She spread the gospel of worship evangelism at conferences and in articles. Her now-defunct website Sacramentis provided resources for churches and worship directors eager to apply the principles, all in the hopes of sparking incredible growth in their churches.
Morgenthaler now says she was wrong. The data she's been dealing with indicate it hasn't worked.
Read Worship as Evangelism, in which Morgenthaler recounts the gradual discontent with the original paradigm and eventual shock over emerging from it. She has numbers, she has stats.
She has a compelling, evolution-of-philosophy story. She doesn't come at this lightly; at one point, her change of mind is characterized as potential career suicide.
Two powerful excerpts:
Between 1995 and 2000 I'd traveled to a host of worship-driven churches, some that openly advertised that they were "a church for the unchurched." On the good occasions, the worship experience was transporting. (I dug a little deeper when that happened. Invariably, I found another value at work behind the worship production: a strong, consistent presence in the community.) Too many times, I came away with an unnamed, uneasy feeling. Something was not quite right. The worship felt disconnected from real life. Then there were the services when the pathology my friend talked about came right over the platform and hit me in the face. It was unabashed self-absorption, a worship culture that screamed, "It's all about us" so loudly that I wondered how any visitor could stand to endure the rest of the hour.
Were these worship-driven churches really attracting the unchurched? Most of their pastors truly believed they were. And in a few cases, they were right. The worship in their congregations was inclusive, and their people were working hard to meet the needs of the neighborhood. Yet those churches whose emphasis was dual—celebrated worship inside, lived worship outside—were the minority. In 2001 a worship-driven congregation in my area finally did a survey as to who they were really reaching, and they were shocked. They'd thought their congregation was at least 50 percent unchurched. The real number was 3 percent.
In the mid-90s, the community church section in the yellow pages was awash with self-conscious logos and catchy taglines, all competing with each other for that upwardly mobile, savvy church shopper. Strip malls and school gyms were bursting with "churches-on-wheels": shiny-faced set-up crews towing two-wheeled storage trailers, each chock full of sound equipment, Plexiglas podiums, informational handouts, plastic plants, name tags, and nursery toys.
But by 1998 something had shifted. The set-up crews weren't looking quite as fresh as they once were. Why would they, playing "portable church" 52 weeks a year, year after hopeful year? Of course, they were waiting for the "promised land"—the gleaming megaplex their pastor had envisioned on those 20 farm acres south of town. The savviest start-ups reached that promised land. Most did not. By 2000 there were only a few trailers backing up to warehouse doors. The start-ups had thinned out. It was as if the "if we build it, they will come" game had suddenly grown stale. Like last year's action toy, the bright outfits, plastic plants, oozy choruses, and pink-shirts-with-Dockers-slacks went into culture's garage sale bin. Contemporary church plants that hadn't reached critical mass (300 to 400) by the end of the '90s were in deep trouble.
But there was a conundrum. The contemporary congregations that were well-established by the turn of the millennium—with 1,000 or more attendees and with the founding pastors still at the helm—seemed to grow exponentially, and they kept growing. These mega-survivors were invariably congregations with visionary, talented leaders and the determination to do whatever it took to grow. Many of them became the largest congregations in their cities and have developed significant ministries that are still impacting the face of American religion.
Who they were and who they were growing by, however, is a crucial question. As negative attitudes toward conservative Christianity among the unchurched increased in the late '90s and early 2000s, most large-congregation growth efforts became more focused on the churched consumer, even as their written and spoken vision remained focused on the unchurched. And these star performers became masters at what the churched wanted. They raised the bar several times over for what could be expected out of a Sunday morning experience, and they worked tirelessly to develop the high quality, practical programs the churched now demanded. Having excelled at making theirs the best churched experience on the market, they were perfectly positioned to absorb the windfall of disgruntled attendees from dwindling mainline congregations and failed, contemporary start-ups.
. . . [A]ccording to The Barna Group, the number of adults who did not attend church nearly doubled in the same time period. In a parallel trend, pollsters were charting the lowest ratings for religion in 60 years. With both numbers and attitudes of the unchurched going in the opposite direction, where was all the growth in these big-and-getting-bigger churches coming from?
Location just might be a clue. Nearly 72 percent of churches with average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 people are found in a swath from Georgia and Florida across Texas to California . . . roughly the Bible Belt and the most churchgoing sectors of the Sun Belt. It's hard not to see the correlation.
As influential as they are, megachurches aren't the whole story of American religion. To get a complete picture of church growth in the 1990s and new millennium, we need to look at overall church attendance patterns. Traditional pollsters conduct telephone interviews and expect people to be honest about their religious practices. According to the numbers gathered this way, we're still at a 40 percent attendance rate. But pollsters who actually do seat counts and take exit polls tell a different story. The average weekly church attendance when measured by actual "bodies present" was at 17.4 percent in 2006, down from 20.4 percent in 1990 . . .
The upshot? For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance—and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all.
Read the whole thing.
Megachurches have flourished, but there has been a net loss of churchgoers. I suggested in my post Contra Pragmatism (#2 in the list) that the churches that have dominated the scene over the last 20 years have only succeeded in attracting Christians tired of their "old" churches or bored with non-entertainment-driven church. As I have suggested this over time, some people argue with me. And while no one can doubt the seeker church movement has won souls, the research appears to support that megachurch growth is by far transfer growth.
Which is fine, if we can be honest about that. Nothing wrong with Christians going to church. They should.
But the assumption has been that we are churches for the unchurched, while the unchurched actually prefer to stay home. The worship service as "evangelistic tool," in my opinion, is not entirely invalid. Honest, authentic, genuine worship that exalts God and genuinely speaks from the human condition can be attractive and invitational, as real honesty can be. But the predominant execution of evangelistic worship, in which the evangel hasn't really even been present, has really only served Christian consumers.
The conversation which follows from these revelations can be one of evangelism and discipleship, philosophy of worship and philosophy of community, and of course the newfangled "seeker" vs. "missional."
But we have to first define success. When we say "it works," what is works? Attendance? Numeric growth?
This isn't just about worship or the worship service. It has to do with how and why we do church generally. Isn't it possible you can say it's for one thing (reaching the unchurched) but reality may demonstrate it's for something else (attracting the churched consumers)?
If we have great big growing churches but the Church isn't growing, don't you think something's amiss?