by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 4/27/17.
In the Abingdon Press book ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church I described characteristics of worship that promote an organic atmosphere. Here is an updated brief list:
Worship flows from the audience to the stage, not the other way around.
- Inorganic worship: This is usually manufactured with moving lights in the haze of an artificial fog. It may be lead by the worship team with admonitions of “Come on, let’s praise Him” or “Clap your hands for Him.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done all of those things (too many times to list).
- Organic worship: But, I have observed worship that is more natural and flowing from the Holy Spirit originates from the audience and moves across the stage, not the other way around.
The focus is on what is going on inside of your head and heart, not what is going on on the stage.
- Inorganic worship: Often focuses on beautiful slides/videos behind words with moving lights on the walls and the audience.
- Organic worship: The focus is on what God is doing in each congregants’ head and heart. The lights on the stage often come from the back of stage, illuminating the worship team as silhouettes so the faces are not illuminated (so that the expressions of the worship team do not distract).
For more see ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church or email me you additions.
(Excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations by Bob Whitesel, Abingdon Press, 2006)
Mars Hill, Grandville, MI
This is not your father’s mega-church.
A community preserves a sense of unity despite differences and forces that seek to splinter it… – Stiepan Mestrovic, postemotional sociologist and author[i]
When visiting organic communities I have found it helpful to interview a person engaged in entry-level volunteer ministry. Such interactions often connect me with those who give an insightful appraisals. I soon encountered Doug Luyk, and explained to him the reason for my sojourn this morning with Mars Hill.
“This is a large church,” I mused. “What’s the key?” Expecting to hear about the pastor’s oratory skills, or about the church’s popular music ministry, Doug quickly replied, “It’s about small groups …. everyone needs to be in a small group. It’s the purpose and power behind Mars Hill. Small groups are the ‘church in the world,’ not just the church on Sunday.”
The remark was unexpected, but welcome. I wondered if Doug was a leader of a small group and thus might have a bias. But it soon became clear that Doug was simply a volunteer, who found small groups to be the glue that connected him to Mars Hill.
Church: Mars Hill
Leaders: Steve Webber (lead pastor), Rob Bell, Jr. (teaching pastor), Joe Hays (student ministries pastor), Denise Van Eck (community life pastor).
Location: The former Grandvillage Mall in Grandville, Michigan
Size: 10,000+ per week
Audience: people in their twenties to late-forties, middle to upper middle class, college/postmodern thinkers, multiple generations, dechurched and unchurched people
A Fusion of Rhythms:
The Rhythm of Place
At first encounter, Mars Hill feels like a boomer mega-church,[ii] with a large auditorium filled three times on Sunday. The venue is a former mid-sized mall, in the auditorium of a former anchor tenant. With little decoration, the iron beams and metal roof give the impression of a warehouse; which could easily be mistaken for the habitat of boomers. However, a closer introspection of Mars Hill’s unassuming yet pervasive strategies reveals that this is not your father’ mega-church.
The Rhythm of Worship
The worship setting and format share common elements with boomer churches, perhaps more so than they do with many organic churches. Due to the congregation’s size, features of the organic church such as low-lighting, interactive stations, comfortable chairs, and the like were missing. And, the direct and concise format was similar to many boomer churches: twenty minutes of worship, an engaging sermon of forty minutes, followed by ten minutes of praise. Though the format was reminiscent of boomer congregations, the content was not, with a refreshingly modest and unpretentious spirit. This ability to create an unassuming ambiance amid a mega-sized congregation is a unique rhythm that will be discussed later in this chapter.
The worship music and its mode of presentation on the other hand paralleled other organic congregations. Worship songs by Matt Redman, Paul Oakley, and Delirious were given an edgy musical interpretation, that fused together a spiritual rallying call with personal submissiveness and introspection.
The culmination of this atmosphere led, as it so often does in organic congregations, not to an emphasis on the music, musicians, execution, or even my enjoyment … but rather on the majesty and supremacy of our Lord Jesus Christ…
Download the entire chapter here (not for public distribution … and if you like it or are helped please purchase the book): BOOK ©Whitesel EXCERPT – OC Chpt.13 Mars Hill MI
[i] Stjepan G. Mestrovic, Postemotional Society (London: SAGE Publications, 1997), p. 95. This is Mestrovic’s summation of Ferdinand Tonnies classic arguments on the distinctions between communities and societies in Community and Society (New York: Harper and Row,  1963).
[ii] Former city-planner turned church growth consultant Lyle Schaller, tendered the first well-known classifications of church size. He labeled churches over 700 attendees as “mini-denominations,” since they function as a network of sub-congregations (Lyle E. Schaller, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church [Nashville: Abin
gdon Press, 1980], p. 28; see also George G. Hunter III, The Contagious Congregation [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979], p. 63). Gary McIntosh in his book, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1999, pp. 17-19) labels churches over
400 “large” and notes the “organizational basis” of their focus. While these labels are better descriptors for ecclesial management, the more trendy mega-church label has prevailed in popular culture, and customarily describes a church of over 1000 weekend attendees.
by Bob Whitesel, excerpted with permission from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 Emerging Congregations (Abingdon Press, 2006, pp. 55-57).
Lesson 1: Carefully investigate and examine elements of a culture.
Since modern culture is constantly adjusting and metamorphosing, the task of translating the Good News without surrendering its truth or disfiguring it is paramount and ongoing. This arduous task begins with thorough and careful examination of a culture. Anthropologist Paul Hiebert described culture as, “an integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society.”(1) Scrutiny of such an elaborate system is not for an immature Christian, since it requires investigating and evaluating a culture without being tainted by its more sordid elements.
However, a failure by Christian communicators to sufficiently investigate modern culture can make us look irrelevant. In an earlier book I interviewed Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, California. Larry told me the phenomenal growth of the church was in part because he regularly studies modern culture by perusing secular business, entertainment, and lifestyle magazines. “If I don’t understand the business world, when a businessperson talks to me about his or her world, its like were using two different dictionaries.”(2) The use of disparate dictionaries can also dilute an exchange of ideas with the young culture.
Therefore stay current with today’s youth culture by cautiously scrutinizing their books, music, movies, music videos, computer games, web-sites, web-blogs, etc.. While the truths of the Good News must never be sacrificed nor altered, connecting and contrasting it with today’s youth culture can make it more comprehensible.
Lesson 2: Discriminate and sift elements of a culture.
There is a tension between Christ and culture that must be examined. Richard Niebuhr in his classic treatise Christ and Culture suggested that there are several ways to look at Christ’s interaction with culture.(3)
One is “Christ against culture” a view embraced by the early church father Tertullian. In this view culture is seen as evil, thus requiring Christians to withdraw and insulate themselves, resulting in a monastic response. Charles Kraft exposes three fallacies in this view, demonstrating it is not in keeping Paul’s view that “nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).(4)
Another view Niebuhr called “Christ Above Culture” which he divided into sub-categories.(5) “Christ Above Culture in Synthesis” was held by Thomas Aquinas and views Jesus as the restorer of institutions of true society. This view believes that Christianity will one day totally transform culture, perhaps into a millennial peace. In another sub-category, “Christ Above Culture in Paradox,” Christ is seen above but in such tension with culture that a messy, muddled relationship results. Martin Luther grappled with this perspective, as did modern writer Mike Yaconelli who called this “messy spirituality.”(6)
However, a more valid sub-category may be “Christ Above but Transformer of Culture.” Embraced by Augustine, John Calvin, and John Wesley this view sees culture as corrupt but convertible.(7) Kraft built upon this his position called “Christ above but working through culture,” explaining that “God chooses the cultural milieu in which humans are immersed as the arena of his interaction with people.”(8) Eddie Gibbs further elaborates that “such an approach represents a deliberate self-limiting on the part of God in order to speak in understandable terms and with perceived relevance on the part of the hearer. He acts redemptively with regard to culture, which includes judgment on some elements, but also affirmation in other areas, and a transformation of the whole.”(9)
If the “Christ above but working through culture” truly defines the tension and nexus between Christ and culture, then the job of the Christian communicator becomes challenging if not precarious. Therefore, our strategy must not conclude simply with step 1, investigating and examining culture, but also must continue through step 2, sifting and judging its elements. Here the prudent communicator must make qualitative judgments based upon Scripture, ethics, personal belief and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Lesson 3: Reject or affirm elements of culture.
The end result of this examination or sifting, must be a rejection of elements in conflict with Christ, but also an affirmation of those elements that are not so. I found that leaders of the organic church usually sift carefully through the movies, television shows, music, games, online resources and literature of young people. And they routinely explain in their sermons how God judges some aspects of postmodern culture, accepts other elements such as an emphasis on helping the needy, and has as a goal the transformation of the whole.(10)
The Christian communicator wishing to make the Good News relevant today must carefully examine the media barrage engulfing young people, understand its messages, while at the same time sifting elements that are opposed to Christ and identifying touchstones that can make connections with unchurched peopled. Freeway’s use of comedic film clips to underscore or juxtaposition God’s Word and contemporary culture has helped this organic congregation connect the Good News to unchurched young people.
1. Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1983), p. 25.
2. Bob Whitesel, Growth By Accident, Death By Planning, op. cit., p. 26.
3. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951). A second view is beyond the scope of our discussion. Labeled by Niebuhr “Christ of culture,” it was embraced by early Gnostic heretics. They interpreted Christ through cultural trends, rejecting any claims of Christ that conflicted with their culture. Counter to this, Isaiah 55:8 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, or our ways his ways.
4. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 105-106.
5. Kraft, ibid., pp. 108-115 sees five subdivisions of the “Christ Above Culture” position. However, for this discussion only three are required. The reader seeking more exhaustive insights will benefit from a careful exploration of Kraft’s work.
6. Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002). Yaconelli’s viewpoint has been popular among postmodern Christians, And, before his untimely death, Yaconelli was in demand as a lecturer. Young people often saw in his perspective one more in keeping with their untidy journey towards discipleship. To understand the angst and anxiety many young people sense today between their Christian understanding and their vacillating demeanor, see Yaconelli’s insightful volume.
7. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 113.
8. ibid., p. 114.
9. Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Eerdmans, 1981), p. 92.
10. In my travels through the organic church, I found it’s leaders usually approached the rejection or affirmation of cultural elements in a circumspect and serious manner. Whether it was the “discothèque clubbers” of England who had to decide at what point youthful fashions became lewd, or the film clips that Freeway employed to illustrate a point; young organic leaders typically see the rejection of base elements of culture as not only required, but judicious.
by Bob Whitesel from Inside the Organic Church: Learning from 12 emerging Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006).
Figure: A Partial Comparison of Ancient-Future Elements[i]
Ancient-Future Orientation Fuses the Two Columns
|Liturgical Musicology:||– Hymns- Chants, etc.- Professional interpretation.||– Alternative music- Drum circles, etc.- Audience participation.|
|Ambiance:||– Candles- Natural lighting||– Computerized images,- Mood walls.|
|Iconography:||– Plain icons such as:
– Lavishly ornamented icons such as:
|– Techno-icons such as:
– Stylized icons, where artists interpret ancient symbols via modern artistic genres, e.g. multi-media, expressionism, surrealism, kinetic art, etc.
|Truth Delivery:||– Presentation of the Word via sermonizing, pedagogy- Intricate musical lyrics.- Art, such as stained-glass windows, mosaics, sculpture, church architecture, banners/tapestries, drama, etc.- Stations of the Cross||– Interaction with the Word via questioning, dialogue- Native[ii] musical lyrics.- Art, such as film, video, acting, design, poetry, dance, photography, pottery, visual arts, abstract art, kinetic art, mixed-mediums, etc.- Interactive stations|
|Christ and Culture||– Christ Against Culture, [iii]) leads to monastic disciplines (e.g. Tertullian, St. Benedict:
||– Christ Above But Working Through Culture, [iv] leads to sifting culture where,
|Discipleship Ethos||– Monastic, “withdrawal from the institutions and societies of civilization.”[vi]||– Missional, with engagement and “dynamic equivalence.”[vii]|
[i] The chart is not meant to be exhaustive. It is presented here simply to give the reader a general direction of the ancient-future nexus. The elements of these columns will continue to evolve and adjust along with culture, experimentation, and effectiveness.
[ii] Native is a word I have introduced into the organic discussion due to a sense it conveys the duality of the organic church’s sentiments, where feelings of opposite extremes are acknowledged, and even expected as the result of humanity’s fall. Thus, native sums up the dual yet inborn nature of humanness, where emotional pairings such as the following contest with one another: e.g. faith-doubt, love-hatred, impartiality-prejudice, acceptance-alienation, community-isolation, exuberance-despondency, reassurance-apprehension, chance-predetermination, etc. Such human duality is often expressed in the organic church’s liturgy, songs and teachings; and has biblical precedence in the psalmists’ meditations, e.g. Psalm 12, 53, and 139 among others.
[iii] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, pp. 45-82.
[iv] Charles H. Kraft, Christ in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, pp. 113-115.
[v] Eddie Gibbs, I Believe in Church Growth, pp. 92-95, 120.
[vi] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 56. It should be noted that I have not witnessed any societal withdrawal due to monastic tendencies in the organic church. Rather their monastic elements are primarily evident in spiritual disciplines, such as praying at the monastic hours.
[vii] Charles H. Kraft, Christ in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, pp. 315-327.