Last week, before heading out on a staff-wide retreat, our church staff got to sit with Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church near San Diego. It’s become a tradition to hear from another church’s pastor the morning of our January retreat, and this one was a special treat for sure.

So this week, I figured I’d connect things Larry talked about then – or talks about in his books – with college ministry. (As a staff, we digested a handful of his books – or book notes on those books – in preparation for his visit. Honestly, it was some really thought-provoking stuff.) While it may seem (today especially) like this exploration doesn’t explicitly connect with our field of collegiate ministry, the point is to take something from another area of ministry and apply it to ours. (We should be doing that all the time.)

When thinking about North Coast Church, it’s possible the first thing many ponder is their adherence to a certain sort of worship service specialization. Going far beyond the semi-standard “traditional” and “contemporary” options, North Coast has developed twelve different offerings scattered across six weekend time slots – from standard live settings, to a “Soul Gospel” venue, to “Last Call” (with extra worship following the message), to a setting without singing altogether.

Check out at least one of these pages to get the picture:

I’ve often told people about my visit – and their venues – and the usual (and natural) response is one of concern: Isn’t that a bit “consumeristic”? Or… giving in to people’s consumerism? Or something?

Even the people who show a bit of indignation seem to recognize they’re not exactly sure why they have a problem with the approach, but I too recognize that – when looked at one way – it could seem a bit squishy. So when we had the opportunity for Q&A last week, I took the chance to ask Osborne that very question (knowing that they likely hear it all the time).

His basic answer? Many people choose a church (“stay or run”) based on ambience and worship music. So they’ve chosen to offer options to fit with people’s (both new guests’ and regular attenders’) preferences for seeking the Lord together. Even those most concerned about appealing to preferences, he said, wouldn’t let someone else choose the church for them and their family – because everyone has reasons for their church choices.

In a helpful article they offer, Osborne further fleshes out some of their thinking, first contrasting venues with many churches’ “Overflow Rooms”:

An overflow room is a punishment for being late. A Video Venue is a siphon that pulls people from the live venue. It has a “reward” element. It also has its own live music, greeters, ushers and its own venue Pastor or leader.

 All of this (particularly, the live worship experience) keeps a Video Venue from feeling like the underdog to the “real service” in the sanctuary. So much so that at times we’ve had to close off the Video Venues and send latecomers into the live service – making the sanctuary the overflow room!

He also answers the question about whether this segments the church problematically:

With services on Saturday and Sunday we long ago lost the sense of being one big nuclear family. We more like an extended family that includes distant aunts and uncles.

Rather than fight the inevitable, we try to celebrate the fact that we are actually a series of different groups meeting at different times in different venues. In other words, we present these options and separate identities as a good thing, not something to be fought or overcome.

So that’s where I end. Before I make the connection to college ministry, while we all still have to ponder the big question (for us and everybody): How much “styling for preferences” do we think is okay, even in college ministry? Because our theology and ministry philosophy should come before our methods – lest we go against our own conscience as we build our ministries.

And of course, I’ll start connecting the dots to campus ministry tomorrow.