My first Sunday back from some time away, I sat in the worship service and wept. It struck me as such a production, so performance driven. In a word, it was shallow. I couldn't believe this had happened on my watch.
On the surface, all was well. I was a megachurch pastor with invitations to speak at conferences, write books, and mingle with dignitaries. Our church had state of the art facilities next to a major freeway. But that was on the surface. Deep down inside, I was mortified at what we'd become. We had to change. We just couldn't keep going like this. Not anymore.
When I arrived in Phoenix to lead 200-member Community Church of Joy, my whole desire was to reach people—really, at my core I am an evangelist. Any day that I get to tell someone about Jesus is a good day for me. I long to see those who aren't following Jesus transformed by the Spirit of God into empowered disciples.
Within a few years of assuming the helm at Joy, I was invited to a gathering of large-church pastors to dream about the future together. We envisioned what the church might look like for a new generation. At the gathering, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and others exchanged ideas about how to build a church "for people who don't go to church." Like men of Issachar (1 Chron. 12:32), we understood our times, at least for the 1980s and beyond. We knew that people didn't want to give anything, sing anything, or do anything—they wanted anonymity, not community. They didn't want theology lectures; they wanted to be entertained and inspired. So we set out to give them exactly what they wanted.
The concept came together for me while standing in a line at a Dallas Cineplex waiting to see the Batman premiere.
The only way to capture people's attention is entertainment, I thought. If I want people to listen to my message, I've got to present it in a way that grabs their attention long enough for me to communicate the gospel.
It was an epiphany, a breakthrough understanding for me. So our church strategy revolved around the gravitational force of entertainment for evangelism. We hired the best musicians we could afford; we used marketing principles and programming specialists—for the gospel's sake. Attendance skyrocketed. More people meant more staff, more programs, more facilities, more land, and of course the need for more money. We became a program-driven church attracting consumers looking for the latest and greatest religious presentations.
For us, worship was a show, and we played to a packed house. We grew by thousands, bought more land, and positioned ourselves to reach even more people. Not that any of this is wrong in and of itself—people coming to faith in Christ isn't bad. I told myself it was good—I told others it was good. But now I was beginning to wonder if I'd led my church down a wrong path.
The show was killing me.
Attracting consumers was consuming me—not in the way vision consumes a leader. It was the opposite of that—I was losing sight of the vision. Our church was a great organization. But something was missing. We weren't accomplishing our mission; we weren't creating transformed, empowered disciples.
We'd put all our energies into dispensing religious goods and services. But our people weren't touching our community. If our church, with its sheer number of people, was populated with disciples, we would be feeding the hungry, building meaningful relationships with neighbors, and transforming our community. But we were neither salt nor light.