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Creating an Experiential Church

The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA Executive Director and Director of Caring for Clergy and Congregations

When I was still pastoring Calvin Presbyterian Church, I had met with a young couple who were joining our

congregation. They had mostly given up after months of searching for the right church. Finally, the husband said to her, “That’s it! No more church-shopping. I’m done with religion!” She begged him to try one more church, our church, at the insistence of her stepmother. He relented grudgingly. After the service they both decided we were “it”. I asked them what changed. He said, “I finally felt like I experienced God in church.”

Not everyone had these experiences with us, but enough did that we steadily grew over my 22 years there. What made the difference? We intentionally tried to cultivate the experience of God in everything we did. We recognized that people in our culture are yearning to experience God, and they’ll look elsewhere in the secular realm when they don’t find it with us.

Okay, but don’t people experience God through our typical Presbyterian worship? Perhaps, but those who do are literally a dying breed. Traditional churches are designed for experiences catering to generations that are passing away, not for people of today. Few pastors or laity stop to wonder what experiences resonate with today’s generations.

So instead of missionally asking how we change so they can experience God with us, we criticize them for rejecting the experiences we offer. In response, they tell us that they’re “spiritual but not religious,” and we fail to hear their blunt message that we’re “religious but not spiritual.”

Following a more spiritual path, our church emphasized the experience of God not only in worship, but in everything. We questioned everything we did, wondering whether it facilitated a potential experience of God. In worship we wondered: are people encountering God or something else? On boards and committees: are people engaging with God or something else? In education: are we teaching insights and skills helping people experience and engage with God, or merely giving them interesting information about God?

I wrote about the primacy of experiencing God in worship in my book, In God’s Presence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010). It was a guide for congregations on transforming worship, but not in the ways we typically think about it. We re-envisioned worship as the church’s mission—its primary mission—grounded in a foundational question: what are people experiencing when they worship with us?

For example, Presbyterians are incredibly wordy in worship. Look at a typical bulletin. It’s crammed with words, yet we’re living in a culture where music, visuals, symbols, and verbal brevity are everywhere. So, we traded wordiness for more reflective, musical, and personal experiences. We renovated our sanctuary to include color, art, better sound and lighting, and an overall aesthetic. We revamped most of our worship by questioning whether each element of worship helped or hindered the encounter with God, substituting elements that no longer worked for more creative ones we believed were more experiential. To generate ideas, each year our worship team visited other churches who were doing something different and experiential—contemporary, emergent, African American, traditional Episcopal, and even a 2 ½ hour casual Jewish Shabbat service in which 80% was in Hebrew.

In our discussions afterwards we always asked, “Where did you/I/we experience God?” We then considered what might be adapted for our worship. These led to significant changes: replacing a static, traditional responsive call to worship with a Taizé chant and silent prayer; reading scripture at the beginning of worship rather than in the middle; integrating contemporary, blues, jazz, popular, Celtic, Taizé and other forms of music throughout worship; offering communion every Sunday in one worship service; and healing prayers in worship once-a-month.

The inspiration for cultivating an experiential church emerged out of an insight I had in the 90s. I realized that churches grow when we offer something people yearn for but can’t find anywhere else. Conversely, we decline when we don’t. Many churches have tried to adapt over the past 25 years, asking, “What can we do to attract younger people?” or “How do we change but not lose our present members?” or “How do we do more in mission, so people know we’re here?” These are the wrong questions to ask because they ignore what people are yearning for.

What the church offers is a primary, regular avenue for the experience of God in worship, classes, fellowship, ministry, mission, and even meetings. A missional focus is important, but we constantly compete with many, many other organizations and efforts that offer what we offer in mission. Almost everything we do missionally has a secular counterpart that often do it better. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be missional. I just think we need to view worship and spirituality as foundationally missional because they’re the experiences people most deeply seek from a church.

How do we tell whether what we’re doing helps people experience God? By asking and assessing. Invite outsiders to our worship and church to assess us, and ask afterwards, “what was your experience of God in our worship, in our church.” Create informal focus groups, get feedback from visitors, and try to look at your church through others’ eyes. The key is to realize that what people experience with us determines their engagement (or disengagement) with us.

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