You’re not allowed to talk about that at church. In fact, you’re not allowed to talk at all during the typical American church service.
And that’s a problem for the majority of the population that does not attend church.
Most people view the typical worship service as a passive time of one-way communication. They believe church leaders and members are uninterested in their thoughts, doubts and questions. This perspective is one of the major reasons people avoid church, as we report in our new book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.
People today, especially younger generations, want to be part of the conversation. They live in an interactive world. They view the typical church sermon time as an elongated, one-way lecture. Though they desire the subject matter, the delivery mode is passive and non-participatory.
In the book, we advocate something we call Fearless Conversation. It’s one of the “four acts of love” that we believe can make a church irresistible. When it comes to matters of faith, people crave a real conversation, not just another lecture from a professional Christian.
Conversation isn’t just preferred. It’s a more effective form of communication. Seminary professor Norm Wakefield told us, “The act of verbalizing imprints truth on our mind. It’s important to allow people of any age to talk it out. That’s how our human minds work. We work it out by talking it out. That’s another reason lecturing is so inefficient.”
It’s also why Jesus allowed for questions and conversation–give and take–in his teaching.
And Jesus was fearless in his interaction with people. He wasn’t afraid of their questions, their comments, or the topics they wanted to bring up.
A PARALYSIS OF FEAR
Fear paralyzes the church today. When we propose including interactivity and conversation in preaching and teaching, church leaders say they’re fearful that people may say things that are doctrinally imperfect, or they may ask questions that might be difficult to answer, or they may simply wander off-topic. Well, guess what. These people are already engaging in these scary behaviors–outside of church. So, why not handle them inside the church where we have a chance to bring the Truth into the conversation?
Some leaders say the conversation takes place–not in the worship service, but in classes and small groups. That’s good. But most people do not make it past the worship service. And the main worship service is prime time to power-up a message with conversation.
So, can interactivity and conversation work in a worship service? A high-profile pastor at a large church told me he knows that conversation and participation lead to greater growth. “But that’s impossible when you have more than 150 people,” he said. He’s mistaken. We regularly do it with thousands. It’s simply a matter of asking good questions and instructing people to talk with those near them.
Rather than droning for 30 or 40 minutes, preachers would be more effective if they’d offer some thoughts for a few minutes, then pose a good Jesus-style question for people to discuss in pairs, then offer a few more thoughts, followed by a time for questions from the congregation.
Fear also prevents the church from talking about those things that people really want to talk about. But Fearless Conversation is, well, fearless. We need to be talking about, and including God in, topics such as mental illness, racism, homosexuality, transgenderism, suicide, Islam, Mormonism, hell, and doubt. “Fear not,” God tells us.
Fearless Conversation offers a few more benefits. It provides teachers and preachers the opportunity to listen. To be quiet and listen. Which is enormously useful for any leader who wishes to understand what people are actually thinking.
In addition, real conversation (not the rudimentary meet-and-greet moment) promotes relationship and enables people to connect with others on a meaningful level. And that provides authentic relevance. That kind of relevance does not come from the preacher’s hip clothes, facial hair, or eloquent oratory. True relevance is personal, customized to each individual. Conversation is personalized, customized to each individual.
And, Fearless Conversation models to the people how to conduct a conversation about faith. If we never provide the opportunity to see and participate in faith talk, how do we ever expect our people to be salt and light in the real world in which they live?
It’s a good idea for the back and forth talk to get people engaged but then you have that problem of those one or two talkative longwinded opinionated people. They want to take over, give their long opinions, explain how they are right and your wrong. They don’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise without cutting them off in the middle of what they are trying to explain. If you don’t have a good strong leader, things can turn into an argument depending on the subject matter. As a quieter introvert, the one that is lucky to get a few words in, I’m always overpowered by the opinionated talkative guy who doesn’t know when to shut up. I put up with this almost daily at work with my design leader. Anyway, I like the back and forth talk but I also like the half and half where a short to-the-point lesson is given to really set the subject and then do the back and forth thing.
Yes, in this format–and in real life–opinionated people sometimes try to dominate. But this can be moderated by a skillful facilitator. For Lifetree Cafes across the country, which implements an open forum every week, facilitators receive thorough training that equips them to handle the floor stealer, the blow-hard, the extremist, and the introverted.
And that’s hard enough to do with a small group of people. But then if you open it up to a wider audience…you’re talking about a very very small minority of people that could effectively handle that type of meeting on a regular basis. And that person would likely be a Type A extroverted personality, which would further reinforce the notion that “normal” people aren’t ualified to do ministry.
It’s just not suitable to a Sunday morning context. And to be honest, I’m not sure the majority of people, even seekers, are looking for that in a Sunday morning service.
Thom, I agree with your premise but would love to hear specific examples of how this gets done in real time. Do churches reconfigure their worship space, trading in pews for round tables?
Thom is right. I tried this at the assembly that I pastored for 10 years. The young people ate it up, but there was rejection from the 40 somethings and above! It wasn’t what they were used to. I loved it!!! The youth were learning and growing however, in their growth – they became very discerning too! Questioning the conduct of older leaders – and why they wern’t more like myself and my wife.
It’s a huge paradigm to break (the Sunday Sermon), but Jesus taught them saying….and if he could take questions during the sermon on the mount, shouldn’t we be able to also?
P.S. You will find that if you conduct services this way – you can take out a lot of singing and other stuff ….because you will need that time for discussion (once you get people involved that want to be involved – you can go on for 2 hrs or more and no one that’s involved will want to leave – I had to cut it off one Sunday!!!
Most older people wanted to just be lectured to – say amen and “get to the shoutin’ part”…that was theatrics, and I’ve never really liked doing it. I do however, love to engage people and talk. I can get a real ideal on what you’re dealing with, where you’re coming from, and how much you understand that way. I can also learn a thing or too also – that way – the entire Body is edified!!!
Lynn, yes, small tables in the worship space are far more conducive to conversation and relationships. However, we’ve used these conversational approaches in pews and fixed seating of all kinds.
Occasionally, I’ve done “THE FORUM” in worship which is just what you describe above. The stage is set to look like a living room with couches, coffee table and lamp. Myself and a few others have a conversation about a topic (most recently “fear”) and then one of our Team Leaders acts as a ‘Donahue’ (younger folks, look that one up), walks around with the mic and allows people to ask questions.
What I love about that format and set up is that I’m not the only one answering or facilitating the conversations. I have others with me on stage to do some live-processing. Then I wrap it up. Much of the time we end up with more questions than answers which, I guess, is the point.
Love the idea of “forum”! I wld like to see it in action. Any vids on youtube?
No video’s yet. We’ll be hosting another one the first of the year. http://www.TrinityHudson.org
One other key is to have a few people with “plant questions” to at least get the conversation started. Just make sure you acknowledge publicly that the person was given the question for transparency sake.
Todd, I like your forum idea but it seems to me that what Thom is suggesting is where the dialogue is among all the people, not with a panel. Where everyone gets a chance to talk not just those with questions.
Yes, it is with all the people. I start out talking with the panel on the topic and then the audience asks the questions to the panel. Sorry, I didn’t make that clear. :).
Thanks, Lynn. Yes, I am advocating real conversation in 2’s, 3 ‘s or 4’s. That way everyone gets a chance to talk and listen. And, I’m also advocating opportunities for anyone in the congregation to pose questions to the leaders or the congregation. It’s all more effective–and Jesus-like–than lecture alone.
My Pastor is in the process of starting up a youth group at our church, and just a couple of weeks ago we had a meeting and discussed doing just this with our youth group. Pastor plans to have a brief “sermon” and then open a discussion group, I am very excited. I have a 21 year old son, and one of his comments about traditional church (which he currently chooses not to attend) is that there is no interaction – just sitting and listening. Having two young men, ages 20 and 21, I have heard from quite a few young people over the past years, and they want an environment they can be involved in. They want to hear and listen, but they also want to be able to ask questions and express opinions.
This article mentions that we learn by talking things through – very true – as is evident by how often people, including me, talk to themselves. 🙂
I fear one of the biggest issues in many mainline churches is the leader him/her-self. I have heard from many pastors and I have observed that many more do not know the scriptures as they admit they should. Nor do they have the faith to trust the Holy Spirit to provide the words necessary to give glory to God in all situations. I know in my own experiences; if I am diligent at personal study I am way more effective and God blesses me with more opportunities to share. No matter the methodology of church, personal accountability and obiedience is necessary.
Hi Thom – I know you are right. I also know that the older folk at our church would be appalled at the idea. They are used to and have expectation of the talking head format. We have been trying hard to break that mold even within our Sunday school classes, but out of 8 adult Sunday school classes, only 3 have a discussion format. The rest attend lecture style classes tied to the denominational (D-R-Y!) curriculum. As the Director of Christian Education, I have been trying to make changes in this area, but the teachers, let alone the class members are resistant to the idea of any kind of change. In the meantime, the younger people who could greatly benefit from this kind of interactive learning, by and large do not come to Sunday school.
I would love to see fearless conversation happen where I work. There has been some discussion among the staff that we will have people tweet or text their questions during the service and then the pastor will answer a few of them at the end of the sermon. I asked why we should have them use technology rather than say it out loud and the response was so we can monitor the questions and answer the ones we want to answer. That frustrates me. I understand the awkwardness of someone asking a weird question, arguing with the pastor, or talking too long but I do not like that we will monitor the questions and only answer the ones we like. That is not fearless conversation.
There is definitely some good content here. Well worth the read. I agree with this…in part.
First, everyone has a different learning style. Some people certainly do benefit more from a conversational style of learning. The church should do their best to reach them & teach them about Christ. But to assume that EVERYONE will benefit from something like this is false. I am a personal example of this. I would much rather sit & listen to a good speaker than sit in a group of people sharing their opinions.
Second, a typical Sunday morning worship service (if that is indeed what you’re implying) doesn’t seem to be the right time or place. Isn’t that what Sunday School & small groups are for? Why change up everything? It doesn’t make much sense to me.
What it all boils down to for me is that this should be a decision of the pastor, along with other leaders, as directed by God. If they feel that this is the best approach for their church, go for it! If not, leave it for the ministries where this is more natural & fitting.
It really comes down to trusting God that you are doing the right thing and leaving the results to Him. I’ve been in seminars where I came hungry to hear what the speaker had to say, only to have him/her open up the conversation so much that I never get to hear the effective ideas that he/she has developed and tested. All I get is a bunch of opinions from people who haven’t researched or often even implemented the techniques they want to talk about. I walk away disappointed and frustrated. I could see that happening on a Sunday morning – people coming in hungry for the truth and leaving instead with a bunch of people’s opinions instead. However, that’s where the trusting God part comes in. Do we think that God can speak through the people in the pews to each other? Really, this isn’t that much different than the old-fashioned “testimony services” we had occasionally when I was growing up – no sermon, just individuals sharing what God was doing in their lives. And yes, some of them were long-winded. Some of them said weird things. And yet I turned out okay 🙂
No question this would be risky. The wrong people might grab the floor and pontificate. The conversation might head off down a bunny trail or two. Or ten. The approach might not connect with some of the people in attendance.
or, even riskier: God might show up in the honest questions asked and the honest struggle to respond to those questions. By giving up our careful scripting we might discover God shows up and makes himself known and things get messy…and marvelous.
Let’s roll the dice and take the risk.
or, even riskier: God might show up in the honest questions asked and the honest struggle to respond to those questions. By giving up our careful scripting we might discover God shows up and makes himself known and things get messy…and marvelous.
Let’s roll the dice and take the risk.
I’m really looking forward to your new book and more information about what you all have identified as a craving for “Fearless Conversation”. What I find in most churches I attend or visit is that most everyone at church knows what they need to do and say to “fit in” theologically. If you are at a conservative church – don’t ask any questions about reincarnation. If you are attending almost any church – don’t bring up questions about human sexuality. If you are having a day where you just don’t think you believe any of it anymore – don’t say that at church. You can talk about those things with your friends at Starbucks, but usually not at church.
Thom, Once again, you and I are on the same page. For several years I’ve been contemplating something like you described here and on previous posts. Operating a Lifetree Cafe has taught me a lot about how this works. Doug Pollock’s book, “God Space” and the Lifetree booklet entitled, “Do Say, Don’t Say,” have also taught some important ways to deal with some of the potential problems described in some of the other comments. Thanks again for sharing your innovative thinking.
Thom, I feel like this article gets so close to the truth, but yet stays so far! Conversational, interactive worship is not something for “people today,” it is God’s design for the church from its inception.
“What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.” – 1 Corinthians 14:26-32
We don’t need a leader who apes Jesus’ methods, we need Jesus himself to lead us directly through his Spirit.
Thank you for one of the more thought-provoking Christian blogs out there. Keep it up. 🙂
I don’t think this is a bad idea, put in its proper place and context. I can see a benefit to a pastor and a congregation to have a time to sit down, ask questions and talk things out.
But, once again, this article is another example of the complete trashing of “traditional” churches and intentionally putting distance between the so-called “relevant” church and the historical church and the reformers that dedicated their lives to Biblical exposition and teaching.
People have conversations, all day every day, about all sorts of subjects. Hours and hours of talk and conversations and discussions and blah blah blah. Much of it mindless chatter and gossip. I weep for our future if it comes to the point where people cannot sit down and listen to “Thus saith the Lord” for a half hour, once a week. That is pathetic.
You can’t say this or that or ask this or that question in church? Nonsense. You don’t ask the question not because you don’t think anyone wants to talk about it, but because you know you are not going to get the soft-sell answer you want.
We have millions of Christians in our country who are Biblically illiterate because their pastors will not teach the Scriptures. People who have no idea how to explain their faith, or the gospel message. Even worse, they are being taught by progressive and “relevant” pastors to have complete and utter disdain and hostility towards systematic theology and classical reformed church doctrine. Just come in, stop by our coffee house, sit down and let’s chat! 🙂 Forget about Luther, Spurgeon, Packer and Sproul. They are just a bunch of uptight old white men who will just judge you. Hey, put down that Bible and let’s create some art!
Is it too much to ask that for one hour out of the week, that we gather together and stop focusing on ourselves and our selfish needs and focus all of our attention to the Lord our God and allow Him to speak to us through the His direct revelation though the Holy Scriptures?
Evidently, it is.
Thanks for your thoughts, Frustrated. I’m not too concerned about forgetting Luther, Spurgeon, Packer and Sproul, or the methodologies they used. But I am concerned about forgetting Jesus and the methodologies he used to reach people.
I don’t think Thom is just talking about sit downs. I preached expository messages and allowed the people to ask question right in the middle (by raising your hand – this was on “youth Sunday” because they enjoyed it). I would also let them make comments and what we would do is look at the scripture and reason together. This is why the youth loved it – they gained understanding this way it’s not a matter of relevance.
Most people in colleges use recorders of some type when listening to professors …why, because they go to sleep. Some churches its not a matter of people going to sleep … its because they are entertained. Either way the person is not engaged. The best way I know of to get people engaged is to bring them into the discussion. You mentioned Luther, Spurgeon, Packer and Sproul (but you forgot Whitfield 😉 ). These are indeed great men of the Faith, However I would challenge you – with the youth today – they are not going to take “your word”.
I was a guest Bible teacher at a Church where I was the former Asst. Pastor, and the youth would ask questions and I would answer them and ask them more questions (I’d ask the adults too). Did these youth take my word for it? No, they went home, got online – used bible dictionaries, concordances, and other tools while adults where calling the pastor to see what I had said was true. The next week the Pastor said the kids had looked it up and found out what I was saying was true – even his wife did the same thing and was shocked. He told the rest of the adults – this is good, even if I had been wrong – it spurred people to study and find out for themselves. It got them to open their Bibles (even if most of them are electronic) and really study- he wishes more adults would have done the same. Face it, the reason we have a lot of Biblically illiterate people…people just read the Bible they didn’t study it – thats what they’ve been taught. That night without calling an altar call – we had 5 young boys (teens) make a public deceleration of salvation – some finally realized what salvation was within those two studies.
Jesus did a good Job of engaging people and I personally believe that’s what’s missing today. I also don’t force decisions anymore – I believe God is powerful enough to convict the hearts of people – and when he does it….you know its real 🙂
P.S. I had one parent tell me that some things in the Bible are too hard for kids…I replied no…Jewish children learn to recite parts of the Torah from memory – we belittle our children – if you teach a baby – baby talk – he will think that’s the way to communicate…no! Speak English to your child, complete sentences – you’ll be shocked at how much they can learn and understand. Is it too much to ask for several hours during the week to ensure that with all their “getting” that they received “understanding”? Selah …Pause
I wish you’d change to the title of the book to “Why a Majority Don’t Go to Church.” How do you think people feel about a title that says “Why NOBODY Wants to Go to Church” when they love their church, see their church growing, and are even sacrificing to expand their churches impact and reach? I agree that we need to keep experimenting with ways of communicating and applying the gospel message, but we should also keep in mind that regardless of how much discussion we have during or after worship gatherings, Jesus stated (in a message that he later fielded questions from his small group regarding), that there are four soils/heart conditions and some will never want to go to church gatherings regardless of discussion times because their hearts are hardened toward God.
P.S. I would like to hear thoughts on why pastors are commanded to “devote” themselves to “teaching and preaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). Is their a difference between teaching and preaching? If so, what? Are they both still valuable?
Clay Peck, Good question: “Is there a difference between teaching and preaching.” I remember this question coming up in school many years ago. The way I’ve always explained is that “preaching” is more evangelistic – targeted toward not-yet-believers, while “teaching” is targeted toward believers in order to build them up toward spiritual maturity. May not be exactly correct but I think pretty close.
Thanks, Clay. Yeah, that book title is a tad sensational. In fact, our publishing team debated it long and hard. And we tested titles nationally. Ultimately, we chose to go with the Nobody title because it’s arresting and it’s colloquial. It’s similar to how we all talk in the vernacular, such as, “Nobody wants gas guzzling cars anymore.” That’s not a technically accurate statement, but we know that. Of course. It’s like the successful book title, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Not technically accurate, but we know that. It’s a great title that represents that book well.
We faced similar controversy 20 years ago when we released our book, “Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church.” With that very successful book we also heard from people, Christian educators in particular, who felt we were trashing their past. That was not our message. We wished to sound an alarm for the future, calling the church to be more effective in our changing times.
On your other point, I’m uncomfortable dismissing a quest for ministry effectiveness by blaming the unchurched. That’s a recipe for ministry mediocrity and further church decline.
Thom’s book and general argument reveals the cultural divide between older generations (GIs, Silents, Boomers) and younger ones (Gen X, Millennials and what I call the iTechs). Gen X started the exodus from church attendance, the Millennials continue it and the emerging iTech Gen (born since 2005) will no doubt follow. Ironically, it’s these generations that experienced the best in children’s and youth ministry strategies, programming and curriculum.
It’s not that postmodern generations aren’t spiritual or drawn to Christianity. They just don’t interact and communicate the same way as older gens. It’s like trying to sell a music lover (who buys every song digitally) on something called an 8-Track cassette. It’s not the MUSIC they don’t like. It’s the FORMAT. They can’t play it. It doesn’t work in their world.
These purely postmodern generations simply do not relate to a modern church frame wired by non-relational, passive, word-based (lecture/sermon) communication and worship. They want to FEEL their Faith and deeply connect with God, each other and their life’s mission.
Unfortunately, most churches are currently led by those older than 50 years of age. When these leaders retire in the next two decades, I predict a massive shift in church formats (to more relational, experiential, image driven frames). The only question is will there be anyone LEFT to attend? I tend to agree with another post that I cringe a bit at the title, Thom. Why NOBODY wants to go to church is a bit misleading. But until I read the work I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
Great thoughts! Reposting to my blog now.
Thanks Thom. Our church is in the process of implementing this format on Wednesday evenings. It involves the confirmation students & hopefully families. There is music and liturgy, the pastor presents and interacts with the people. Then the kids have confirmation in small groups. I love the idea of “Fearless Conversation” and authenticity! I am not familiar with Lifetree Cafe and would love to know more. The church needs to grow and adapt to remain healthy. Thank you.
Good thought. But I guess Jesus never read the Old Testament when the Scripture would be read all day. Or maybe that generation didn’t have attention deficit disorder and relational connectivity issues.
So biblically illiterate pastors teaching their “truth” will now relegate the administration of the Word to an even more biblically illiterate church member who loves to say, “The way I see it is…”
C’mon man. You’ve identified the problem but given a terrible (and biblically illiterate) solution. Where do you guys go to church anyway? It must be really boring for you to keep writing this stuff on here.
(1) Boring sermons = bored listeners
(2) Get better at small groups
Thanks, C’Mon. In terms of biblical examples, I’m all for following Jesus’ example of teaching, sharing stories, welcoming questions, and engaging people in conversation.
To your other question, I attend a church that employs the very communication methods I’m suggesting. They work, week after week.
Perhaps we should try to understand what is worship service (usually on Sunday for an hour or more with a minister preaching). Worship is one commandment that must be kept, but it is not the only one. We are also to study and you can not be a Christian by just going to a one hour worship service once a week. There is no way you will ever learn how to live the Christian life by only attending worship service. So it seems to me rather than knocking worship service that we should consider another commandment that is to study the Bible. There are many approaches to Bible study and certainly most of them are not boring. I’ve used Groups study books for years and I have never been accused of be boring.
The problem lies with the fact that in our society we are so busy we don’t want to take the time to study the Bible. We have been lead to believe that all we have to do is to attend Church once a week, leave an offering, and if we are not properly entertained we complain. If we really spent time in private and public study and fellowship that one hour on Sunday will have more meaning. Of course you can’t get anything out of service, your mind isn’t in the right place. Many preachers understand long sermons aren’t necessary. That is why we have small class, large class, seminars, interactive class, class for all age groups. Once our busy society takes the time to study and make being a Christian an everyday thing rather than a once a week one hour thing you will have to write another book.
I’ve been enjoying your musings, and whilst I agree with today’s one, I don’t think it’s going to get traction as my observation is that those pastors who are clinging to their pulpits (and declining congregations), no matter how much they may cry “Biblical illiteracy” or “Theological orthodoxy” , they are actually just using these as a smoke screen for personal issues with power and identity.
I don’t think that it’s actually possible to change the church structures and selection processes and theological colleges and congregations to address these things. I think they just have to die before the new life you talk of can spring up. Or, sometimes the new life will just spring up elsewhere whilst the other dies off slowly. Declining mainstream church vs exploding house church movement. This is what the next 50 years looks like to me, bring it on.
The fact is, for some people, the Internet has become a kind of cyber-church which in a sense can be a good thing and in another sense can be a bad thing. Many Christians have all kinds of issues, some may have mental health problems and others may have addictions, whilst others may just be struggling financially or can’t get a job or having relationship or marriage problems and it is obvious that many churches and pastors and so on do not really want to get involved, and yet many other not particularly religious people do want to help. And it’s certain we have all heard horror stories of religious people supposedly helping people suffering in some way and actually pushing them over the edge by telling them unhelpful, ridiculous and even downright dangerous things.
Reading Loretta O’Neal’s post above tells me that the church, or some of them, needs to have a more holistic approach and that worship is not just about singing hymns in church on Sunday but about being obedient to God everyday and as well as putting sin behind us, reaching out for God at the same time and seeing how we can help other people around us who are suffering in some way. Lots of religion can become so personal that it becomes all about self and how I feel and my needs when we need to be thinking of other people, and have faith in God He will take care of our needs. And He always does if we pray, study the Bible and remain obedient.
So… when did worship be about what the people want instead of God? It’s supposed to be a time where God comes to His people through Word and Sacrament and how they respond, in many ways using HIS words. Now it’s about how the people sitting there feel. We don’t even teach that knowing God is present is more important than feeling His presence.
I don’t care what anybody says. This society and the church today are all about focusing on people and not God and I’m pretty sure that’s not what HE wants. The next thing you hear (or maybe write) will be about how the Bible needs to be more people friendly and we need to throw out anything negative. Who needs to hear they sin anyway? God is love!
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