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An Interview: Sally Morgenthaler

Questions presented by Fred Peatross on Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Morgenthalerís Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers Into the Presence of God (Zondervan, 1995) has become a touchstone for postmodern, worship-driven ministry and a work whose popularity spans denominational boundaries. Her next work, The Uncharted Now (to be published by Inter Varsity Press) will focus on worship in a postmodern culture.

Sally Morgenthaler

Morgenthaler has been a featured speaker at numerous worship conferences, including The Beeson Institute, The Calvin Institute, The Easum/Bandy and Associates, The Gospel in Our Culture Network (GOCN), Group Publishing National Conference, Integrity Hosanna, Inc., Leadership Network National and Regional Conferences, Lifeways Worship Conferences (Ridgecrest and Glorieta), Maranatha! Music's Worship Leader Weekends, Net Results, The Next Level Church, SAMS National Gen-X Leadership Convention, Youth Specialties National Pastorís Conference, The Worship Institute, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Reformed Church in America, The Presbyterian Church USA, The Brethren Church, Disciples of Christ, The United Methodist Church, The Wesleyan Church, and ACMC national conferences.

Morgenthaler has taught both graduate and undergraduate courses at Texas Christian University, Denver Seminary, Gordon Conwell Seminary, Covenant Bible College, and The Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle. She has been a featured guest on radio stations around the country.

Morgenthaler writes the Worship and Popular Culture columns for Worship Leader and Rev magazine. Her landmark article, "Out of the Box: Authentic Worship in a Postmodern Culture" (Worship Leader, May/June 1998) helped jumpstart a national, cross-generational discussion about the future of worship in the United States. She is a contributor to Church Musician Today, Net Results Magazine, Reformed Worship, Re:Generation Quarterly, and Youthworker Magazine. Morgenthalerís, "The Dynamics of Healthy Worship Change", appears in Wordís Celebration Hymnal (resource companion volume) and has been reprinted in several major publications.

Founder of, Morgenthaler now functions as on-site worship consultant for Denver Seminary and Pathways Church. An accomplished photographer, Morgenthaler has published work with both Hallmark and BeautyWay cards. Her children, Peder, and Anna Claire, are her primary joy. Samples of Ms. Morgenthalerís writing and photography are posted on her website,

1) Today, many churches are in the middle of a worship war. Some have called the new forms of worship, hot tub religion; others have said it's a dumbing down; some vote with their feet; others begrudgingly stay and fight. In many places neither camp is willing to meet the other half-way. On and on it goes. How does a congregation know when to contemporize their assemblies in order to connect with culture, and is there ever a time when a congregation stays faithful to their tradition? What are your thoughts?

I think we have to seriously unpack what that word, "contemporary" means. Webster defines it as, "of the now." As far as I can tell, most of what we call contemporary is not really of the now, but rather a freeze-dried version of 1985 evangelical models. One of the reasons many congregations find themselves in a worship war to begin with is because the options being offered are theologically, substantively untenable. Those opposed to adopting the 1985 fossil may also be vaguely aware that they may be sacrificing worship participation to presentation. Bottom line, there are some valid reaons for opposing a shift to a 1980's model (which, in my view, is basically all we have offered our congregations).

There are also reasons behind our change reticence that don't stand up so well, namely, anything that falls into the category of, "This is the way we've always done it." If God has said this, there would have been no Incarnation; there would have been no Great Hymns of the faith, Philippians 2: 5-11. God became, in essence, a "refugee"...became one of us to redeem us. It is this incarnation mentiality that needs to be at the root of worship change. We are living in a different time. People speak English differently than they did even a decade ago. Artistic and musical styles have changed. To remain the same is not an option, even if we just want to keep the people we have. We are all changing how we access the sacred. Not just our neighbors.

2) Willow Creek devised the seeker service as a means of attracting the unchurched. They have had great success, yet many churches who have attempted to import their philosophy have not had the same success. Can you address this and in your response can you also give us your thoughts on the worship assembly and its place as cultural outreach?

One of the first principles of effective ministry is that it must be "incarnational." That is, God and the works of God are best embodied in specific cultures, customized to specific communities. Jesus did not come to us in the form of a faceless android. Jesus came as a Hebrew male human being at a definite point on the timeline, complete with geneological stream and family narrative. With this in mind, it is curious to me why we would think that cloning worship forms and styles could possibly be God-honoring. Willow Creek has an unrepeatable community with an unrepeatable story and a unique aesthetic and verbal language. It adheres to a particular view of who God is and how God works (theology) and what the church is and how the church needs to work (ecclesiology). When Willow Creek's worship style (i.e., the seeker service)is uprooted from its context and transplanted across the country, so are its aesthetics, verbal language, theology and ecclesiology. That may not be such a gargantuan stretch for suburban Chicago congregations that claim a frontier,revivalistic heritage. However, when a Bangor, Maine congregation whose worship is non-presentational transplants a Willow Creek seeker style, it may be walking away from its call to be incarnational. It may also be altering its theology and ecclesiology. Is this what the Bangor, Maine congregation really intended? I doubt it. But many a local church - desperate to regain ministry effectiveness in its community - falls into the cloning abyss. Not that there aren't some principles that can be borrowed from the ministry of churches such as Willow Creek. However, we first need to be asking God, "What are You doing here in our midst and how can we be participants in that work?" Cloning can actually be a walking away from faith, a repudiation of God's sovereignty and immediate, supernatural presence in the local body of Christ.

Having made my pitch for indigenous expression, I must also stress that there are some views of ministry and worship that are simply not scriptural. Until about 1998, Willow Creek still held to the notion that seekers did not belong in a worship service with believers, that, in their words, seekers and worship are "like oil and water. They don't mix." At best, this is a misreading of both Old and New Testaments. At worst, it is a convenient amnesia used to justify a ministry formula that, at least numerically, appeared wildly successful. Here are a few texts that I reread often, just to remind myself of the power of worship to witness:

Psalm 40:3
Psalm 86:9
Psalm 105:1,2
Psalm 57:9
Acts 2:42-47
Acts 16:25-30
1 Corinthians 14:23-25
1 Peter 2:9,10

In a nutshell, here's how I view worship evangelism in the third millennium: experiencing God in the context of a Church that is both spiritually and culturally engaged; worship that is whole-person, engaging all the senses and full range of emotions - the unabashed celebration of brokenness, paradox, and unanswered questions. It's about deconstructing and reconstructing tradition, about fusing the ancestral to the now.

3) So many of my heritage revere the (printed) Word, and that's not a bad thing. But I am afraid we revere the Word so much that we have forgotten that the bible only points us to the One we worship. It seems to me that once we understand this we'll be free to present the gospel in various cultural forms. What are your thoughts?

The Word is first and foremost a Person. John 1 does not talk about book being pre-existent with God. It does not reference either the KJV, NIV or NASB as the source of creation and life, as the light that shines in the darkness. We fail to understand that the written Word is a medium through which we access and understand the living, personal and dynamic Word: God in Jesus Christ.

In our modern print fixation, we also miss the fact that all alphabets had their origin in image: from petroglyphs to heiroglyphs, all written communication started out as pictures. This has tremndous implications for how we communicate today. Over 70% of American adults are visual learners. Jesus spoke and taught primarily in word pictures. The Scriptures themselves are predominantly a collection of stories: real people with visible, tangible faces and lives; a recounting of actions, conflict, tragedy, and God's invasion into their journeys. All of this is pictorial communication. What we have done so often is to substitute abstractions - propositions - for the stories of God, and we call that rightly dividing the Word. If we were to re-tell the narrative of the woman annointing Jesus' feet - in our congregation's language, and accompanied by one artist's interpretation of it (complete with the look of horror spread around that table!) - we would probably be much more faithful to the Word than if we did our usual: race through the printed text as an excuse to get to our five take-home principles.

4) For just a minute pull out your crystal ball and tell us what you see on the other side of this transition known as postmodernism?

I believe we're in the second phase of postmodernity (the cultural outworking of postmodernism). Sometime in the late 1990s, we started pushing past deconstruction to reconstruction. Our new generations - the millennials, aged 12-22 - are not content to whine and tear apart the world they've been handed. They want to pick up the the shards of glass, the stones from the rubble, and start building something to stand the test of time. Volunteerism among this age group is skyrocketing. And it must be catching on; because there is a tenative and sober movement toward reconstruction, evident even cross-generationally after 9/11. No age of Aquarius, pie-in-the sky vision of utopia. But a reconstruction that is willing to acknowledge the inherent brokenness of homo sapiens and connect with a goodness beyond that which we can muster...almost reformational in its recognition of depravity. You don't read much about this, but - post 9/11 - it is becoming quite evident that classic postmodernism - the cynical, devouring philosphical parent to postmodernity - is spent. It simply cannot take the human race where it needs to go now.

5) When the epitaph is written on your ministry, what do you want it to read?

That God was able to speak and act through me, both in spite of my humanity and because of it.

::Sally Morgenthaler::

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