"Christian leaders have to admit this is the system we have put together. We can't build churches that advertise 'tons of ministries to meet your needs,' then be surprised when people expect us to continually meet their needs," Carlson says.
Lorraine Rothenburg, one of the leadership team, says with its seeker focus, Oak Hills had always worked on the front half of their mission statement: to reach the non-churched. "Our goal was to get nonchurched people into our seeker service; we believed God would reach them there. But we had not done a good job on the back half of the mission statement, which was to develop them into fully devoted followers of Christ," she says.
In the discussions about developing mature believers, the nature of spiritual formation arose. Mike Lueken, associate pastor for spiritual formation and now Oak Hills's co-senior pastor along with Carlson, had classes with Dallas Willard, the author and philosopher and formation guru for Protestants.
Lueken brought Willard's concepts about the kingdom of God to the table. They met a receptive audience. "It seemed to us that some of the things that it takes to keep a large church going are the very things people have to unlearn in order to go further in their life with Christ. For example, worship is not about the thrill I get, but whether I've given an offering of praise that's worthy to God."
Thus began the dismantling of Oak Hills.
The seeker-oriented service was cancelled, and the mid-week believer-oriented service was moved to the weekend. Energies and monies that had been poured into worship productions worthy of watercooler talk on Mondays were redirected to less public activities, with the goal of deepening the spiritual lives of believers.
And the zesty, enthusiastic services suddenly included quieter elements characteristic of the spiritual disciplines crowd.
"In the process, we changed the contract with the congregation," Carlson says. "Some responded, 'Well, it took you 16 years to decide you're going to center the church around Jesus; it's about time."'
More than a thousand. Over six years, attendance dropped from 1,800 to 800; in the churn as many as 1,500 who once called Oak Hills home departed for churches offering more traditional programming and worship services. Today, Oak Hills is, almost completely, a new church.
Through the transition described by insiders and observers alike as "bloody,""painful," and "a battle," the leadership team, both staff and elders, stuck to their calling.
"We kinda felt we had a mandate to create a church around this new vision to invite people to experience life in the reality of the kingdom of God," Carlson says. "We don't often say, 'God told us …' but in this, he did. This transformation is something that God was doing, and we kept coming back to that."
Good thing. They needed something to hold on to while weathering searing criticism and plummeting offerings. Somehow they had to meet payroll and make the mortgage payment. Somehow they did.
And without a blueprint, this team had to rebuild the church they had unceremoniously dismantled. The spiritual formation model doesn't have much of a blueprint.