By Ronald E. Keener
Randy Frazee is, in the kindest use of the word, obsessed about the “one story.” Marketed as The Story, the one story, he says it puts key stories and select scriptures of the Bible in chronological order to read like a novel with 31 chapters. He started teaching it when he was teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, and it was his first message series when he came to Oak Hills Church in 2008.
At Willow he says “The people ate it up,” and at Oak Hills, where he works alongside long-time pastor and author Max Lucado, the church grew 23 percent. “The entire experience speaks the love language of everyone in the church, from the young to the old, from the seeker to the mature believer. People want to understand God’s Word. The Story helps lay the first foundation block: experience the one story God is telling.”
Frazee, 50, grew up in an unchurched home. He was invited by a neighbor two doors down who worked with his Dad to a summer Vacation Bible School. “I came to Christ and haven’t looked back,” he says.
Today he has a burden on his heart for biblical literacy, but The Story goes beyond that too, and Zondervan is bringing out this September his telling of The Heart of The Story, which is one of 43 integrated products built around The Story experience.
What started you on this “one story” journey?
I first saw The Story product in 2005 and knew immediately it was something I was searching for. Biblical literacy was a problem back in 2005 and it is even a bigger problem today. One of the foundational experiences folks need early in their spiritual journey is to understand the one story of the Bible — not just understand it but experience it for themselves.
Our Bibles are organized topically and it makes it very difficult for a person to capture the flow of the one story that God is telling. Unabridged chronological Bibles are great but not very accessible for the average church member and seeker. The Story puts key stories and select scriptures of the Bible in chronological order and it is designed to read like a novel with 31 chapters.
I knew if I could put the support resources around it – for children, students, adults – we could offer it up as a church campaign like none other.
When I came to Oak Hills in 2008 I pitched the idea to Max that we make this our first series. The church grew from about 7,200 to 8,856 when we went through The Story.
What is the state of biblical literacy in America?
The Story is not just about increasing biblical literacy but it really does an incredible job of doing just that. Many people see the Bible as a collection of hundreds of ancient, unrelated stories. The Story helps folks see how every story is unfolding to tell God’s one story of getting us back — from the Garden to Noah, from Israel to the coming of Jesus, from Jesus to the starting of the church, from the church back to the Garden again, on the new earth.
George Gallup said this back in early 1990s: “The churches in America face no greater challenge … than overcoming biblical literacy, and the prospects for doing so are formidable because the stark fact is, many Christians don’t know what they believe or why. Our faith is not rooted in scripture. We revere the Bible but don’t read it. Some observers maintain that the Bible has not in any profound way penetrated our culture.”
More than 20 years later the problem is now pandemic. The research is piling in and it is not very good news. This year alone we received the Pew Research report telling us that atheist and agnostics are more literate than Christians. In August a Barna study reports the significant decline in Bible reading among women—the group we always counted on in the past to stay in God’s Word.
Back in 1989 noted author Dallas Willard challenged that church leaders have no plan to deal with this crisis than our politicians have a plan to deal with our national debt. Look where our nation is at 22 years later on the national debt. The church is experiencing the same spiritual and biblical debt crisis.
The Story is a fully integrated assault on biblically literacy. But it is more than that. When one goes through this experience, they will be overwhelmed at the extent God went to get us back. They will fall in love with God like never before. They will see that they are a part of the unfolding of God’s story which is still being told.
Is there a long term plan for carrying this literacy program forward in America?
It is our prayer in partnership with Zondervan for this to become a part of a significant movement to restore God’s Word and God himself to a prominent place in our lives and culture. We have set a goal of 30,000 churches globally over the next five years.
And every movement is accompanied by music. How can one think of the civil rights movement without “We Shall Overcome.” The Story Experience is being accompanied by 18 original songs written by Nichole Nordeman and sung by the greatest artists of our times. We are approaching this initiative with prayer and the passion that it continues to catch fire. With God’s help we have come this far; with God’s help we will cross the finish line.
Rick Warren’s Saddleback is planning a biblical literacy program in January. Coincidence, or are you guys talking together about the total impact you can make?
The problem is so evident that I am surprised that everyone isn’t working on it. This is serious stuff. We have had some great conversations with Saddleback’s leadership on this initiative. We have no formal plans as of yet but I am a strong believer in joining forces for the sake of the call.
When you came to Oak Hills, you said you would be “taking the congregation to another level.” Explain?
I didn’t come to the Oak Hills Church in a state of crisis. Oak Hills has a wonderful 50-year history of being united in mission and making the necessary changes to maintain an effective witness in the community and world. My goal was not to help them rebuild, which is the case with so many churches, but to help them “go to the next level.”
Particularly, Max envisioned a congregation that would be more outward oriented but didn’t have a particular strategy to pull it off. My job is to bring that biblical strategy in moving the congregation into the community to deposit the presence of Christ.
How do you and Max split out responsibilities, and what is Max’s health these days?
Max and I split the pulpit teaching 50/50. When Max is off, he is writing. When I am off, I am leading the church.
Max’s heart issue led to the opening of the position. However, after I already accepted the job, Max went to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment.
He is now in excellent health. He’s running and exercising and trying his best to beat me in golf.
What does it mean to be “in partnership” with Max?
I’m the Senior Minister and Max is the Minister of Preaching by title. The congregation and staff need this clarity of roles. However, Max and I realize that together, in partnership, we are better and can do more than we could do on our own. We pray together, consult each other on decisions, and approach the congregation as a unified front. I wish all leaders could have this kind of partnership. It gives me life and margin. It is really healthier for the congregation.
Does the congregation/leadership have a strategic plan; what are your goals and vision?
Yes, we have a written strategic plan. We collaborated on it for the entire first year I was at Oak Hills. It was voted on by our 40 elders. In my second year we realigned the staff, elders and financial resources to the strategic plan. In my third year, we launched phase one. The plan calls for seven years to stand up the plan. So far so good.
Our Mission: We are the Body of Christ called to be Jesus in every neighborhood in San Antonio and beyond.
Is the church multi-site; any goals for growth and expansion?
Yes, we are multi-site. We have five campuses with another planned to launch this year. We are also aggressively pursuing a house church network to be linked into strategy and central support resources [see sidebar]. Our goal is not mere numerical growth. We are very committed to place-based community. We really want people worshipping in the community they live verses driving 30 to 50 minutes to one mega-campus.
So we are shifted from “mega church” to “mega vision.”
Max and I knew of each other, but we didn’t know each other. It is amazing that our hearts have so quickly bonded together. I attribute that to Max’s incredibly humble spirit and walk with God.
What is it like to work alongside such a well respected pastor — a little intimidating?
Max not only has a great reputation in San Antonio that he has garnered over 20 years, but Reader’s Digest voted him “America’s Pastor.” That is a little intimidating, isn’t it? I really don’t see it that way. I see how much more influence we can have because of Max’s presence.
I was a senior pastor for 16 years before I left and went to Willow Creek as a teaching pastor. I really didn’t have a strong desire to be the senior guy again. However, it turns out that my vision and communication gifts best suit me to be in this role, so I do it out of good stewardship vs. a desire for the position. I so celebrate Max’s accomplishments and gifts and he does the same for me. It is truly a gift from God.
Back to The Story again, how have your measured “increased spiritual depth” in the church from it? Are you using sophisticated surveys of the church before and after?
For The Story experience, Zondervan did focus groups before and after looking for a variety of measures beyond attendance. This is where we received our most objective feedback.
This fall we are launching a new online instrument called the Christian Life Profile Assessment tool that I worked on with George Gallup Jr. It will not only give us an intense snapshot of where our congregation is at spiritually but will lead them to a customized spiritual growth plan for their own lives. I believe this, in addition to The Story, is another important tool for the church to put in place to turn the tides of our current spiritual condition.
You’re said you sense “the buzz of excitement in the congregation and the community” over The Story experience?
I compare reading the Bible like looking at art. When you go to the Louvre in Paris you look at exquisite works of art by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, da Vinci and others. While each painting is telling its own story, they are not connected together. When you go into the Sistine Chapel in Rome, however, you are viewing the paintings of more than 300 characters all woven together on the ceiling to tell one story. God wants us to read the Bible like we view the art in the Sistine Chapel, not the Louvre. Most folks have never seen “the mural” of God’s story.
So, you have to first see the one story. Then, you must realize that the story isn’t finished yet. The grand finale described in Revelation 21-22 is yet to come. So, God’s story is still unfolding and he is still using his people to tell the story just like he did in the days of Noah, Moses, David and Paul. When you discover you are a character and have the choice to align your life to the one story God is telling, it is quite overwhelming and fills our life with purpose.
How do you look today at the church at large? Where are we headed?
I believe there is something brewing in the U.S. regarding the church. All the negative news about declining church attendance and biblical literacy is the kind of crisis that is needed for a seismic shift. My hunch is that the church is going to look more like Acts 2:42-47 in the days to come — back to some of the simple, organic, viral-like roots we once experienced. Technology is forcing that upon us in a mighty way. I am leading that way and hope to see it in full bloom in my lifetime. I see it as all Good News for the church.
How do you want to be remembered when your active ministry comes to an end?
“Randy really believed in Jesus and the mission of the church. He taught about it, he wrote about it, but most of all he lived it in his own home and in his neighborhood.” www.OakHillsChurchsa.org
Frazee’s three years at Willow Creek
How do you describe a church like Willow to those who have not been there or seen it?
Willow has had more effect on pastors in church leadership in my era than any other church I know. The passion of the church, particularly in the early days, was very unique and contagious.
What are you most satisfied about in your time there?
Without question, it was what happened in the little neighborhood of Barrington I lived in with my family for three years. People came to Christ, Christians banded together to help the widows, the single moms and each other. They are still gathering today and tears come to my eyes when I think of them.
What do you say to people who might ask, “What is it like to work with Bill Hybels?”
Crazy thing, Bill was out two of the three years I worked there. One year he was focused on international work and the second year he was recovering from an illness. I describe Bill to others as a “Martin Luther” or a “William Wilberforce.” These men thought big and were not very conventional. –RF
Bringing church home
Multi-site, video venues have helped us see that people are willing to worship and gather in a different location without a live teacher. Part of this willingness is a driving value to have a location closer to where they live which opens the opportunity for deeper connections with folks. Good preaching can draw a person to a church, but good relationships are what sustains their involvement and helps them to grow.
If we have cracked the code on multi-site, video venues in purchased or rented facilities, why would we not open up the home or apartment clubhouse for the same experience? We are not talking about a small group, but a church—an official site of the Oak Hills Church.
Technology enables us to pull this off like never before. Through the use of something as economical as a Roku box, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, we can deliver not only sermons but interactive training and resources for a neighborhood house church of 20 to 30 people to fulfill the entire mission and strategy of the Oak Hills Church.
We are excited about this for four reasons:
- This is how the church was started, in homes around a meal. It is in our heritage and DNA.
- It is extremely economical and therefore reproducible.
- With the noticeable decline in overall church attendance in America and research showing that our kids are now leaving the church when they graduate with no intent on returning, the return to this old paradigm just might find the traction it has yet to find in America.
- There are no geographic boundaries. Anyone who wants to start an Oak Hills house church, because they embrace the mission and values, can do so regardless of where they live, from San Antonio to India. –RF
“To understand the Bible, you need bifocal lenses, because two perspectives are involved. The Lower Story, our story, is actually many stories of men and women interacting with God in the daily course of life. The Upper Story is God’s story, the tale of his great, overarching purpose that fits all the individual stories together like panels in one unified mural.”
— Randy Frazee, The Heart of the Story: God’s Masterful Design to Restore His People.