Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken – A Review
Drive down any neighborhood street in America and one is struck by the sheer number of church buildings dotting the suburban landscape. They are all roughly the same size, striving toward the same full palette of programming options, and feigning ecumenism while struggling for the same group of spiritual consumers intent on gaining the biggest bang for their religious buck. All this while balancing a staff-for-growth strategy with the mortgage on a newly renovated building designed to make those same folks comfortable, happy and faith satisfied.
The Christian church in North America wrestles with an image crisis. More specifically, it wrestles with a crisis over image; image over anything else. Ever since the church growth movements of the seventies and eighties that saw the emergence of the mega-church and seeker movements, we have trained ourselves well as church leadership offering a goods and services model of Christian life. The colorful costuming, extensive advertising and lavish user-friendly layouts all hint at some high-interest Promised Land investment, but in the end make us guilty of false advertising. By only catering to the felt needs of the spiritual-goods and services clientele we misrepresent the gospel’s insistence upon self-sacrifice and identifying our deepest needs.
As someone who, for four years, was on the music and arts staff at a large Willow Creek Association church in British Columbia, I was instantly drawn to encounter the newly published, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by co-pastors, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, and offer a few thoughts.
Like so many other churches of its era and philosophy, Oak Hills enjoyed a meteoric rise from a few dozen people in a strip mall to many hundreds in just over a decade. The high production values endemic of the seeker-targeted church mentality assisted in creating a monster that “demanded to be fed.” When one stands back and looks at sheer statistics and rapidity of growth it is a hard ideology to criticize. That is especially true in our own cultural setting where we are now suffering the effects of an economic beast created through consumerist greed, unbridled capitalism and blind adherence to the free market. It has now turned to face its creator and is quite happily dining on us. The church has mimicked the prevailing culture perfectly and is paying the price. Oak Hills was paying that price. Renovation of the Church is a book that tells the story of how they recognized the high price they were paying and, instead, sought to redefine itself in an entirely new way; a sustainable way. The Jesus way.
These concerns have faced all of us to some degree. In this regard Oak Hills is no different than any other local collective of believers. What is telling for our purposes however is the ways through which they were brought into a new arena of self-reflection, asking hard questions like how to present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed, or how the cross and self-denial can possibly become the central facts in a prosperous, consumer culture. Or, how can discipleship to Jesus be the modus operandi in a thriving North American congregation? Carlson and Lueken openly share the ways Oak Hills turned to face the monster, stare it down and either tame or kill it. They chose neither. Instead, they were reintroduced to the Way of Jesus with its inherently subversive undertones.
A staff retreat to Donner Lake, California, playfully called the Donner Party, became their epiphany. “Gradually, 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” (p. 35). Eugene Peterson would heartily agree, offering a similar viewpoint in his book The Jesus Way. How we journey is every bit as important as with whom.
The transition from their Donner Retreat illuminations to an Oak Hills steeped in seeker-church mentality to a new entity built upon spiritual formation and kingdom life forms the basis for most of the book. By their own admission, that has been a richly rewarding but deeply painful process. Faced with a crushing clash of values, they had to admit that when they turned to face what it was that was lacking, they “found themselves hungering for a life with God that had more substance, more depth, more reality” (pg. 31). Their palette of boast-worthy ministries didn’t include well-fed souls. The lives of congregants too closely mirrored those in the surrounding culture. The human spirit has an annoying way of insisting upon its needs.
The scope of the book did not allow it, but I believe that much of our contemporary philosophy of ministry grows out of an insufficient theology so tied to the culture in its efforts at relevance that it becomes incongruous with the deeper call of the transforming gospel. Oak Hills seems to have avoided some of these pitfalls due in part to their complete reexamination of the gospel they were preaching and the philosophical crucible out of which it was spawned.
As effective as the Willow Creek model has been (the authors graciously offer praise rather than subtly boasting a ‘look at us now’ motif) it unearths this cut and dried notion of who’s in and who’s out, lost and found, saved and unsaved. This is great for building pie graphs for the boardroom. It is not so helpful in determining the state of the human soul before the God who calls us to union with Godself. Too often we give the impression of having the answer to every question.Says Lueken, however, this “illusion of understanding pinches the mystery of faith” (p. 99). The seeker model is utterly dependent on this epistemological approach. Essentially, Oak Hills began to morph from a propositional gospel into an incarnational one.
It takes great courage to begin the immense and bloody task of moving a large ship like Oak Hills that has inertia, a history of success, and much to lose. The systemic change for which they had opted required and found a unified leadership. This is one of the great strengths I believe in the Oak Hills transition from faith-wide to faith-deep. If a church or organization can weather the gargantuan groundswell of change required of them, it will do so by means of careful listening to the continued guidance of the Spirit in concert with solidly committed, interdependent leadership.
What Oak Hills came up against is the inevitable result of the runaway train of self-satisfying materialism, birthed in a political crucible lacking checks and balances and designed for its flourishing, all supported by a weak and insipid theology that, in the interest of getting more customers, is often complicit in its advance, baptizing it in Christian jargon. The gospel of Jesus Christ is promoted as the best among a pantheon of available choices. As a result, the buying public views it as such; one loaf among many.
This is the courage of Oak Hills. Says Lueken, “we began to realize the gospel is bigger and grander than a private transaction between a sinner and God” (pg. 56). Evangelicalism, of which the seeker model is the ultimate representation, is fed by the culture in an effort to preach a message about God. A spiritual formation model allows Jesus to change us, taking the culture along for the ride. It is about the God of the message.
They make the poignant observation that, if followers of Christ “are barely distinguishable from the non-churched people around us, the kingdom of God is not advancing” (pg. 87). We should not succumb to the temptation of thinking that God’s kingdom is expanding simply because our organizations are growing bigger. In fact, it is more common that the expansion of the local body, at least in the short term, is inversely proportionate to its growth deeper rather than wider. Says St. Francis of Assisi, “few be the lovers of the cross.”
Oak Hills began the process of change by first addressing their own leadership ambitions, seeing them for what they were. This needed honest recognition and open-heart surgery. Most notably, the oft incendiary nature of ecclesiastical culture wars, in this case church-wide versus church-deep, was at least partially quelled in the humble waters of their kind-hearted approach. The story is peppered with a heady, refreshing honesty all but missing in most works of this kind.
For me, the chapter on worship, alone, was worth reading the book. As the authors are careful to clarify, the seeker movement has reintroduced the arts back into the local church. But, again, only inasmuch as it points at belief in a doctrine about God rather than an expression of God; God’s beauty and our place in the vast and mysterious cosmos. “Worship, at its best, exposes…oppressive self-absorption and invites us to root the smaller story of our lives into the larger story of God’s ongoing redemption of humanity and this universe” (p. 149). The worship of the church acts as the faith jello-mold, shaping the wobbly framework of our lives and offering spiritual coagulation.
In evangelical circles, people who do what I do are often paid handsomely because of our role in putting a pretty face on an attractional church. If we play the worship game right, we’ll be assured our market share of the paying public. In this way, Christianity basically becomes a hobby. The authors suggest however that, the deeper one’s worship theology, the less it will look like the prevailing culture. Churches will shrink accordingly. They will deepen however, something much more commensurate with the demands of Kingdom life; a life willing to forego relevance and style in favor of depth and significance. It is a radically transformed life, emerging out of corporate worship that does not “neglect issues of justice and the needs of our neighbor….Biblical worship that finds God will also find our neighbor” (p. 155, 156). In other words, the quality of our worship will begin to be reflective of the quality of our lives.
If the book can be faulted for anything (other than the occasional awkward eighth grade writing level) it would be that its short, narrative style denies an even deeper reflection of the issues involved and how they are impacting so many other churches. I would like to have heard their take on church for the de-churched; those in our midst whose relationship with the larger church has been almost irrevocably damaged. Not unlike other faith communities who are aglow in their newfound Kingdom life epiphanies, their language, although much more expansive and perspicacious than earlier in their history, is in danger of creating yet another sub-culture – a spiritual formation one – with its own language, insider jargon and products. Still, their own journey reveals a willingness to embrace the unknown and shows much promise in their ever-evolving theology and ministry.
Ultimately, this book is not just an exposé of Oak Hills Church and its ministry. Nor is it primarily arguing the benefits of the church as crucible for spiritual formation. This is a book about leadership. It is a book about the possibilities available to faith communities who are willing to listen collectively to what the Spirit is saying to the church and then act vociferously on what they hear.
A church intent on growing a faith-wide organization seeks leadership. One interested in nurturing the faith-deep spiritual life of the Body seeks training in spiritual disciplines. A church intent on growing a faith-wide machine relies on unanimity of vision and approach. One set on the faith-deep pilgrimage to the Celestial City is antithetical to the leadership sub-culture since “the church is not a sect….a collection of people who see things the same way and have bought in at the same level” (p. 109).
Beyond the benefits of its testimonial merits, the authors give us a peak into the elusive leadership in faith communities looking to become Kingdom centered. It is a great primer for congregational spiritual formation.
As a graduate of Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (class of 2011), I heartily endorse this book for anyone interested in hearing a word of hope regarding the spiritual poverty of the American church and how one congregation is finding its way.
Finally, please, PLEASE toss in the bin all leadership books that utilize corporate America as their model, the very stew of consumerism out of which Oak Hills is struggling to climb.
Use this one instead.