouble. Fruit is God’s means of measuring, and often we fail to give an alter call. Souls are the reward of His suffering He so desires, and we are vessels to reach the LOST. In Africa most Church services have no sound system, no MEGA anything, and often not even a proper building BUT The Holy Spirit is THERE! People lift up their eyes to The KING of Kings, and cry out to The Lord for salvation unprompted by man. More of God’s POWER is felt, seen, and heard… more POWER than any of what we the American Church can PLUG-IN or PLAY OUT before the eyes of man. I am sad, everytime I return to the USA it is so much worse -vanity and vexation abounds.
    Michelle (American in Africa)

     | Permalink
  • Michael
    February 18, 2006

    I wonder what God’s word has to say about this…oh, here’s a parable (the way Christ spoke to the public)…
    “Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” Luke 14:23
    Make some noise. Make it loud. Make it great!

     | Permalink
  • eric
    February 21, 2006

    Love this train of thought. I would like to add that sometimes just having a service (read “program”) every week and as the main event for a faith community often magnifies the need for and practice of “marketing” church.
    Something I challenged a local pastor to do recently was to plan a number of service activities in his church’s town one Sunday morning. When people show up to passively sit in their seats and “receive the Word”, he would be at the front doors handing out sheets explaining that instead of a worship service, those who came that day would have the opportunity to go out and serve their community as led by the church staff.
    I think something like this poses a strong challenge to the consumeristic mentality of many evangelicals today. Anyone willing to give it a try?
    By the way, the church of the pastor whom I challenged has a usual Sunday attendance of about 400 people – risky proposal!

     | Permalink
  • Nancy A
    February 24, 2006

    I am a Quaker in a small meeting, so the idea of “simple church” appeals. In fact, that’s all we do. Now, marketing utter simplicity to a wound-up generation, that’s another question altogether! (although your site has been the best for new ideas)
    I can’t stand the “holy hootenanny” of “clappy-happy” churches. I also find that they are so wrapped up in the performance of their services that they often fail to *do* any service or remain mindful of why they are doing it. We have an old Quaker saying: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” And another one from the 19th-century novelist Thomas Carlyle about “our spasmodic efforts to believe that we believe.”
    However, over time, I’ve come to realize that the spiritual needs of introverts and extroverts are quite different. Introverts need a calm, quiet place where they can go to their spiritual centre and sit with G*d. Extroverts need noise. Switch places, and both groups would be miserable.
    As an introvert, a part of me wants to believe that these extrovert types are just kind of shallow, that they’re trying to hype it all up to cover their own misgivings, that true spirituality is simple and honest and comes from within.
    But I bet there are people out there who see it differently.

     | Permalink
  • kelticpete
    August 11, 2006

    i am just back to church. like, two months ago. and I used to be a minister. i took a 10 year vacation from organized religion. alot changed in 10 years.
    one thing I have been thinking about is that the early church met, ate, talked, prayed, healed…without any fancy stuff. and they grew FAST.
    i wonder how to implement that.

     | Permalink
  • Russell Fragar
    June 22, 2011

    Ummm I think you guys just need to find a great church to belong to, and there are thousands of them! I have never been part of a church as lame as the ones some of you have described, and I wouldn’t even know where to look for one. And if I did find it, I would be out of there so fast you wouldnt see me for dust.

    All the great ideas I have seen proposed here are already being done in churches all over the place. Try to keep up!

    With regard to marketing, Jesus said get our there and communicate. Make disciples. Make your light visible. That doesn’t sound like huddling in the back pew, scared of the sound of our own voices, does it?

    The guiding values are always (1) the Word, and (2) the integrity of our hearts.

    We won’t answer to God for our lack of excuses, but the over-abundance of them. Endless “philosphizing ” (is that even a word?) is one of them.

     | Permalink