Broadman & Holman
I never wore white shoes or slicked back my hair, but I did spend my college summer breaks delivering “hellfire and brimstone” messages in youth revivals throughout the western United States. I was hungry for the chance to preach and appreciated the opportunity to experience different churches. Some of the churches were large, but most were small. They were in metropolitan and rural areas, on busy highways and dirt roads. Even though the churches were different, what stands out in my memory about these churches is their sameness. The worship services were the same in one place as in another. We’d sing a hymn; the pastor would talk a while. We’d sing three more, and the ushers would take up the offering. Someone would sing special music, I’d preach, we’d have an invitation, the pastor would talk a little more, and we’d go home. You could take that schedule to the bank. It was always the same. Every time.
Not anymore. Future Churches are creative. Many of them are welcoming the arts back into the church and are becoming more creative in the way they teach. They model that the Creator God wants his people to be creative. And when they are, he draws them closer to him.
Bumping into the Presence of God
Westwinds Community Church, Jackson, Michigan
Four figures, dressed in black, stand on plexiglas cubes, suspending them above the stage. The upward lighting emanating from the cubes creates an eerie feel as it illuminates the objects the figures are holding: a whip, a hammer and spike, a crown of thorns, and a spear. John Michael Talbot music floods the room as technicians project crucifixion art on the large screen. One at a time, figures dressed in black speak and describe the torture inflicted on Jesus’ body by the object they are holding.
“The Roman soldiers used a whip, commonly called the cat-o’-nine-tails, to pulverize Jesus’ flesh. The tails of the whip wrapped around his body, and when the soldier snapped the whip, the stones and pottery pieces woven in the leather grabbed his flesh and tore it away, exposing his muscles and sinews to the elements.”
As the impact of the first speaker’s words sink into the hearts of the worshippers, the second speaker holds up a crown of thorns and says, “When the soldiers thrust the crown of thorns on Jesus’ brow, they shredded the flesh on his skull. The thorns on this crown are one to two inches long and extremely sharp. Because the skull is one of the most vascular areas of the body, these thorns would cause severe bleeding when forced onto his head.”
Another speaker explains the pain Jesus felt when the Roman soldiers drove nails through his hands and feet. “The spikes were over six inches long and almost a half inch in diameter. The hammer drove the nails through his flesh. Besides the pain from the puncture and slow compression, Jesus felt severe shock waves of pain as the nails touched his median nerve.”
The final speaker holds a spear and describes the soldier piercing Jesus’ flesh through to his heart. When Pastor Ron Martoia rises to speak, he and the audience explore the question, Why did Jesus do it? Images continue on the big screen and on the small monitors scattered throughout the auditorium. Before communion, the worship team sings “Why?”
The worship leaders don’t pass communion out to the crowd; instead, worshippers walk to a sixteen-foot, semi-oval concrete communion table, built especially for this service. Lying on the table are oversized pewter gothic chalices and large loaves. Interspersed with the communion elements are the whip, hammer, crown of thorns, spike, and spear. The silence is interrupted with three loud hammer blows, and the sounds of a thunderstorm. On the screen, these words appear: “You are free to linger as long as you like or go as you like, but please leave in silence.” The Good Friday service at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Michigan, concludes.
It is graphic and raw. It is also powerful.
At Westwinds the use of art during a worship service is earthy and multilayered. They don’t use a painting or a poem to illustrate a point or a drama as an element of a progressive presentation. Instead they weave several layers into a multisensory experience. The music, the art, the lighting effects, the powerful monologues, and visual props form a tapestry that prepares the congregation to meet God at the communion table.
“Worship experiences are ‘moment collections’ that we design to increase the incidences of bumping into the presence of God,” Martoia says. “We hope we are creating moments when people can’t help but experience God.” At a service a few months before, Westwinds served communion to break a week of fasting. Instead of highlighting Jesus’ suffering on the cross, as they did at the Good Friday service, they focused on one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6 NIV). That day’s “moment collection” incorporated the smell of baking bread, the worshippers’ own hunger pains, poetry readings, fast-food commercials playing on television sets throughout the auditorium, art on the big screen, and music. The music included “Breathe,” a song with lyrics acknowledging that Jesus is a Christian’s daily bread and affirming that believers are desperate for him. These elements didn’t give a context for the pastor to preach his sermon; rather, they and the pastor’s words created a “moment collection”—a context for Jesus to speak to his people.
The leadership team at Westwinds doesn’t target _“felt needs of seekers,” but neither do they cater to the unique needs of Christ followers. Their ministry addresses “human needs”—yearnings common to all people—needs such as hunger and longing for God. They didn’t stumble across this perspective; like most things of value, they gained it the hard way.
When Westwinds opened in January 1987, the vision was to cater to Christ’s followers and take them deep into the Word. Martoia was completing a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and planning on going to Scotland for Ph.D. work, when five families from a Bible study group contacted him about starting a church. Martoia was preparing to be a professor, not a pastor, so he was reluctant to accept their invitation. But by June 1986, God did a work in his heart, so he agreed and commuted back and forth to begin planning a church start. “People really wanted a Bible-believing church,” Martoia says. “We were going to start a ‘deeper in the Word’ church.” This model fit his gifts, especially since his natural bent was toward the academic. At the time Martoia had an aversion to seeker ministry; he thought the way to grow a church was to “raise up the saints and train them to do evangelism.” During the first six years, the church grew to 160, but in that time they had led only five people to Christ. I could go back to IBM, build bridges to lost people, and lead five people to Christ in six years by myself, Martoia thought. He came to understand that the church wasn’t fulfilling the Great Commission and began to reevaluate their philosophy and methodology.
Seekers and Post-seekers
The church needed to make some changes if it wanted to grow. The board of directors felt that the reason lost _people weren’t walking through the doors was because of the intensity of the format. “We were doing forty-five minutes of music and forty-five minutes of in-depth Bible study that the average lost person would be clueless about—there is no way they could understand,” Martoia says. Lost people have got to be a big part of the mix, the board reasoned; the Great Commission says so. So they asked the question, “How do we create an environment where believers can invite their friends without having to explain what our terminology means?” Martoia’s preaching style went through its first major metamorphosis. I can’t keep doing this major, in-depth Bible study, referring to the Greek text, and expect lost people to follow what I’m saying, he thought.
So the church went contemporary. The service was what Martoia calls “traditional contemporary”—the same kind of service other contemporary churches were doing that included a linear presentation of music, drama, and preaching.
The five years that the church followed the seeker/_contemporary liturgy helped the church grow to 380 in attendance, mostly by conversion—a vast improvement. But their best days were still ahead of them.
Something happened as they were changing their format to try to reach the world: the world around them changed. The 1980s were gone, and the 1990s were fading into the twenty-first century. Martoia began to question the seeker model once again, but this time he wasn’t on the outside looking in; he was an adherent. It was about this time that Westwinds went through another season of soul-searching because they wanted to find a way to reach the emerging generations. “The contemporary church is calcified in liturgy as much as anyone else is,” Martoia says. “The emerging generation is looking at that and saying, ‘I can be Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or Contemporary.’” To reach the emerging generations, the church had to be fluid and break out of the “calcified contemporary liturgy.”
Westwinds’ largest growth spurt didn’t happen until they adjusted their church to the “post-seeker” era. “Every single worship style has got to be morphed and migrated to the emerging generations,” Martoia says. But it wasn’t just the need to stay current that sparked their movement into the post-seeker era; it was the understanding that some felt needs universal to everyone prompted the shift. Lost people and Christians have yearnings that worship can satisfy.
“There are three core yearnings,” Martoia says. “The yearnings to believe, belong, and become.” Today _the church doesn’t ask, “How do we attract unbelievers?” or “How do we meet the needs of Christ’s followers?” Instead we ask, “How do we bring people into a place where God’s presence will cause them to yearn for wholeness?”
Because people yearn to believe, the church introduces them to the teachings of the faith. Because they yearn to belong, the church urges them to connect with the “community” of the church. “We don’t hold the unanimity value as high as seeker churches do,” Martoia says. “If people are walking through the door, they are looking for something, and one of those things is the yearning to belong. We believe the community value is more highly valued than the unanimity value. So we will do all we can to discern, without being intrusive, what they are looking for and do all we can to connect them with it. In our seeker days, we didn’t offer much unless they asked for it. Today we bend over backward [to connect with them].”
Those serving at “guest services” work to discern and minister to people’s needs and to help them get plugged in to the small-group ministries. Because people yearn to become, they help people answer the question, How can my life work better? That is different from the how-to messages of the seeker church. Preaching on “how to be a better parent” will give the listeners some parenting skills, but it won’t fill the deep void inside them. The key isn’t applying a “superficial Band-Aid” to their problems; it is to help them connect with God. Hearing a how-to message without encountering God’s presence will help people live a better life, but it will not transform them. Only God can transform people’s lives. “What we are doing is pointing people toward God and encouraging them to interact with his Spirit,” Martoia says. “We say to them, ‘Connecting with him is what is going to fill the void in your life and put you on the road to wholeness.’”
Martoia doesn’t promise unbelievers that faith will solve all their problems. “We must be careful to under-promise and over-deliver,” Martoia says. “We recognize that the human condition is brokenness; while God is in the repair business, repair can be a slow process, and the timing is always in God’s hand.” Westwinds invites people to plug in to an authentic community where the reality of brokenness and the possibility of healing combine to help people connect with God. “We don’t invite people to wallow in their problems,” Martoia says, “but to get on the path to wholeness.”
One of the ways Westwinds helps people connect with God is through the arts. Certainly God uses the spoken word to speak to his people, but he also uses paintings, dance, sculptures, poetry, or other forms of art to whisper to them, reaching them through its inherent power. Some _people aren’t “word” people—those who are looking for reasons to believe or principles to follow. They are “image” people—those who long to synchronize their souls with God’s will through beauty, rhythm, and intuition. They prefer the picture to the thousand words. The art might create an ambiance for the words, or the words might create a context for the art to impact someone’s heart. Which one upstages the other isn’t the point. The art doesn’t exist for itself, and neither do the words; both elements are signposts pointing to Christ. To put it another way, both are tools God uses to speak to his people. Beauty and truth don’t have to be antagonistic toward each other. The one prepares the heart for the other. When done right, words and images partner together to instruct and inspire.
Usually, the different artistic elements melt into a central theme but not always. “Increasingly, because of our _multilayering and multitasking, the art may not just be _contributing to a theme,” Martoia says. “It may provide another way God speaks to people apart from the theme of the day.” Art can serve as “off-ramps” from a theme that God can use to personalize a service. It may distract a worshipper from hearing a sermon while enabling her to hear from God. Every week Westwinds’s worshippers marinate their souls in a creative environment with a sense of expectancy but not to see something novel or out of the ordinary. It is much more than that. They’ve come to expect an encounter with the Creator God. And when they come, they can be assured that their leaders have created an environment to increase the incidences of their bumping into God’s presence.
And when they bump into his presence, God transforms their lives.