The Show no longer grabs our attention

Confessions of a young, churched Baby Boomer: 10 signs the world has changed:
Part 3 of a series

Dec. 18, 2022

By Rev. Rick King

My first pastorate was in Palatine, Illinois, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago—in the shadow of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the first megachurches in the U. S. and certainly one of the most famous.

Willow Creek pioneered highly presentational worship with contemporary music, drama, multimedia, and excellent preaching. All this was the result of market research into the needs of those in the Baby Boom generation, which was the demographic group every church soon wanted to reach in the 1980s.

Willow Creek and its imitators soon set the standard for “relevant,” rapidly growing churches that drew people in by the tens of thousands per weekend.

Wooddale Church and Eagle Brook in our metro area were founded in the wake of Willow Creek’s success and that of Saddleback Church in California—and soon, thousands of others. They poured money and staff into producing worship no average church could touch. “Excellence” became the watchword in these churches—not just in worship, but in small group and serving ministries, literally every aspect.

The high production values were justified by the stated mission of reaching unchurched, secular people and turning them into fully committed Christians. It was a persuasive case of the end justifying the means.

Except, as media historian Marshall McLuhan wrote decades ago, “the medium IS the message.” Soon, churches were focusing so much on excellence in their methods, it increasingly eclipsed the message and the mission in importance.

The Emerging Church Movement of the 90s and early 2000s reacted to all that and said, “Woah! Hold on! Aren’t we chasing a moving target in our churches’ search for the most excellent, relevant way to do church?” Megachurches were competing to come up with the latest and most relevant gimmick or approach to connect people with the presence of God. But no matter how hard they tried, it was no longer enough.

If it’s all about The Show, then large churches with many members and lots of money will always succeed more than the have-nots. But God can move with or without excellence and high production values. I often quote Nadia Bolz Weber, not because she’s the only person I read or listen to, but because she so often sums up an issue. And in characterizing the worship life of the Denver ELCA church she founded, House for All Sinners and Saints, she turned the “excellence” message on its head: “In our worship at House for All, we’re low on excellence and high on participation.”

As a UCC church that believes God is Still Speaking, participation rather than performance is what makes space for the Spirit to move and for God to show up in surprising, transforming ways.

To what (and where) is God leading our church’s life together in the coming years? I wonder.

What do YOU think?