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Ancient-Future Megachurch Worship

Ancient-Future Megachurch Worship

Robert Webber
Robert Webber Ancient Future Megachurch Worship

This article by Robert Webber from the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Worship Leader Magazine delves into the transformative experience at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, under Pastor Rob Bell Jr. The article captures the church’s unique setting, where a striking wooden cross centralizes the worship space, symbolizing the core of their faith. Bell’s sermon from 2004, drawing parallels between the vulnerability of God in the incarnation and personal anecdotes, emphasizes a return to the unadulterated gospel, challenging the ‘seeker-friendly’ approach with a forthright proclamation of truth.

Worship is described as a participatory act, with music led by Aaron Niequist that underscores the congregation’s voice over performative spectacle, and communion as a communal, responsive act of faith. This ancient-future approach to worship service, contrasting with the seeker-oriented services of the past (the 1980s past), invites a holistic and immersive engagement with the Christian faith, marking a significant shift towards embracing the fullness of gospel truth in contemporary worship practices.

From The Archives – Jan/Feb 2004 Worship Leader Magazine

I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently to visit my daughter and her family. They are members of Mars Hill Bible Church, started in 1999. This church meets in a mall and is pastored by Rob Bell, Jr. and has grown to more than 10,000 attendees in a very short period of time.

In the middle of the sanctuary is the stage and around it, in a complete circle, are seats for the congregation. When you look from your seat toward the stage, your eyes are immediately drawn to a huge rough wooden cross seen in full from any angle. There it is, right smack in the middle of everyone, the cross.

The sermon was a brilliant presentation of Philippians 2:5-11. “What did God do in the incarnation?” Rob asked. “In the Incarnation God took a risk. He stood before us, shed off all his divine powers (Kenosis), and said, ‘Here I am, born for you, crucified for you, risen for you. What are you going to do with me?” Rob then told about how when he was in Junior High he asked a classmate to a dance at a school-sponsored event.

“There I was standing before her, scared and nervous. When I asked, ‘Will you go to the dance with me?’ I gave her all the control. I stood there with no power, completely vulnerable, waiting for her answer. She burst into to tears, ran into the women’s washroom, and stayed there until her mother was called to come and get her.”

He told the congregation, “God stands before you completely vulnerable and open. God has turned the control over to you. God says, “I gave my life for you. I risked everything for you; what will you do with me?”

The Simple Beauty of the Truth

Here then was the gospel, the good news. It was presented in its simple beauty. I wondered, “What happened to the seeker trend of ‘gently bringing them to truth?'” Rob, like this new generation of leaders, has returned to “the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth” philosophy. Like the ancients, Rob grasps that worship proclaims and enacts the death and resurrection of Jesus, the source of salvation and the meaning of human existence. The new generation of leaders doesn’t want to play spiritual games with people. They believe in speaking truth right up front in a way people can hear it and connect with it.

Rob announced, “We are now going to receive the bread and wine. You can receive at various stations around the back of the circle or you can receive around the ‘stage.’ If you have never received Jesus as your Savior and Lord, or if you have a special need, come up here and kneel at the foot of the cross and take Jesus into your life as you receive from the bread and wine spread before the cross.”

Musicians Serving the Congregation

The Aaron Niequist, the worship leader, led from the piano while other members of the band stood around a platform lower than the central one. As we began to sing “Here I Am To Worship,” I was struck with how quiet and subtle the music leadership was. I have been to so many contemporary churches where the band conceives itself as being in a concert. But here, the musicians served the singing of the congregation, sensing, I think, that the most significant instrument in worship is the human voice.

As the people came forth in a steady stream, I thought, “How appropriate to come forward. Walking the aisle to receive Christ is an act of ‘Just as I am without one plea.'”

We appropriately sang the whole time. It was as though the whole congregation had become the choir. And we sang hymns: “The Old Rugged Cross,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” and then the contemporary “Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith. Together we experienced an encounter with God.

Ancient-Future Service

So what was ancient-future about this service? How does it differ from a Boomer contemporary service?

First, it was not a Boomer seeker service. That kind of service is designed not to confront people with truth. The idea is to interest them in faith so they will come back for more or ask questions of friends who are Christian. The new generation has abandoned the “seeker notion.” Yes, seekers are there in worship. But instead of hearing “tidbits” of the Christian faith, they hear the whole thing.

Consequently, the truth of God’s work in Jesus Christ to rescue the world was proclaimed in word, enacted in the Eucharist, and sung in the great hymns of the church. The old way was to make worship a show to watch; the new generation’s way is to immerse the congregation in truth through participation.

The singing was also noticeably different. No choruses sung again and again in endless repetition. Instead, hymns of great depth were sung with deep emotion as people moved forward (no plates sent passively around) to take bread and wine and receive Jesus.

These changes sound simple, but they are profound. Mars Hill, like many other churches pastored by a new generation of leaders, are paving the way for the recovery of the old! Where are you headed?

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More from Robert Webber

      Webber on Worship Volume 1


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