By JOSEPH HARRIS, Director of Communications
Averaging more than 2,700 people in Sunday services, Asbury UMC in Tulsa is the Conference’s largest worshipping congregation. When I discovered Asbury was making radical changes in those services, I decided to go and find out why this growing and successful church is risking something new and different.
Asbury has spent months on sanctuary renovations and invested more than $1 million to install an innovative multimedia system called Environmental Projection (EP). Its capabilities immerse your senses in profound ways.
EP is the art of visually transforming the surroundings and architecture of a space from a blank palette into a digital masterpiece.
Asbury is able to captivate and educate the people in the pews through the use of projection technology, digitally painting the sanctuary walls with images and videos. Five projectors are utilized.
The technology stimulates the imagination and, combined with music, takes worshippers to another level. Bible imagery can be stretched across the entire front of the sanctuary!
The system also gives Asbury the ability to live stream worship to an unlimited Internet audience.
Additionally, the Tulsa church moved from five Sunday morning worship services to three: a chapel service at 8 a.m., traditional worship at 9:15 in the sanctuary, and modern worship at 11 in the sanctuary. (Previously Asbury held their modern service in a separate building, two sanctuary services, praise and worship in the fellowship hall, and the chapel service.)
When I recently attended the revisioned sanctuary services, the powerful EP imagery heightened the experiences for me.
Massive images washed across the sanctuary walls: stained-glass windows, a crown, cross, the Communion bread and cup, a historical painting. These as well as sky scenes with moving clouds and oversize key words lifted this worshipper to a new level of participation in the gathered community.
In the traditional service, the first thing I noticed was both the full orchestra and choir on stage. Asbury has modified the stage area for more flexibility. The traditional service used the EP capabilities discreetly and strategically to enhance the music and the message delivered by Senior Pastor Tom Harrison.
The 11 o’clock service drew a younger, more multigenerational audience, packed into every seat. The enthusiastic welcome embraced everyone in the sanctuary as well as all joining in through live streaming. The EP experience in this service was often spectacular, engulfing entire walls and the back of the sanctuary. A praise band led music, rather than a choir and orchestra, and you not only heard but also felt the sound, rising in glory to God. The worshippers seemed deeply engaged in everything that was happening.
Dwight Yoder, the church’s executive director, said the changes came about as a result of a comprehensive study for Asbury UMC, conducted by the nationally known BARNA Christian research group. The study found that worship attendance was beginning to flatten and identified signs of members looking inward more than pushing outward to reach others.
As part of a renewed outward focus, Yoder explained, leaders wanted Asbury to be more approachable and attractive in its commitment to "developing all generations for significant lives in Christ" over personal preferences.
Yoder said worship attendance has increased since the new system was implemented, compared to the previous year.
And desiring to be not only multigenerational but also intergenerational, Rev. Dr. Harrison challenged senior-citizen members to move beyond their comfort levels and show radical hospitality to the younger generations.
Harrison said, "We changed to reach more people, using Scripture and tradition as our foundations."
According to Lovett Weems, director of the acclaimed Lewis Center for Church Leadership, "Institutions must always guard against the temptation to turn inward and become ends in themselves." Rev. Dr. Weems also has been a consultant for the Conference’s corporate board.
In his book "Focus," Weems suggests two fundamental questions must be asked in every congregation.
• Why are United Methodist clergy less concerned with reaching young adults than are laity?
• Why are laity unwilling to make the changes to worship and budgets required to attract these same young adults?
Don Nations of DNA Coaching has said, "Leaders who want to see their churches grow need to prepare for a new role. They need a new set of skills if they are going to be successful. They need to understand the culture, be fluent in demographics, know how to share their faith, be effective at marketing, know the basics of social media, move beyond worship wars, and understand what is connecting with unchurched people today."
Asbury’s leadership wants the feel and experience of worship to be transformative for everyone who attends. They want both members and guests to anticipate going to worship each week and encountering each other and God in unique and meaningful ways.
This church has decided that standing still is not the way forward, no matter how successful the past. This new approach to dynamic worship that fully engages the minds, hearts, and souls of those in attendance will help secure Asbury’s future.
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