Reaching out—for many Reformed churches that's become the focus of the nineties. Congregations who in the past seemed content to minister to their own and to those in distant places are now taking a closer look at the men, women, teens, and children who live and work in the church's neighborhood.
No longer is it safe to assume, as it was in former decades, that the majority of these people have church homes of their own. Surveys have shown that the numbers of people with no church ties continue to grow.
How can the church best reach these people? What type of worship service will attract them to the church? Those are topics that have caused a great deal of debate among Christians during the past few years. As Robert Webber notes "Bring Them In," p. 4), a variety of approaches are possible.
In the past, most churches assumed that what Webber refers to as the "Manifest Presence" approach made the most sense—that somehow people from the neighborhood would wander into, or be invited into, a typical Sunday service, and that, once there, they would feel comfortable in the community, attracted to the style of worship, challenged by the message, or even overwhelmed by the power and presence of God. But recently, some churches have concluded that those assumptions are no longer valid. As leaders of Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan) noted in a report to their members,
We live in a day when many see the church as boring, irrelevant, unresponsive to people's needsóan institution that is only out to get your money. Those who do show some interest find its music out of step with what they listen to and its worship format no match for the entertainment on T.V. and the movies.
Spurred by the success of the Willow Creek Community Church (Barrington, Illinois) in attracting people, a number of Reformed congregations have been experimenting with new approaches. Perhaps the most common strategy is to alter elements of the service to make nonmembers feel more comfortable—update the music, add some drama, place less emphasis on the offering, and so on. Such an altered service, sometimes called a "progressive believers' service" or a "seeker-sensitive service," generally includes the traditional elements of worship (call to worship, confession, sermon, singing, prayer, offering) but shapes them into more contemporary styles in an attempt to attract community people.
Some churches claim that even this is not enough—that sprucing up old traditions and forms with some new sounds and movements won't convince the MacGilders and the Foxes down the street that it's worth getting up on Sunday morning to attend church. "The service will still be 'church,'" they point out. "And although newcomers who attend may be interested in the music or entertained by the drama, much of the service will still make them feel like ignorant outsiders."
The approach these congregations recommend is the seeker service, following the Willow Creek model. The true seeker service is a separate entity from the believers' worship service. In fact, as its promoters so strongly insist, the seeker service is an evangelism tool, not a worship service.
According to Shawnee CRC's description,
The seeker service is committed first and foremost to calling people to Jesus Christ, not so much by means of persuasion as through allowing them to hear, see, think, and decide about their relationship to Christ. Every aspect of the service is directed toward that goal. The people can come, listen, and leave without wondering about sitting, standing, meeting a bunch of people, giving of their money, or being confronted by someone who wants them to 'make a commitment' right now. They are given time to allow the Spirit to work and to decide whether they want to be followers of Jesus without undue stress to do so.
Is the seeker service the best approach?
Like any form of evangelism, the seeker service will be far more successful in some communities than in others. Its primary target has been, for the most part, young urban professionals. The Willow Creek Church has narrowed that target even further to young urban male professionals between the ages of 25 and 45, arguing that if the men come, the women will follow.
But there may be reasons other than audience for deciding against the seeker service approach. As Duane Kelderman notes in this issue's editorial ("Thinking About the Seeker Service," p. 2), not everyone is convinced that the seeker service is the best answer to our evangelism concerns. Some people believe that important questions must still be addressed—questions such as whether we can truthfully say the seeker service is not a worship service and whether it is the church's calling to become "less churchlike" in order to appeal to the masses.
The ministry of churches such as Shawnee Park and Fair Haven Reformed Church (of Jenison, Michigan), both of whom have selected the seeker service as their vehicle for evangelism, may help us answer those questions in the future.
Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church is located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in southeast Grand Rapids. A thirty-year-old church of one hundred and sixty families, Shawnee has always had a beautiful, traditional worship service on Sunday mornings.
But like many other churches, Shawnee has encountered roadblocks in its ministry to the community. Several years ago, church leaders began studying and discussing the problem. They finally selected the seeker service as the best model for evangelism for their community and began intensive preparation and training in their congregation. As Jackie Timmer, director of evangelism and education at Shawnee, notes, "We added the seeker service as a second Sunday worship service in April, 1991, for the purpose of reaching unchurched and under-churched people. It was a big decision by our church members to implement this vision!"
Making Plans ...
As Shawnee Park congregation has discovered, developing and implementing the seeker service approach is a very demanding task. Shawnee began by establishing five ministry teams, each consisting of a captain and four team members. Each of the five teams meet weekly to plan the service of the coming Sunday and to work on some advance plans for future Sundays.
The Drama and Testimony Team was placed in charge of finding dramas for the worship; of recruiting actors, organizing rehearsals, and planning costuming; and of recruiting church members who would be willing to give public testimonies.
The Hospitality Team was asked to recruit ushers, greeters, and nursery attendants and to set up a schedule for these functions for the first six months. They were also placed in charge of distributing bulletins and of keeping count of how many people attended each of the contemporary services.
Arranging press ads, radio announcements, and bulletin printing was part of the Publicity Team's responsibilities. They were also asked to do such things as design and produce flyers to distribute in the neighborhood, to place signs in appropriate locations, and to encourage Shawnee members to "build bridges" and invite neighbors.
The Set-Up Team was given charge of the physical worship environment. They were to arrange placement of instruments and podium, recruit and train sound and tape attendants, and hang appropriate banners.
The Music Team was asked to recruit a house band and lead singers, to choose songs for group singing, and to contract with all the outside music groups and arrange all rehearsals.
Once the teams were formed, Shawnee hired a sound technician and a regular team of musicians. They also found two drama directors and trained the volunteers who would operate the sound equipment. The congregation received training in "building bridges" to friends and neighbors. And twenty-five Shawnee members planned to attend a Willow Creek service in Chicago to help catch the vision.
... And Implementing Them
Volunteers. Plans. Training. Everything was in place. A date was set for the first "Time-Out" Service, and the blitz of preparation began.
Church leaders developed a service format. Although the details of the service change from week to week, the general framework remains the same.
Blessings and Concerns
After a six-month trial period, the Shawnee congregation evaluated the success of Time-Out. At that point about 170 people were participating in the service each week, about 40 percent of them Shawnee members (that percentage has now dropped to 25-30 percent). The staff was excited and energized by the project, amazed at the cooperation from volunteers. And the whole congregation was enthusiastic about their new outreach to the community. The following lists reflect some of Shawnee's joys and concerns about the seeker service:
—Finding good drama material is difficult. Our best resource is Willow Creek.
—There were many sound equipment needs. More vocal microphones, jacks, monitors, drama microphones, and a guitar microphone were needed to accommodate the musical groups.
—There were many sound problems because of all the new equipment and new sound volunteers. We soon saw the need to hire a sound technician.
—Hours of rehearsal time are necessary when one begins this type of service.
—Volunteers in all areas have stepped forward and are doing a tremendous job.
—We have discovered drama talent in all age groups.
—Our drama directors are greatóone from our church and one from the community.
—Many wonderful vocal singers, male and female, in our own church have volunteered as lead singers.
—People of all ages are willing to give testimonies.
Talented instrumentalists from our own church are willing to participate weekly.
—Excellent soloists and musical groups are available in the Western Michigan area, in our price range.
—Our pastor's unique ability to deliver relevant and topical messages and to tie the whole service together is truly a blessing.
The architecture of our church lends itself very well to a large enough stage with elevated levels and a "non-churchy" atmosphere.
—Artistic ability for designing banners and promotional material is available.
—The quality of the services has been high. They are biblical, challenging, provide good continuity, have variety, and carry out the themes well.
—Two new singing groups of young people and young adults have arisen out of our congregation because of the service.
—Many unchurched and under-churched people are being reached. Some of them are in the process of joining Shawnee Park. Others are being discipled. And still others remain at a distance, but come regularly.
—Many college-age students, both churched and unchurched, are finding that this service meets their needs. Other fringe members of our congregation have returned to active participation through our seeker service.
—Shawnee Park Church will never be the same! We now have a clear vision for reaching lost people and a very successful method of doing so.