Interview with Bill Easum
Pastors often turn to church growth strategists to help them develop a plan for their church. These specialized consultants can make a significant impact on every program in the church, including the music ministry. William Easum has been at the forefront of the church growth movement for a number of years. The author of several books on the subject, he has the ear of many church leaders. This interview contains some of his thoughts regarding music and worship.
Hinson: Tell us a little about your background in ministry.
Easum: I’ve been in ministry 30 years or so, pastoring, mainly, until 6 years ago when we started 21st Century Strategies. I’ve pastored four churches, serving the last one, Colonial Hills United Methodist in San Antonio, for 24 years. While there, we went from 35 people to a little over 1,100 in worship.
Hinson: When you moved from Colonial Hills into the work you’re doing now, what moved you into that? Why did you come out of the local church?
Easum: People kept asking me to come show them what we did. At the time, Colonial Hills was one of the most cutting edge Methodist churches there was. What we were doing was setting membership standards, offering variety and different forms of worship, focusing on lay ministries and social justice concerns, and other things like that. As the inquiries increased, it finally reached a point where we had to start charging to recoup our expenses. The last two years at Colonial Hills I was gone 200 days a year. At that point, the Lord spoke through my wife and said , “You must choose!” So we talked about it and decided to start a ministry, 21st Century Strategies. That was six years ago. In November 1999 we changed the name to Easum, Bandy & Associates when Tom Bandy became a partner.
Hinson: So, describe Easum, Bandy & Associates for us.
Easum: First of all, our mission is to provide the resources, services, and networks to equip church (leaders) for ministry in the 21st century. We have nine consultants, with five being full-time. We have one office in the United States and one in Canada. The name change from 21st Century Strategies to Easum, Bandy & Associates reflects the merging of two consulting firms: the one here and the one in Canada headed by Thomas G. Bandy. Tom and I wrote the Growing Spiritual Redwoods book. He’s been a consultant numerous years. We’ve known each other a good while and decided to merge so the organization could grow beyond me. We’re pretty much virtual, and our entire organization is moving toward electronic. You can download all our resources from our website (www.easumbandy.com ). A lot of our material is free. Others you can purchase.
Hinson: In your book, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers, you say that congregations exist for those who are not part of it. Whenever you get worship leaders together, particularly musicians in a room, they want to know what the main purpose of the church is – worship or evangelism?
Easum: That’s what everybody’s asking.
Hinson: So, are we worshipers first or workers first?
Easum: I think it’s a nonsequitur question. By that I mean I think the only people who are asking that question are people who have come out of the clockwork-industrialized, institutionally-oriented world. A first century Christian would not ask those questions, and here’s what I mean by that. The believer and the nonbeliever were all together in the first century worship. Worship was everything. Evangelism was everything. You couldn’t separate worship and evangelism. The lines of separation were not as neatly drawn. You didn’t go to a place to worship. Worship was in people’s homes; worship was on the street. What was Paul doing at Areopagus? Was it worship or was it evangelism? He was preaching; he was sharing the good news. We’ve just gotten so compartmentalized. If you think organically instead of institutionally, there’s a whole different set of questions that begin to emerge.
Hinson: So we’re not really asking the right question when we ask, “What’s more important: worship or evangelism?”
Easum: I don’t think so. Institutional Christians fight a lot of battles that are verbal‚ that really don’t make a lot of difference. If people are being brought to Christ, what does it matter if it’s in worship or evangelism? Here are the real questions: Is our worship spreading the good news? Are people coming to know God? Is our worship getting people in place to say thank you God? Is our worship a place where nonbelievers are seeing people give thanks to God? Is our worship a place where people don’t come to get their batteries charged, but the come to get discharged, giving thanks? Our people expect to get something from worship. That’s not worship. Worship is giving; it’s not receiving. We’ve got worship to far to horizontal and not nearly enough vertical.
Hinson: So we’re concerned too much about how we relate to each other in the worship setting?
Easum: Yes. Otherwise, why would you do announcements? Announcements don’t belong in worship. That isn’t worship, that’s hawking your wares. Jesus drove people out of the temple on that one issue. Our study shows that the more announcements churches do, the more likely they are declining. We’re seeing in most of the newer churches, if they do announcements, they’re up on a screen when you come in. When worship starts, you worship.
Hinson: Is the musical style in worship still a significant factor in drawing unchurched people into the church building?
Easum: If there are people coming to church who aren’t Christians, which is getting fewer and fewer even in the thriving churches, they come in the back or side door. Today there are very few first-time people just walking in off the street. They’ve been in the small groups; they’ve been in ministry; they’ve been in mission; they’ve been in some type of walk-with-me relational type of evangelism.
Hinson: What you’re saying is that worship is really not the big evangelistic tool that some folks are talking about. In other words, we’ve got to change our worship style so we can get them in. But that’s not the way they’re coming in. They’re still coming in through the small group, say a Sunday School class or ministry.
Easum: They’re really not even coming in as much through Sunday School any more. I see the Sunday School losing a lot of its power and punch because people don’t come to the church any more. Truly unchurched people do not come to church any more. Church has to go to them. Generally speaking, the only people we see coming to the church on their own are people who grew up in the church, who lapsed, and are now coming back.
But every year there’s a higher percentage of people in their 20’s who have never been inside the door of a church. And that’s the primary target, primary market, primary people, primary sheep out there, whatever word you want to use, that haven’t been evangelized. It’s a whole other group of people that have never seen the church don’t have the foggiest idea what it’s about. They don’t know Jesus from Moses, have never seen a Bible, have never opened one. And the deep South is no longer immune because of migration patterns.
People are moving all over this country. Very few people stay put. The south is still the fastest growing area in the country. People are coming from the North, the West, and other countries, bringing a whole different dimension. The Deep South is really no longer the Deep South, just as the North East is not as much the North East as it used to be. Everything is in flux.
Hinson: All this makes a big difference to the church when they’re reaching out. In your books you talk about worship being culturally relevant. There’s concern among some worship leaders that if you secularize too much you’re going to lose something somehow.
Easum: Yes, and that is another question which would only be asked by institutionally-oriented people. Here’s what I mean by that. A lot of music, even some of the best music in our churches, comes out of secular surroundings. Some songs in hymnals have their derivative out of the bars, all the way back to Martin Luther and the Wesleys. If you look at every religious revival, a change in music style has been part of that experience. And in the world we’re moving toward, one of the key differences between it and the world I was born into is the loss of the war between the secular and sacred. If we look back to the Hebrew understanding of life, they didn’t see sacred and secular; it was all sacred ‚ “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1). Western Protestantism and Greek thought has pretty much separated body and soul, as well as earth
and heaven. I think we’re getting back to that organic view of life, so that if God could speak through Baalim’s ass or through Cyrus the Persian, God is not limited to speak through sacred music. I’ve seen churches that use secular music. In fact, you’ve got one in your convention: University Baptist in Waco. When that church started, all they used was secular music. A whole lot of Pearl Jam ( a contemporary rock band). I can’t stand Pearl Jam. But if it’s bringing people to Christ, who am I to say you can’t use it?
To me, there’s only one good kind of music and that’s music that brings people to Christ. I don’t care if Fannie Crosby wrote it ‚ if it doesn’t do that it isn’t any good.
Hinson: Some would say that hymns are more cerebral and people are not cerebral any more.
Easum: People are processing knowledge more through the heart, through the experience, rather than the head. Today, you get to the head through the heart instead of getting to the heart through the head. That’s one of the big shifts that I’ve seen in my lifetime. What we’re seeing now that’s really going to upset some musicians, as well as some pastors, is that many of the youth are being reached more through pictures than through music, or a combination of the two. It’s like MTV on fast-forward with the sound turned down. This is as big a shift as with the boomers. With the boomers you couldn’t have a good movie without a sound track. Today you can’t have a good movie without visual effects and a sound track. It’s a fun time to be in ministry if your not stuck on one way to do ministry. If you’re stuck on one way to do it, it’s going to be a horrendous time. It will scare you to death.
Hinson: In your book, Dancing with Dinosaurs, you suggest that if churches only improve what they’re doing, they will die. You also say that traditional churches which thrive in the 21st century will initiate radical changes before the year 2001. Is that still a good date out there, or have you changed your mind in those assumptions in any way?
Easum: Whether it’s 2001 or 2005, I’m still saying that the window is closing.
Hinson: So, there’s a window of opportunity, but it’s still short.
Easum: It’s closing. The boomers have been the mainstay of mainline growth. In another 10 years most of them are going to be over 50. You don’t reach many people over 50. They’ve made up their mind by then. And now you’re faced with these earring people.
Hinson: Earring people?
Easum: Earrings: in the tongues and belly buttons and the ears.
Hinson: Oh yes!
Easum: There were a couple of pastors at an event recently who had earrings. Nothing wrong with that except it does signal the emergence of a new breed. And their kids are even more separate from the generations in front of them. They’re growing up with the Internet, which will change everything about worship.
Hinson: How will the Internet change everything about worship?
Easum: There are churches now that use the Internet during worship to bring people from other countries into their worship service. To use the Internet in the Sunday School class, to use it as an evangelism tool in chat rooms – this will be the way of life in 20 more years for literate people. And when somebody says a person is illiterate, they will not refer to the Internet. They will not be referring to books 20 years from now. Just like the Reformation, literate people could read. Prior to the reformation, that really wasn’t a big issue because nobody had books. The primary difference in the Reformation and now is that Reformation people moved from one faith to another. Today people are moving from multiple faiths or no faith to a faith. What used to be Catholic and Protestant Reformation is now a his-hers-ours-mine-yours-all-mixed-up faith, multiple faiths, or no faith. But it’s not a movement from a faith to another faith – it’s multiple.
Hinson: It’s a more difficult transition.
Easum: Much more complicated. You almost have to know a variety of different faith journeys in order to be in evangelistic ministry these days. You have to be far more tolerant of other viewpoints without losing the centrality of your own experience. It’s a balancing act.
Hinson: Michael Slaughter (pastor, Ginghamsburg Church, Tipp City, Ohio) says that we’re in a change like the Reformation in that it’s going to so change the way our society communicates and processes information that in the next 10 or 12 years it’s going to really have an impact.
Easum: I’ve been working with the Ginghamsburg church ‚ probably the most technologically oriented church in America. It’s been a remarkable process to watch their changes.
Hinson: Let me focus this to music ministers because I know that’s largely who is reading this article. You say that music ministers are sometimes a hindrance ‚ that we can be our own worst enemy at times. So to help music ministers, what do you think we need to do?
Easum: Well, first of all, I think music folks need to know that right now, at this point in time, they are either as important or more important than the pastor. We are at a point in time where you can share the gospel almost better through music than you can through the spoken word. You can’t have a good movie without a sound track. You don’t make money without a good sound track. Even if you don’t need the sound, you’ve got to have a good sound track. When you go to a good movie, the music is always louder than the people speaking. The background noises are always louder then people speaking. People go to a movie to get an experience. People come to church, not to hear the Word of God, but to experience the immediate presence of God. This it a major shift. I tell pastors when you find a worship leader who understands that the role of music is to convey the gospel and is willing to use even “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life” to convey that message, then you can’t pay that person enough because a sermon by itself is laying an egg. If you could say it all with words, it wasn’t worth saying. That’s one of the key phrases in the Growing Spiritual Redwoods book. In the Reformation, it was no longer good enough to use oral traditions. You soon had to learn how to use a Bible rather than tell people about the Bible. People had to learn how to read it and pastors had to go through that too, because if you think about it prior to the Reformation, very few people had access to Bibles. So, we’re experiencing that same thing today.
Music directors need to know that they hold in their hands at least half of the ability of the church to proclaim the good news. To pastors I would say that now it’s a team-effort, and I’d say it to music people as well. I don’t see pastors and music people working as a team. Now if you go to Ginghamsburg, the church mentioned earlier, that’s a model of team ministry where the production team lives together almost for four days to craft that experience. Michael doesn’t preach a sermon any more. He and the music people, the drama people, and the graphic people create an experience. It’s all interwoven.
Hinson: And their worship planning is on a very short timetable.
Easum: Three days, basically.
Hinson: They plan worship kind of like a news crew gets up a documentary?
Easum: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and they do it Saturday. They live and breathe it.
Hinson: What we hear so much about in worship planning is that you have to get six weeks to a year out. But these folks put together a team that’s doing it just completely the opposite.
Easum: I used to make that mistake, too. Six months . You see the difference between a world that I grew up and the one Michael has grown up in is that mine was a slow-moving type, so six months was no big deal. Nothing much changed. Now you buy a computer and it’s out of date the day you buy it. So to think in terms of putting together sermon outlines six months in advance means not having any idea if your material will be timely by six months from now. So Michael works on the real time mindset. Everything now is in real time. And therefore, worship has got to get into real time, and that means fresher music, music that comes out of what’s happening in peoples’ lives today. The key is: When people come to worship you want them to have a safe experience where they can hear the dangerous gospel. You don’t want a dangerous place to hear a safe gospel.