Thursday, December 13, 2007


Throughout history, churches have added value to people by delivering a combination of three things: Information, Experiences and Relationships. The ratios of these three have varied based on a number of factors (denomination, geography, pastoral style, etc.). But with the dawn of the information age, churches across the board have been going through a time of significant change, shifting away from the primacy of Information toward Experiences and Relationships.

Prior to the invention of the printing press the church was primarily a vehicle for Information. Priests and pastors were clearly needed to read, translate and explain the scriptures to the masses. The church was the center in the community for literacy and knowledge. But times have changed. With the explosion of the information age, people no longer need to come to church to get the Information they need. Just "Google" any passage of scripture and you will be treated to a wealth of sermons and articles at your fingertips. It's not that the church no longer delivers information. It's just that this cannot be the only thing it delivers (unless, that is, you want to go the way of the mainline denominations and die a slow and painful death). This means that we have a couple ways we can go from here if we want to add value: toward Experiences or toward Relationships. Let me discuss these alternatives.

1. Toward Experiences. One way churches have continued to add value to people (post-information-age) is by shifting their focus from information to experiences. I would dare say that 95% of the growing churches in America today have gone this route. Why? Because of the influence of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. In the 1980s, as many denominational churches were slipping in attendance, Willow Creek burst onto the scene with a band, actors and video projection. The church service was no longer a dull, boring "information dump." It was a moving experience that you wanted to bring your friends experience.

In the past 25 years thousands of church leaders have made their pilgrimage to South Barrington and been inspired to incorporate the arts into their "experience." Many churches have experienced good results from what they've been able to glean from Willow. Some churches have even begun calling their weekend services "Weekend Experiences." This is an appropriate description considering the shift from the primacy of Information to the primacy of Experience. Not all "Experience Churches" are the same, however. As time has gone on, the Experience path has branched off in various directions:

1a. Experience our Pastor.

When the Experience is about the pastor you might hear people say, "You've got to come and hear our pastor." As an example of this kind of Experience Church I would hold up Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Mark Driscoll, the pastor, is a bright, articulate, sometimes controversial communicator. Listening to Mark preach is an experience. He says some very interesting things in a very interesting way. You may not agree with everything he stands for, but at least he stands for something. I know that some people feel that Mars Hills' growth is a result of its candle-burning vibe (a young, artsy, urban culture), but I respectfully disagree. I believe its growth is a reflection of Mark's vibe. The greatest evidence that I'm right is that Mars Hill projects Mark's teaching at all of its campuses. Yes, they have a cool band, but to a great extent, Mark is the show.

1b. Experience our Programming.

When the experience is about the programming you might hear people say, "You won't believe everything we have going on." As an example of this kind of experience church I would suggest Saddleback Church in Southern California. Rick Warren is their well known pastor, but not because is a such a compelling speaker. It is because Saddleback has put together such a compelling program. Some of their programs are so good, in fact, that they have become industries of their own (40 Days of Purpose, Celebrate Recovery, etc.). When I went on a behind the scenes tour of Saddleback a few years ago I was struck by how excited my guide was about the programs that were happening there. Rick's gifts are many, to be sure, but the one that has created the greatest waves is administration. Yes, they have great teaching and worship, but the programs are the show.

1c. Experience our Passion.

When the experience is about the passion you might hear someone say, "You need to experience our worship." As an example of this kind of experience church I would mention Hillsongs in Australia. In the case of Hillsongs, I actually don't know the pastor's name. But their worship leaders are world-renowned. Their worship experience is unbelievable. Powerful. Worth telling others about. So now leaders are making their pilgrimage to Australia in hopes of importing this passionate worship dynamic to the U.S. In one American location where this model is being replicated they have actually called the ministry "Passion." Yes, they have a dynamic teacher, but to a greater extent, the worship is the show.

1d. Experience our Production.

When the experience is about the production you might hear someone say, "You will be blown away by our service." As an example of this kind of experience church I would reference LifeChurch presents a very potent cocktail of music, video and teaching via satellite to a number of locations. LifeChurch has been recognized as the most innovative church in America (CTK made the list farther down). I have visited their campuses near Oklahoma City and become friends with some of their production team. They truly are bringing a level of creativity that is astounding. Yes, the elements are cool in and of themselves, but it's how it's all put together that is the show.

2. Toward Relationships. A second direction that churches can go is toward Relationships. I call this "the road less travelled." This is the path we are on at CTK. We deliver Relationships. We also deliver Information, and Experiences (and I think we do so pretty well), but what we're trying to get really good at is Relationships. Relationships are primary, and the carrier for Information and Experience. At CTK we have a saying that "Small groups are our plan A and we don't have a plan B." Why are we so high on Relationships? First, because Relationships are simple. You do not need a production crew, or special lighting. You do not need a budget. All you need is love. Second, because Relationships are satisfying. Something rings hollow about the Experience church after awhile. It's like eating your favorite dessert day after day. And third, because Relationships are scalable. We can go as far as relationships will take us. And we're finding that is pretty far.

I believe that the path from Information to Experiences is so well-worn that many have not even considered the existence of "another way to go." This is why CTK's story is so important for the greater church. In eight years CTK has gone from zero to tens of thousands. And here's the best part: there is no end in sight. What if other ministries followed suit?


How do I analyze Lakewood Church, the largest church in America? It is clearly an Experience church, and I would say that it is an amalgamation of the four varieties of Experience church. They have put together in one place the Pastor experience (Joel Osteen is a true celebrity), the Program experience (a huge facility that houses a multitude of ministries), the Passion experience (a worship experience that is as powerful as any), and the Production experience (Joel was actually the producer of the television program prior to becoming pastor). In my way of thinking it is the ultimate expression of this paradigm. I believe that the emergence of Lakewood is an indication that the paradigm has been "wrung out." What's next? What's left. The Relational church.

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