More than a talk show

The year 2001 marked a decade anniversary for me. In 1991, I began to re-think the relationship between worship and evangelism. Seriously re-think. As a young ministry leader in the eighties, I’d avidly joined the ranks of the entrepreneurial Church, embracing its nearly singular fixation: crafting user-friendly services for returning baby boomers. On a non-existent budget, I shuttled between mega-church conferences, relishing the dual emphases of excellence and relevance. Most significantly, I admired the raw courage it took to acknowledge that, yes, the good old U.S. of A. was indeed a mission field. What a concept. I had discovered that there was a world out there, and in many ways, the Church was totally superfluous to it.

However, after half a dozen of these conference forays, I started feeling uneasy. On the van rides home, I celebrated less and ruminated more. No longer did I strategize about what our congregation could apply. My behind-the-wheel musings began unearthing a strange, subterranean discontent that took several years to excavate. I hid my doubts. How ludicrous to entertain qualms in the face of what appeared to be unparalleled success. Why couldn’t I be like my comrades? Each year, they proudly bore home their conference spoils: tales of church attendance as eye-widening as any Sasquatch legend; marketing techniques that rivaled Dominos Pizza; and ah, the sweet surety of formula.

My community in south suburban Denver was no exception. Here, dense housing developments gobbled the same prairie stretches that I had memorized in my child’s eye. Schools and shopping centers dotted the bulldozed landscape in record time. It was to this much altered and cloned frontier that young ministry leaders returned from their Meccas, mega-church dreams in their Dockers pockets. Soon, sandwich signs littered the newly poured sidewalks with names befitting North American Generic: Mountainview Community Church, SouthHills, Ridgecrest, Deercreek, Frontrange, Stonybrook. In rented gymnasiums and strip malls, fledgling church services took on an eerie sameness, a sort of mauve and teal antiseptic, complete with silk plants, talk-show chic, and color-coordinated worship team outfits. There seemed to be an unspoken ambiance of “enforced happy,” although the occasional Vineyard church got away with 12-string introspective. But, over all, overt Christianity was out. Symbols, confessions, hymns, creeds, ritual, and just about any prayer over thirty seconds all signaled that a church was culturally challenged. And so, like the gobbling of the prairies, the vestiges of historic churchdom were removed. In their place, gray boxes – conspicuous in their corporate austerity – jutted coldly out of the western clay. It was an exhilarating time. It was a sad time.

In the midst of this odd mélange of ecclesiastical excitement and carnage, I continued excavating my disequilibrium, an excavation that, in time, became a book. Now, this I will admit: I was driven to write Worship Evangelism. It was a quest, albeit an unwanted on. Frankly, I didn’t have room for it in my life. I was a worship coordinator at one of those gray box churches, and to my chagrin, had produced worship services for several years that were much like what I’ve described. I was also the mother of two young children and a wife in a rapidly deteriorating marriage. Surely there must be someone else who could take this on. Someone with more time. Someone who still had a positive take on the altered frontier. Someone whose life wasn’t in shards.

Still, it had been out of both my restlessness and brokenness that, in late 1989, I’d reinstated confessions, silence, creeds, communion, and all kinds of prayer into my congregation’s otherwise “seeker sensitive” services. By 1991, I felt compelled to write about the results. For, counter to everything I’d learned at relevance school, the irreligious people in our community were not only attracted to our repackaged confessions, creeds, and rituals. They started bringing their friends. And, between ski trips, they calculated their Sunday attendance just so that they wouldn’t miss their favorites: communion and anointing for healing. User-friendly had never been this, well, spiritual.

The images remain in my mind: an elderly couple with their palms outstretched in adoration; a thirty-something woman with dyed red hair and white fur coat, wiping tears from under her sunglasses; children with their heads uplifted, waiting for a touch of oil; furtive singing waxing exuberant. Here were both the initiated and uninitiated encountering something way beyond Jesus my buddy. Jesus my solution. Jesus my moral example. Jesus, inspirer of how-to lists. They were meeting Jesus, God Incarnate. Jesus transcendent. Jesus mysterious. Jesus the emptied. Jesus the wounded and bruised. Jesus, the consummate Lover of their fractured souls. Gone was the Deity who only fraternized with the successful or perpetually positive. Clearly, Worship Evangelism was born out of these unexpected intersections with profound spiritual hunger and brokenness – including my own. Surprise. In the midst of this bulldozed frontier, there was deep discontent and an almost grasping for the holy.

Would that I could take credit for discovering the witnessing power of authentic worship (defined roughly here as worship where God is allowed to show up and people are allowed to be where they actually are). Too bad. I found too many places in Scripture that referenced it. And as I studied, I had an increasingly difficult time squaring what I read with what I’d been learning in church growth circles. There’s Psalm 40:3, for instance. “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.” Isn’t this fairly explicit about adoration being a powerful, cross-cultural activity? Then there’s the story about the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. Try holding on to worship exclusivity as you read that account. And of course, there’s the blatant section in 1 Corinthians 14: 24, 25. Not only did Paul assume that unbelievers would be present in the Corinthian’s gatherings. He expected that they would be convicted and drawn to God through the act of worship itself.

I soon discovered that the kinds of worship transformations that were going on in our congregation were far from unique. When I began to investigate – speaking with pastors and worship leaders around the country and hearing the worship stories of missionaries overseas – I realized that the witnessing power of authentic worship was a phenomenon that had been all but obscured by two decades of church-lite. The popular eighties phrase, “Worship and seekers are like oil and water: they don’t mix.” had spread at hyper-speed through North American churches and, among certain circles, had attained something close to the level of Scriptural canon.

In the face of what many had already experienced by 1991, this doctrine seemed outdated at best. In 2001, it is completely untenable. The reality is, we live in a highly spiritualized, increasingly anti-humanistic culture, one that, ironically, was going “vertical” just as the self-christened cutting-edge Church was compressing God into gray warehouses, easy psychology, and do-it-yourself pragmatics. One doesn’t have to look further than this year’s Super Bowl for evidence of the cultural shift. Remember the Cingula Communications commercial? A paraplegic paints masterpieces with his mouth. He speaks, looking straight into the camera. Gregorian chant wafts over the noise of his unintelligible grunts. Not “generic” chant, however. It’s the Agnus Dei from the Mass. “Agnus Dei. Qui tollis pecatta mundi. Miserere nobis.” Translated, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.”

It’s a new world. In December 2000, the organization, Up With People, closes its doors, after thirty-five years of entertaining people with smiley-faced humanism. In the same month, Madonna – queen of anti-Church – celebrates the baptism of her baby in a high-Anglican ritual. At press time, Creed’s “Higher” still hovers at the top of the pop charts. “Take me higher, to a place where blind men see…” Thanks to Internet publishing, new Harry Potter tomes invade’s bestseller list before they’re even in print. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Life of Christ (cosmic cousin to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to DOS) is literally flying off bookstore shelves. Meanwhile, at Einstein’s bagels, servers wear pea-green T-shirts with this phrase in electrifying orange: “Jump off the spiritual bridge with your inner bagel and splash around in the coffee of life.” The world’s version of vertical may be alien to us, but the direction is unmistakable.

Then there’s the Church. In Minneapolis, the Catholic Basilica is the city’s fastest growing congregation, growing by twenty-somethings, not seventy-somethings. Worship revivals that started in the early 1990’s in the UK expand further into the States, catalyzing mass-worship events among American teens and college students. (Interested? Check out the organization, Passion, at In 1999, EMI launches a purely worship-driven sector – WorshipTogether – complete with website, weekly e-mail updates, and conferences geared toward all that is young, passionate, interactive, and unabashedly vertical. Upstart ministries to twenty-something postmoderns (Ecclesia in Houston, MarsHill in Seattle, SpiritGarage in Minneapolis, University Baptist in Waco, Pathways in Denver, to name a few) replace Letterman-esque entertainment with an indigenous fusion of narrative, mysticism, art, and technology. And some of the most fervent “oil and water” promoters of the eighties add worship elements to their seeker services (Willow Creek Community church launched their version of a vertically-blended service in the spring of 1999.) Ten years. A long way from silk plants, Jesus karaoke, do-it-yourself lists, and eight proofs for the resurrection.

People sometimes ask me what I would have done differently with Worship Evangelism. Quite honestly, the most negative criticism I receive is that there are no personal pronouns. Sally Morgenthaler is conspicuously absent in the mix. I used to bristle at that, hanging on to the fossilized premise that somehow, an author could actually be separated from her research and analyses. That, if you just avoided mentioning yourself, the material would be somehow more objective and therefore, more true. Silly me. I must now thank all those pesky deconstructionists for the concept of inherent subjectivity. And fess up to what most readers suspected anyway: here’s a writer who is hip-deep in all the human muck she’s revealing, and as much in need of the transcendent, the rooted, and the transformational as the people and communities she documents. Next book around, expect some personal narrative. Well, at least a little. I’m in process here.

I’d also like to throw out chapter seven, my “boomer formula” chapter. It was one of the hardest chapters to write, and in retrospect, that is no accident. Elsewhere in the text, I was heralding an end to cloning, but sadly went back to it in the application. I will take the liberty to be nice to myself at this point. Perhaps that was all I could do at the time, still ensconced in the gray box world with barely an inkling of what it might mean to be indigenous in bulldozed North America.

Now I tell people to get out there and listen with a vengeance. LIsten to the stories that are pressing, aching to be heard. Stories both religious and irreligious have been telling in E-Bay chat rooms, corporate lunchrooms, and coffeehouses, but aren’t telling in church. Because it is those stories, intersecting with The Story – God’s Story – that propel worship out of the sawdust of modernity and into the realm of the Incarnate, the dimension of the oh-so-Particular.

And trash the diagrams, already. Truth be known, the most riveting worship services I’ve attended since Worship Evangelism was published couldn’t possibly fit in to that silly hourglass that appears on page 163. Thank God.

Sally is author of the book ‘Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers Into the Presence of God’ (Zondervan, 1995). Her next work, The Uncharted Now (to be published by Inter Varsity Press) will focus on worship in a postmodern culture.