“A Sunday service that is part therapy session, part standup-comedy routine, and part live concert. . . . This is not your grandmother’s idea of church!”
That’s how PBS NewsHour began their recent segment on New Abbey Church in Pasadena, California. The segment on this LGBTQ-affirming church shows a standup comedian opening for a female pastor who talks about her wife to a crowd of hipster congregants.
The church was founded by pastor Cory Marquez, who left a large evangelical church when he realized why young people weren’t coming: they didn’t find it “relevant” to their needs.
On the differences between his new and old church, Marquez says, “It’s less about form and more about content. If the content is literally not healing you, not connecting you to something bigger, then you’re wasting your time.”
Little surprised me about the segment—but that line did.
Desire to Update Form
One would expect Marquez to say the reverse: to insist, as many progressive churches do, that they have the same gospel (content) but apply it in fresh ways (form). Indeed, in Nate Phillips’s 2016 book, Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church, Marquez—highlighted in the book for his work at New Abbey—seems to say as much:
It didn’t matter what we did; there weren’t enough lasers, fog machines, and Katy Perry songs to keep [young adults] interested. . . There are better questions to be asked out there than “How are we continually appeasing shareholders that want a better show?”
Dissatisfied with what he calls the evangelical church’s “idolatry to a numbers-driven model for success,” Marquez started a church he hoped would correct the errors of megachurch-ism.
I’m sympathetic to the Marquez of 2016. The “form” of the seeker-sensitive model has always been at odds with its purported evangelical content, centered on the gospel. The form tries to attract people by giving them an amusing show and making them feel good about themselves. The content is Christ and him crucified—foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor. 1:23).
Those who came of age during the seeker-sensitive movement reached a place of tension: God’s holiness could never come at the expense of man’s comfort. Thus many, like Marquez, resolved that tension by seeking to carry the old message (content) in a fresh way (form).
At least until 2020.
The ‘form’ of the seeker-sensitive…