"An EPIC Church for EPIC Times"
by Tom Goodman
August 17, 2006
Sociologist Leonard Sweet says we need to be an EPIC church, because we live
in EPIC times. In his writings, the word “EPIC” stands for four characteristics
of our time. These characteristics are culture-wide, and mark those who
attend our church as well as those we’re appealing to. Sweet says that
a relevant ministry today will be—
- E – Experiential.
- Sweet says,
“Each one of us is a . . . wrestler with God. The encounter, the experience,
is the message.” We want to be moved, not just informed. We want to
do something tangible and make a difference. For example, given choices
of where to spend our time and money, we’re as likely to sign up for mission
trips where we’ll sweat as to go to conferences where we’ll study.
- P – Participatory.
- We want to be part of the process, not detached observers: In worship we
want to kneel or raise our hands, we respond to responsive readings, and
we don’t just want a trained group to sing to us—we want to sing with them.
This is an indication that we want, in Sweet’s words, “interactive, immersive,
‘in your face’ participation in the mysteries of God.”
- I – Image-driven.
- Film clips, story telling, meaningful church logos, and symbolism: These
are power tools of church work today. For example, the Lord’s Supper is
becoming more meaningful—and frequent—in many churches.
- C – Connected.
- We want to interact with others, to know and be known. Sweet says, “The
transiency of the culture requires that our community building and hospitality
be more aggressive, not less; more premeditated, not haphazard.” Increasingly,
I’m seeing people connect and identify with a church—even informally calling
it “my church”—before they make a profession of faith. As I’ve said before,
in many cases “belonging precedes believing
I think he’s
pegged our culture—those within our church and those we hope our church will
attract. But we have to be careful how to respond to these observations.
We tend to respond to these kinds of observations like a pendulum—swinging
from one extreme to the other. Instead, we need balance:
People want and need experience, but that doesn’t mean there’s
no longer a place to educate people in our faith. We need to
have “faith” (experience) and know “the faith” (education).
People want and need participation (like congregational singing),
but that certainly doesn’t mean we have no place for presentation (like
prepared ensemble and choral pieces). In fact, any good presentation will
provoke my heart’s participation even if my body or voice is not joining in.
People want and need images, but that doesn’t mean they no longer
need instruction in the propositions of the faith. For example,
Jesus commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper, but he also told us to instruct.
Every age, generation, and culture will need both images and instruction.
People want and need to be connected to other people in accountability,
but we’ll fail them if we don’t teach people what we used to call competency of
the soul, which means that each of us have the right and the responsibility
of developing our own relationship with God.
So, we need to be an EPIC church, but apparently we have a choice:
In Sweet’s writings, “EPIC” means “experience, participation, image-driven,
and connected.” But it can also mean “education, presentation, instruction,
and competency of the soul.” Which definition will we choose?
You know my answer: Yes!
If our church has emphasized education at the expense of experience,
for example, the solution is not to drop education for the exclusive pursuit
of experience. Instead, we need to consciously include both. The same goes
for the other extremes: participation-versus-presentation, images-versus-information,
and connectivity-versus-competency. If you’ll just change the “versus” to
an “and,” you’ll find the characteristics of a great church!
This article first appeared in LeaderLines March 4, 2004. To review our
LeaderLines archive, click here.
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