On the Road to Becoming a Transforming Church

“Nondiscipleship is the elephant in the church.” 

– Dallas Willard

Oak Hills Church was founded in 1984 with seventeen people in rented space at a strip mall in the “quickly growing but still quaint” little suburb known as Folsom, CA. Original members walked the streets, knocking on doors, inviting people to come to this brand new church, and eventually it paid off.  A number of young families from another church visited them, liked it, and chose to stay.  The church began to grow slowly from there.

Founding pastor, Kent Carlson, admits he had no particular philosophy of ministry early on, no well-thought-through strategy, or even a well-developed theology of church.  What he did have was a heart for leading a community of people who wanted to learn how to follow Jesus more fully.  As is often the case, the very simplicity of those early days made them enjoyable and rewarding. Almost everyone was in a small group of some kind and everyone helped shoulder the load of leadership responsibility. They loved hanging out together.

Outward Success

By 1990, close to 200 people were attending but, along with that, there was a growing sense among the leadership that something was missing.  Even though reaching people who did not yet know Christ was one of the church’s stated purposes, they had not seen many new believers join the church.

Meanwhile, the “seeker model” church was exploding onto the scene and changing the way people were thinking about church.  In fact, when the leaders of Oak Hills attended a conference at Willow Creek it galvanized their focus on reaching the lost for Christ; for the first time in their history they had a clear philosophy plus a real plan for outreach and it was working!

Within a couple years of “working the plan,” a thousand people were attending on Sundays.  As more people began making decisions to follow Christ, everyone involved felt they were a part of something big and that God was using them to further his purposes in the world. Their tagline became “Oak Hills Church—You’ll be Surprised!”

A Growing Concern

While the church continued to grow there was a creeping sense among them that something just wasn’t quite right.  They began to acknowledge unavoidable and unhealthy ramifications of their particular way of doing church. Sunday was always coming and with it, the pressure to be even more “surprising”, creative, compelling than the week before.

As Kent describes it, “ One of the undeniable truths of the large entrepreneurial, attractional model church is that it requires constant feeding.  When we structure a church around attracting people to cutting-edge, entertaining, interesting, inspirational and always-growing services and ministries, there is simply no room for letting up.  Once we have communicated to the masses that if they come to our church, they’ll be surprised, then we have this never-ending burden to surprise people every week.  There is no resting.  If there is a particularly wonderful experience one weekend, we are driven to do better the next.”

In response to the growing concern about the toll all of this was taking, they hired Mike Lueken as their “spiritual formation pastor”—a fairly new concept at the time.  His job was to help those who were making commitments to Christ become fully devoted followers of Christ.   And it was a good thing, because in the midst of these outward signs of success, there was a troubling sense that what they were experiencing was not necessarily good for their spiritual formation.

 A Hunger for More

One particularly disturbing realization was how consumerism in contemporary society was impacting the church. Grappling with this issue in their own context was bringing to light a sharp contrast between the conflicting values of external success and authentic spiritual formation.  What they began to understand is that “attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them.   It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ.”

A brave admission, to be sure.

Oak Hills’ experience calls attention to one key dynamic in becoming a Transforming Church—and that is, it all starts with someone’s longing for more.  It could be a sense that something is not quite right or that something is missing.  It could be a hunger for God that cannot be ignored or an encounter with God that makes one unwilling to settle for less any longer. The point is that someone has to be brave enough to speak the unspeakable, and it works best if that person is the leader because it paves the way for others to be honest as well.

Mike’s and Kent’s willingness to pay attention to the longings and desires, the questions and the wonderments, that were present in their own souls became the genesis of changes that eventually began to take place in the church as a whole. It was their willingness to broach these subjects by being honest about what was going on in their own souls that eventually freed others to do the same.

When the Student is Ready

As these issues were floating to the surface of their collective awareness, Mike enrolled in a two-week Doctor of Ministry class led by author and professor Dallas Willard.  This experience rocked his world and unsettled his vision of what life in the kingdom and thus, life in the church, was really all about. As he puts it, “the contrast between the transformative power of kingdom life and the high-pressure, frenetic, crazy-paced life we were living” became the source of constant conversation and reflection.

Shortly thereafter, at a retreat for senior staff and lay leaders, it all came to a head. As they reflected honestly and openly about their life and ministry together, they began to recognize and name the fact that their current church structure and focus was actually working against Jesus’ invitation to authentic transformation.  As person after person shared, they began to acknowledge that to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus, consumerism needed to be named not as a force to be harnessed; rather, it needed to be identified as an anti-biblical value system that had to be prophetically challenged.

Confession as a Catalyst

One of the dynamics that seemed to catalyze the group’s ability to be this open and achieve this kind of clarity is that Kent was able to confess how much he had been motivated by personal ambition and that being senior pastor of a large, successful church fed something in him.  As he spoke, things got really quiet.  Someone called attention to the fact that they were in the midst of a holy moment.  It was suggested that they pray—which they did.

Over the next few days, as they tried to characterize what God was saying to them in it all, it seemed clear that they were “being called to have authentic encounters with Jesus that would result in transformation and a contagious expression of our faith. There was a pervasive sense among all of us that to be faithful to what had occurred [among us], our church would have to change rather dramatically.  We were not being called to a gentle tweaking of some church programs.  This was going to be a major overhaul.”

A transforming church was being born.

© 2017.  Note: This article is a condensed version of the story of Oak Hills Church as told by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken in their book, Renovation of the Church (InterVarsity Press, 2011.)  Not to be reproduced without permission.


Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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Ruth, well written narrative of another journey through the Elysian Fields, the blissful abode of the virtuous dead. I love how our LORD’S kindness leads the hungering ones to The Life.

I am going to show my ignorance here…what are the Elysian Fields? 🙂

Very nice. However, the dangers of unbiblical and worldly “church growth” and “seeker sensitive” movements have been boldly and courageously, and yet lovingly been proclaimed by many teachers for decades. Their voices have not been silent. We just don’t always have the ears to hear. It’s akin to those who learn about the Reformation for the first time and think it a brand new revelation. How many modern day “prophets” have claimed that knowing God as Father is a rhema word from God for this day, when it was written for millennia. Back to the Word. Now that’s novel!

Such hopeful truth. It is so helpful to see how these things unfold in a single life and then ripple outward. I am encouraged to continue pursuing “more” and embracing confession and vulnerability. Thank you.

Thank you very much for sharing this. As a lay person in the church I have seen leadership take this road all too often. Doing church becomes more about quantity and people involved in the “ministries” then about the quantity and transformation of a believer.

Well said!

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