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Thoughts on Brian Zahnd and Word of Life Church

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about Prayer School I wanted to spend a little bit of time discussing Pastor Brian and Word of Life Church (WOLC) directly. As someone who has really enjoyed Brian’s teaching via podcast, one of the questions I went in to the weekend asking myself was “If I lived in St. Joseph, could I find myself attending this church?” And right behind it was asking like I have about many guys I’ve listened to in podcasts: “is this guy and his ministry legit?”

So, about the church

I had a couple opportunities over the weekend to get insight into the church. At the lunch hour on Friday we were invited to take a tour of the building. Then on Friday night we had the opportunity to attend their regular Friday night service.

The building itself seems to speak to the history of Zahnd and WOLC. The auditorium is huge – it seats somewhere north of 2000 people – and there is a separate multi-purpose auditorium where they hold Friday night worship. The other notable feature is “The Upper Room”, a (ground-level) prayer chapel made of Jerusalem limestone that seats about 50. (This is where the prayer school was held.)

When we got a tour, we got the full tour. We saw backstage areas, back hallways, tech rooms, utility closets, the pastor’s study – pretty much everything. We were told they have built the church in several sections over the years. The building has a quality of fading opulence which likely reflects Zahnd’s own personal move from a sort of flashier Pentecostalism (a role which you can easily enough picture him in) to a more eclectic Anabaptism. The tech room holds the same message – full of video production equipment that was state-of-the-art in the early 90’s and basically obsolete today. (At one point the church’s Sunday services were produced for cable TV – that was discontinued some years ago due to the cost.) It seems clear that Zahnd’s new focus and approach likely caused a significant drop in attendance and budget, and WOLC has had to do a sort of fiscal reset to go in the new direction.

About the man

With the rise and fall of so many celebrity preachers, I came in wondering whether Zahnd might be falling into the celebrity trap, too. On this count I was encouraged. On one hand, WOLC is clearly his church. He planted it over 30 years ago and continues to pastor it today. On the other hand, the other church leaders and members didn’t seem to have him on a pedestal. He comfortably mingled with the prayer school attendees during breaks and answered questions. He could seem aloof from time to time, but I’m going to attribute that to personality and the burden of teaching all weekend. (Two sessions Friday, sermon Friday night, session Saturday morning, different sermon on Sunday morning… I’d be tired, too!) While I didn’t have more than a passing conversation with him, I did have a lengthy talk with associate pastor Derek Vreeland, an energetic and slightly younger guy (probably mid 40s) who seemed to be very much his own man and not in Zahnd’s shadow.

The one place that made me just a bit uneasy was the pastor’s study. Compared to the rest of the staff offices that are nice but not fancy, Zahnd’s study is plush. Two rooms, fireplace, leather chairs, built-in bookshelves from floor to ceiling, fancy rug on the floor… don’t get me wrong, I was a little jealous, but it did seem somewhat out of character with the rest of the building. I’m guessing that it, too, is a relic of WOLC’s Pentecostal incarnation and maybe not reflective of their current priorities.

Could I worship there?

I recognize this is a very subjective question. I really appreciated the fact that they scheduled the prayer school so that attendees could also attend the Friday night service. (Many came from several hours away and stayed for the full weekend, attending the Sunday service as well.) It was, as Brian said, a chance to get “the full WOLC experience”.

The structure of the Friday night service wasn’t unfamiliar to me – the same sort of songs, announcements, greeting, and offering that you’d find in any typical evangelical church service. Sprinkled into the service, though, were some more ancient elements of liturgy – use of the Lord’s Prayer, a longer Gospel reading, a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, and corporate confession before Communion.

The music was pretty loud and the congregation still fairly charismatic – lots of hands in the air and people bouncing on the balls of their feet, clapping between songs. The songs themselves were (save for one) unfamiliar to me – I’m guessing they are original songs by the church worship leader. The content of the songs was really good, though focused differently than I’m used to. To say that Zahnd is not a fan of penal substitutionary atonement is an understatement, so you won’t find songs here about Jesus’ blood paying for your sins. There were many, though, about God’s love and mercy, and His desire for righteousness and justice. The songs were good, just different than what I’m used to.

The highlight of the service was the invitation to the Lord’s Supper after the sermon. Zahnd’s usual pattern is to wrap the sermon up in a way that leads to the table. He leads the congregation in corporate confession (straight from the BCP) and then invites the congregation to come forward and partake. There was one serving team for each section of seats, and ushers dismissed by rows to provide some order. I appreciated the egalitarian focus in the teams serving – for each seating section there was a man and a woman serving. In the middle section where I was seated, Pastor Brian’s wife Peri served the bread (“the body of Christ, broken for you”) and Brian held the cup (“the blood of Christ shed for you”). I’m also a huge fan of communion taken by congregants going forward rather than trays being served, both for the communal experience of going forward and for the powerful moment where someone looks you in the eye and reminds you that Christ’s body was broken for you.

So, could I attend WOLC? I don’t know. If I lived there and it were just me, I probably would. I’m not sure my wife would be a big fan, and have no idea what all they have for children’s ministries and the like. But just on the basis of the worship service? Yep.

Is this guy legit?

On one hand it seems arrogant of me to ask and answer this question. But I’m going to try to do so from a posture of humility, with the goal being to encourage those others who have become fans of Zahnd from afar and may have similar questions. Happily, I can report that from my (admittedly brief) experience at WOLC, Pastor Brian’s ministry appears to be legit and healthy. (To still be the pastor after 35 years and a major theological shift, he must be doing something right!) While the building itself holds vestiges of obsolete ministry priorities, the new ministry priorities seem well focused on important topics.

All in all, I was very encouraged by my weekend at Word of Life Church, and would love to go back sometime. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep Zahnd’s sermons cued up in my podcast app.

One Comment

  1. Gary Aronson Gary Aronson

    thanks sooo much!! Who else do you like to watch on videos? gary

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