“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 model has always been at odds with its purported evangelical content.
Ditching the Gospel
I’m less sympathetic to the Marquez of 2020, who sees the content of his preaching as fundamentally different from that of his evangelical past. In an interview with Forge, Marquez speaks of “the birthing of a universal God” as he mocks the evangelical understanding of substitutionary atonement. In pointing to his new understanding of the cross, he says:
This is why Jesus goes to get sacrificed: to put an end to sacrifice. Not because he is the perfect lamb to end sacrifice, but because he’s saying that sacrificial system is wrong. You don’t need to convince God you’re okay. God already loves you where you’re at.
What’s striking about New Abbey and similar churches isn’t that they’ve abandoned the gospel they once preached; Scripture, after all, tells us to expect such things (1 Tim. 4:1). What surprised me in the NewsHour story is that Marquez’s church, born out of frustration with the seeker-sensitive modality of church, had reverted to that very model. Indeed, my first thought when I heard the report of a church that was equal parts therapy session, standup comedy, and concert was, OK Boomer. To my surprise, though, it was a congregation of Boomer-resenting millennials.
Return to Youth-Group Gimmickry
The segment ends by describing New Abbey as a church “trying to appeal to young people who are increasingly leaving the religion of their ancestors.”
Churches that capitulate to the spirit of the age have indeed left Christianity. As J. Gresham Machen observed, there’s Christianity and then there’s liberalism. And yet the irony is, even as they’re leaving the faith once delivered, they’re returning to the form they once derided. They may be giving up the God of their youth, but they’re returning to gimmicks of their youth group.
They may be giving up the God of their youth, but they’re returning to gimmicks of their youth group.
Their grandparents may not recognize their Sunday service. But insofar as their parents worshiped in a church that likewise centered its worship around man’s felt needs rather than God’s revealed Word, they sure would.
Marquez and other seeker-sensitive pastors inevitably face the challenge that focus on giving people what they want is inherently unsustainable. Whether they want LGBTQ-affirming hermeneutics, funny jokes, pour-over coffee, or Katy Perry songs, people’s “wants” are always changing and impossible to consistently satisfy. Building a church around fickle consumer wants is a futile endeavor. A better approach is to build a church not around what people this week want, but around what they will always need: salvation through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
In the end, the only gospel that satisfies is the gospel that saves.