A Conversation With Sally Morgenthaler (Sep-Dec 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
September – December, 2006

Fred: I want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. You’ve been a personal inspiration to me. Your thoughtfulness, your leadership, and your writings have influenced me through the years and I’m certain hundreds if not thousands of others.

Sally: Thank you, Fred. It’s very encouraging knowing that my work has been helpful to you and hopefully others.

Fred: I was certainly surprised when I went to Sacramentis.com to peruse the site and it was gone. What’s up with that?

Sally: There are seasons of effectiveness, and Sacramentis had its time. As a site whose focus was to educate and offer resources for leaders on faithful worship while reframing for a new culture, it was a success. Although there are few sites filling the worship education gap, there are now many that are stocking at least the kinds of video resources we use to offer.

As Sacramentis served its purpose in its time, I have also recognized the need to shift my focus. I have been known primarily for my work on worship, and I am grateful for the many opportunities I was given to work with local churches as well as the global Church. I don’t take for granted that I have been trusted with a certain kind of influence. I hope I have stewarded that influence well. Now I am moving on to other areas that I think are more pressing than what goes on inside our four walls.

Fred: I am excited about the new site trueconversations.com. When do you anticipate that site going live?

Sally: The site’s focus is still morphing. So I don’t have a date for you. People who know me realize that I tend to let things marinate and “age” before going public. That certainly was the way Worship Evangelism came about. It’s a matter of living one’s way into a new work, instead of just left-braining something into existence. I like to let my inklings and thoughts take shape in the midst of interactions with others. That takes time.

Fred: Being someone who has been involved in the “development of the Emerging conversation,” I’m wondering what your sense is about the growth of new “conversation-conversant” churches. We’re all aware that the conversation is a “hot topic” for bloggers and such, but to what degree do you see this stuff working itself out in the expression of new local communities of faith?

Sally: At its core, our faith is all about conversation. God as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer is essentially God expressed in community. And the divine dialogue expressed throughout Scripture is a model for what we are to be in God’s presence and with each other. And since conversation is the primary conduit for relationship, it only makes sense that the Church would place it as a high priority. To know and to be known, is that not a primary human longing? Psychologists certainly attest to that. But the biblical record attests to that as well.

Yet, according to Joseph Myers, in The Search to Belong, the Church doesn’t really converse very well. He contends that there are four levels of human interaction, of “conversation.” From least intimate to most, they are: public, social, personal, and intimate. The reality is, the church only operates marginally well in one area, and that is public. Even at that level, our public events and services are simply a collection of privatized experiences. They are usually not as communal as a football game. There, the jumbo-tron acts as presider and prompts us to high-five each other or yell at each other across the stadium.

Ironically, the Church thinks it’s also good at intimacy. When we can’t even do public well, why would we think that we’d be good at the last level? Go figure. Joe Myers points out that human beings can only be truly intimate with spouses and significant others. He contends that what most people are looking for when they join a small group is not intimacy, but interaction on levels two and three, the social and the personal. (An example of the social conversation would be, “Wow, did you hear that Ed’s property is being courted by Wal-Mart?” The more personal would sound like, “We just found out that my youngest son has a kidney problem.”) True intimacy goes a big step further from the personal. It is the ultimate in vulnerability—an emotional nakedness, if you will. With spouses, it includes physical nakedness. No wonder people don’t exactly run to the sign-up table when we have Small Groups Sunday! What we have created in most of our small groups is faux-intimacy, and it sets us up for failure on a grand scale.

What I hope to see are churches that offer vibrant engagement-conversation-at the public, social, and personal levels. The “third-places” in our culture: (coffee shops), bars, blogs, chat rooms, and neo-village malls . . . these places are now leading the way, helping people return from the long-dark night of modern anonymity. If conversation was modeled first in the Person of God, it is time for the Church to recover the interactivity of a relational faith.

Fred: In your “End and Beginning Statement,” you said, “The Sacramentis team will be focusing on the radically different kind of leadership it will take to transform our congregations from destinations to conversations, from services to service, and from organization to organism.” Can you give us a preview?

Emergent Manifesto of HopeSally: I’ve written on this subject in the soon-to-be released book, Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker, April 2007). In essence, the next form of leadership will need to break the Church’s dual addictions to power and passivity. Power and passivity have taken a variety of forms since the institutionalization of Christianity about 1700 years ago. But whether in the form of priests or pastors, we still view leadership as “the great man with the plan” and follower-ship with paying staff to do the ministry for us. Leadership in this century will be more about convening conversation: what do the people see that needs to happen in their neighborhoods?

What gifts do they have for meeting the needs around them? How can we gather people around a common vision and then release them to do what they’re really good at doing? Business visionaries like Thomas Friedman, Max Depree, William Bergquist, Jim Collins, Marcus Buckingham, Margaret Wheatley, Stephen Covey—they’ve been predicting the populist, flattened world for a long time, and have been trying to orient leaders toward a radical collaboration that has conversation at its core. Even if you’re not into business theory, you might be into Jesus. I know he’s been labeled a CEO, but I have a hard time seeing that in light of Philippians 2:5-11. Somehow, a CEO “emptying himself, becoming a servant, even unto death” just doesn’t cut it. As we’ve seen with Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, Hewlett Packard-corporate America ad nauseum—CEOs typically don’t exactly move into the neighborhood and become one of us. But that’s what true leadership takes.

Fred: How do you go about communicating the gospel to someone in 2006?

Sally: Let’s rephrase the question: “How can we embody the gospel to someone in 2006?” Here’s an idea. Go to your local public school. Talk to a counselor, to a few teachers. Ask them about the kids who are failing. Ask them what you could do to help. Ask them if they need more tutors. Or if you might be able to involve these kids in your business a couple of times a week. If that’s too intimidating, give yourself six months to discover life on your own street. Who are these people? Have I met them? How can I initiate a simple conversation, and not with the intent on winning them to Christ, but with the intent of co-journeying with them—of learning from them and in some small way, doing life together. Give yourself six months to have one conversation with someone from every house on your block, or every apartment on your floor, and see what happens. I think that when we actually get into relationship, when we actually engage with real people, simply to engage—we will embody the gospel. They will see us for who we are. And that may be scary. Because, who are we, really?

Fred:There should be nothing more important to the Christ-follower than glorifying their God and their worship of Him. But sometimes I wonder if somewhere and somehow we confused the expression of a lifestyle with its purpose. Any thoughts on this?

Sally: Corporate worship should be the overflow of life-worship. Romans 12:1 drives Acts 2:42-47. Corporate worship shouldn’t replace our engagement in God’s world, but should reflect it. But the fact is, in way too many cases, we have replaced a transforming presence in our communities with a program. It may be a program of the best Christian entertainment in town. It may be the best praise and worship in town. We may excel at healing and prayer services. We may be the church of ecstatic prophecy. But if our primary worship isn’t outside the walls, whatever we’re doing inside is still a replacement . . . regardless of how we label it and dress it up.

“Because the typical American church is so out of touch with the surrounding population.” We may not give a rip about the unemployed, the homeless kids, the shut-ins without money for heat, the suburban fifteen year olds disconnected from any parental or adult influence. But you can sure come visit us and find God. Give me a break. If we spent more time glorifying God outside the building, we wouldn’t worry so much about the style and quality of the production on Sunday. We wouldn’t depend on worship as our marketing tool. We’d be way too busy celebrating God’s work in the lost and hurting world that is just at our doorstep.


The following is an excerpt form the chapter Sally Morganthaler contributed to the book Emergent Manifesto of Hope:

Female Christ-followers who possess true leadership skills do not need to lead because it is politically correct. Neither do they need to lead to assuage what is most often a millimeter-thin veneer of male guilt. Women with leadership abilities need to lead because, more often than not, they get this new world and they get it really well. In a world weary of hyper individualism, top-down systems, pedestal personalities, and I-win-you-lose dichotomies, the natural feminine resonance with the flattened world—conversation, collaboration, participation, influence, presence, collective intelligence, and empowerment—has raised the cultural bar for what true leadership is and does.

Leadership in a truly flattened world has no precedents. Never in the history of humankind have individuals and communities had the power to influence so much, so quickly. The rules of engagement have changed, and they have changed in favor of those who leave the addictive world of hierarchy to function relationally, intuitively, systemically, and contextually. Male leaders—yes, even the male leaders of entrepreneurial churchdom—know this at their core. They realize they’re playing a deadly end game and that the hierarchical clock is ticking. More than that, however, they have a deep knowledge of another way of being, though they may rail against it, retreating for comfort into cardboard cutout versions of both leadership and masculinity. But if they’re honest, they know they have tasted the new essence that is required of leadership now. They know it in the recesses of their boyhood memories and in the experience of intimacy, art, music, story, film, hospital prayers, and all that human beings do best, together. Those who are up to the challenge of the new world will draw on that deep knowledge. And they will look to the marginalized—including women—not as necessary evils in a politically correct world, but as their own leaders, mentors, and guides. The brightest will finally dump the myth of the great man, park their egos, and follow the one Great Man into the relinquishment of power.

excerpt from Emergent Manifesto of Hope ©2006; Leadership in a Flattened World; Grassroots Culture and the Demise of the CEO Model; Sally Morgenthaler ; pgs. 185-186

An Emergent Manifesto of Hope represents a coming together of divergent voices into a conversation that pastors, students, and thoughtful Christians can now learn from and engage. This unprecedented collection of writings includes articles by some of the most important voices in the emergent conversation, including Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Sally Morgenthaler, and Joe Myers. It also introduces some lesser known but integral players representing “who’s next” within the emerging church. The articles cover a broad range of topics, such as spirituality, theology, multiculturalism, post-colonialism, sex, evangelism, and many others. Anyone who wants to know what the emerging church is all about needs to start here.

Sally Morgenthaler’s contribution to Emergent Manifesto of Hope is “Leadership in a Flattened World” and it just may be the best chapter in the book. Sally is recognized as an innovator in Christian practices worldwide. Her prophetic role among church leaders and local congregations continues to increase in denominational scope and impact, as her work now broadens into the arena of new forms of leadership and the untapped potential of women. Known best for her book, Worship Evangelism (Zondervan, 1998), Morgenthaler became a trusted interpreter of postmodern culture and a guide to the crucial shifts the North American church must make if it is to become a transforming presence within pre-Christian communities. In 2005, Morgenthaler launched a unique retreat model for women entitled “Conversations,” where discussions center around the female advantage in a flattened-culture relationship.New Wineskins

If you enjoyed this interview, you might also enjoy John Ogren’s 2002 dialogue Conversations on Worship with Sally Morgenthaler.

Fred Peatross blogs at [Abductive Columns].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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