Oak Hills Church executed cutting edge worship as well as any church in their area, and they programmed the seeker-model on par with the church that originated the concept. In Folsom, California, Oak Hills was not the flavor-of-the-month, it was the flavor-of-the-decade, until the leadership team sensed a mandate from God and abruptly changed direction.
Some might call what happened afterward an implosion. Those who survived might call it a necessary demolition-—a bloody, painful dismantling of an unwieldy and outdated structure in order to shift affluent suburbanites from self-centered consumption of ministry to actually help people become more like Christ.
Founded by Kent Carlson in 1984, Oak Hills Church is set in a "white bread" suburban community as Carlson calls it, outside Sacramento. The congregation thrived while they did the nomads' tour of rented facilities using the seeker oriented model of ministry. Attendance topped 1,800 in 1999 when the church moved into their first permanent building on their own property with their own mortgage. As they settled in, so did a growing dissatisfaction.
Something didn't seem right. "A number of us were doing some really hard work in terms of the whole spiritual formation process," Carlson says, "and we were not completely satisfied with the 'product' we were turning out—not only our church, but all of evangelicalism—that we were not in any significant way helping people to be substantially transformed."
A faulty "product" showed that the machinery was making what it was designed to make: shallow Christians whose lives were little different from the unbelievers surrounding them. Oak Hills was attracting a crowd who liked what they saw, but they were taking little of it home with them.
About this time, Carlson came across a book on large churches that changed how he perceived Oak Hills's ministry and those who were drawn to it; the chapter on consumerism particularly caught his attention. He asked his leadership team to read the book.
"This is perhaps an ungracious way of characterizing it," Carlson says, "but essentially the message was this: 'Consumerism is a driving force in American culture; there's nothing you can do about it; it's here to stay, so it's better to work with it than against it.'
"Something about that really bothered us, because it feels to us that consumerism as a force in the culture is contrary to the gospel. We began to reflect on the success of large churches, that they are successful because they have learned to work with consumerism rather than against it."
Unchanged lives was one outworking of this consumerist approach to church life. Another was the constant need to put on a better show. "In the large entrepreneurial church in America, the commitment of the people to that church is only as deep as 'What have you done for me lately.' If you stop doing what you did to get them there, they'll stop coming.
"At the same time we were continually needing to reinvent ourselves as a business to accommodate growth," Carlson said. And feeling the pressure from it. With a growing payroll and a sizable monthly mortgage, this was not the time to shake up what seemed by outward appearances to be working well. At a leadership retreat, God seemed to have other plans.
Setting the charges
"We had an encounter with God that just stopped us," Carlson says. God seemed to challenge the Oak Hills leaders on two points: the products of their existing philosophy and a call to spiritual formation.