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Leadership Journal

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Distressed by consumer Christianity, this church razed the ministries enjoyed by so many for so Iong—and started over.

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 Those who survived might call it a necessary demolition-—a bloody, painful dismantling of an unwieldy and outdated structure in order to shift affluent suburbanites from self-centered consumption of ministry to actually help people become more like Christ.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."

Shaky foundations

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.

"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."'

Others left.

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.

No simple reconstruction

Spiritual formation is a highly individualized and extremely inefficient process. "Everyone has their own story, and it doesn't lend itself to mass movements, or one-size-fits-all strategies, or second-third base. It's a lengthy process, and sometimes people are interested in attending to that," Carlson summarizes. For Oak Hills that meant constructing many ministries from scratch.

"We began to ask more from people, in terms of participating and not just being spectators," Rothenburg says. "We began to explore what it means to live in the kingdom of God, and not only for our own sakes but for the sake of the world."

Finding few resources available for church-wide use, and frankly finding little tried-and-true practical advice from the gurus, Lueken as lead architect, Rothenburg, and the ministry staff developed their own. They first examined the Gospels to see what spiritual formation is. They asked three questions: What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? How did the people respond?

From this, Oak Hills developed an explanation of spiritual formation. A booklet called "Pursuing Spiritual Formation" offers a "picture" of someone who is being transformed. This concrete example was important for people new to the concept. It explains trusting more in God and finding one's identity more in Christ. Then the booklet describes the process of formation: What happens as you cooperate with the Holy Spirit and allow him to shape you over a lifetime? Then the practical: How can we create space for God to do these things in our lives?

From this foundation, the team created a new series of classes, retreats, and small groups with a formation emphasis, while in worship services Carlson and Lueken, as primary teaching pastors, raised personal formation rather than consumer satisfaction as motivation for church participation.

Rothenburg says it's working: have become a different kind of church. There is this undercurrent of excitement about what God is doing. We're seeing a whole new level of community, even among people who have been in small groups with each other for years."

Two years into their rebuilding, the team attended a conference at which Willard, Eugene Peterson, and Marva Dawn spoke. "They all talked about the need for churches in America to push back against consumer Christianity. We were smiling," Rothenburg says, "because it was so affirming of what we had been doing for several years and felt like we were alone in the church community. But we also had a sense of, 'Ughh. Do you understand the cost of what you're saying?' You're going to be a bit bloodied, because you're not going to be popular with people who aren't willing to commit, who just want to show up for their Sunday dose, who want their Christianity by osmosis."

There are a couple of cautions at this point. Lueken warns, "If we're not careful, we could just exchange one kind of consumers for another. Now we're getting the people who want a deeper life, and those who are into spiritual formation."

And there's the question of navel-gazing. Spiritual formation, with its inward focus, can become as self-centered as the felt-needs approach Oak Hills rejected. Their response: service. Carlson cites the example of a football coach who attends Oak Hills, "a get-it-done kind of guy." He is leading a sports ministry for inner city kids and getting the men of the church involved. "Not a lot of navel-gazing there," Carlson says. "They just get it done, and they're formed in the process."

And there's the temptation to compete with churches that have taken up the consumer-driven model. "In suburbia it's all about things for the kids," Carlson says. But rather than compete for consumers by selling ministry to members, Oak Hills is emphasizing ministry by the members, including youth. "We're building on service. Our kids are serving." And the ministry is growing.

That kind of ministry, Carlson emphasizes, is what sets Oak Hills apart. "The non-churched will be impressed when the church finally starts doing what they think the churches should be doing—not creating a big club where people come because you have the best music, and the best youth program, and the best children's ministry, and the best women's ministry—but serving the poor, seeking to deal with social issues that are of great importance, working with other churches.

"In that, there is a recognition that Christians not only say we're different, but we really are different."