Interview with Jeffrey Szakonyi

A native Chicagoan, thirty-six year old Jeffrey Szakonyi got saved at Willow Creek Church nine years ago out of a profligate lifestyle. While serving in various capacities at the seeker-sensitive church, he felt called to ministry; and in 1990 took a personal missions trip to Haiti. He later journeyed to Belleview, WA, where he accepted his first vocational position-youth director at a congregation affiliated with Willow Creek. His great desire was to do "Generation X" ministry. While on vacation in Salt Lake City in 1996, he met Wade Smith at a party after church service at Park City Presbyterian. Jeffrey subsequently raised a year's worth of support in order to assist Wade in the new church planting venture in Utah's capital. In Jeffrey's words, he "sort of co-pastored with Wade." Now that the church is without a regular pastor, Jeffrey has become, in his words, "sort of pastor de facto." It has resulted in a "huge load on my shoulders."

The situation in which New Song finds itself is unenviable, with the organizing pastor being forced to leave after being disciplined for adultery. As Mr. Szakonyi puts it, "We are a very wounded church"; adding that it is very unlikely that a young church would survive such a blow. However, he states that the church is doing just that. "We're just trying to tap into what God's doing. . . . We're just grabbing onto Christ." The de facto pastor maintains that "the church is so grace-centered we didn't lose a lot of people."

Currently the church has 150 to 180 in attendance. But the transience of those to whom the church ministers means that there is great turnover every few months. The core group consists of about 70 people.

Reflecting Mr. Szakonyi's orientation toward developing each one's spiritual gifts, the church is into team ministry and team leadership. The core group is divided into various committees, such as an Advisory Board and a Creative Team. There is also a Board of Trustees for the corporation. However, there are currently no members in the mission church. According to Jeffrey, the group is wrestling with what membership and eldership would look like in a "Generation X" church. "We don't have members," he says, "but we have people who are serving with their whole lives."

As the two-year old mission church seeks to receive its first members, Mr. Szakonyi says that "We're educating people" as to the fact that it is a part of the Presbyterian Church in America. "We didn't make it widely known that we are a Presbyterian Church."

A process has begun which aims to have elders in place by June. Once a board of elders has been elected, ordained, and installed, the Advisory Board will cease functioning. Presently, the Advisory Board, which consists of men and women, makes various decisions, including the inviting of speakers to fill the pulpit.

Once a month, Steve Zaiser, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, preaches. Another regular is Will McGarvey, a youth minister at First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (United States of America). Speakers from the Utah Institute of Biblical Studies (UIBS) are invited as well. But most of the Sunday mornings Jeffrey is the preacher.

"I'm an evangelist at heart," says the pastoral assistant, who has been dubbed in years past as "Jeff the Baptist." "We've done a series on hell." He says that a lot of time has been spent preaching out of the Gospels. "The letters of Paul for me don't make a lot of sense without being entrenched in the Gospels."

Jeffrey's approach is relational, in order to reach a generation which, he says, is turned off to attempts to tell them what to believe. His great "soapbox" theme is that there is "one mark that will show that we're Christians: that we love one another."

Quoting from a friend in Utah, Jeffrey distinguishes between teaching and preaching: "when you teach, people go home with something to think about; when you preach, God shows up." Jeffrey adds that when he has been affected by preaching, it's like: "Holy smokes! The Holy Spirit just rocked my world!"

He describes his sermons as consisting of a lot of stories, a lot of vulnerability, verse by verse exposition placed in historic context, and application. From his view, story-telling constitutes the most effective communication; one of the chief perspectives which informs the story-telling is the issue of "how does the life of the person standing there intersect with the life of Christ?" Jeffrey notes that the church-at-large has focused "so much on the intellectual"; in his opinion, "very few people make an intellectual decision for Christ." He added: "The more vulnerable I can get, the more authentic I can get."

That desire for authenticity which, Jeffrey says, characterizes the new generation, leads to a different perspective on worship than what is found in many "traditional" churches. Instead of singing "about" God, the people sing "to" God. Moreover, the church employs songs "that people can sing with integrity who are on a journey to Christ."

"The driving tool behind New Song is the music," contends Mr. Szakonyi. "'Busters' are cynical-we're cynical people." He maintains that the worship of the church "has to be real for us" in order for it to be accepted by Generation X. It also, he says, must be "where they're at artistically."

Accordingly, New Song features a different style of worship than what is found in churches that are traditional Presbyterian. Jeffrey says that a variety of styles is offered: alternative rock, full-blown electric, and folk. He has high praise for John Louivere, the music leader who has written over 100 worship songs; and for other vocalists and musicians who play such instruments as drums, flute, banjo, and guitar.

Jeffrey reports that there have been a "lot of conversions"-especially at the Lord's Supper. "The place people make their commitment is at the communion table." He says that a warning is given before the sacrament is served: "we're pretty straightforward about the necessity of repentance." But another message is also given: "If today is [your] day of conversion, come forward" and receive the Lord's Supper. The Lord's table is "the place where they [many young people] fell in love with Jesus." Jeffrey claims that this phenomenon of people being converted at the Lord's table "is happening in other Gen X churches, too."

Mr. Szakonyi has been in an ordination process for two years through Summit View Community Church, his Willow Creek-affiliated congregation in the Seattle area. His formal theological training consists in almost two years of course work at UIBS (towards a bachelor's degree). Although he has neither a college nor a seminary degree, he plans on being ordained by Summit View Church in May-one month before his wedding-and hopes to be able to transfer as an ordained man into the PCA.

In the meantime, he has been both preaching regularly and administering the Lord's Supper. "I went through an approval thing with some of the folks from [Northern California] Presbytery," he stated, which, he claimed, authorized him to serve communion. The authorization came especially through a meeting with Lewis Ruff, Western Coordinator for the denominational Mission to North America Committee (MNA), and Phil Stogner, PCA pastor in the Salt Lake City suburb of Park City. According to Mr. Szakonyi, the temporary Session appointed by the Presbytery, which includes Mr. Ruff, thought that "the extreme nature of the circumstance" justified the arrangement. Jeffrey said: "It was very important for me not to [have the church] excluded from the Lord's Supper." He stated: "I understand the PCA doctrine." However, "we put people before rules." In his eyes, the decision was a "wise choice," as manifest in the twenty per cent increase in church attendance on the monthly communion Sundays.

According to Jeffrey, no PCA minister was available to serve communion. [At least one PCA teaching elder not currently in a pastorate lives in Salt Lake City. According to Lewis Ruff, TE Phil Stogner served communion the first Sunday after the organizing pastor left the pulpit.-Ed.] He also said that "Lewis Ruff felt it was not the best thing for the community at this time just to whisk somebody in here to fill a role."

Jeffrey speaks enthusiastically of New Song's web site. Among its new features are going to be the sermons and some worship songs available in audio format; and, in mid-April, a videotaped interpretive presentation of the death and resurrection of Christ from the Easter service. As was done last year, there will be actual crucifixion and resurrection scenes, with an actor portraying the Savior.

Mr. Szakonyi comes out of a background where "the arts are great tools" to be used in the church's worship. Responding to a question about the relationship of that perspective with that of the Reformed faith, he opined that "the Reformation continues on and on and on." For him, the critical issue has to do with a "person's salvation."

"I have a passion for lost people, a passion for this generation," says the preacher. In a visual generation, a TV generation, using visual methods are, in his estimation, essential. "It's another form of story."

When asked what would happen if the church realizes the existence of a contradiction between its worship practices and the Presbyterian faith, Mr. Szakonyi candidly admitted: "That's a good question." In his view, the time when New Song must face that question may fast be approaching.

His basic concern for himself and the church in general is to come to grips with another question: "How we going to reach the post-modern world?"

After we sent the series of articles on New Song-Salt Lake to Mr. Szakonyi, he responded as follows (the spelling is as found in his e-mail):


As iasked before do not print this. Also the addtitional information that you have amassed is at best convoluted to an extreme. those situations you are writing about are one sided, and mostly erroneous. I wonder how you would feel if I started to dig up all the choices that you have made that did not work out well, and thnen report only one side of the story. You at htis point are jepordizing mine and New Songs future with the PCA. Also it was so wonderful to recieve your paclet on the most joyful day of my ministry journey as I was ordained today, so thanks for raining on my day. Also if you print this article I will have to pursue action both within the PCA and if necessary outside for defemation of character and slander. I am saddened by what you are doing, may God have mercy on you fro your actions, and sin.


[Whenever we do an interview, we send a copy of what we intend to print to the interviewee. This interview was conducted in March. Mr. Szakonyi expressed dissatisfaction with it, and we subsequently tried to contact him in order to see how what we had written could be improved. In mid-May, we finally spoke with him again. At the beginning of what turned out to be a three hour telephone conversation, Mr. Szakonyi stated that he did not want the interview printed. He offered to fly us to Utah at his expense, so that we could experience New Song-Salt Lake personally. Schedule and time constraints prevented us from accepting that gracious offer. While we are sensitive to Mr. Szakonyi's wishes in this matter, and while we seriously considered not printing the interview, we decided to go ahead. This is not because of a desire to hurt or destroy anyone or his ministry. Rather, it is reflective of the fact that, like it or not, New Song-Salt Lake had become the focus of a significant story in the PCA. Sometimes those who don't invite publicity become the center of attention, through no fault or design of their own: that is simply a fact of life.

Since the time of the interview, Mr. Szakonyi was ordained by his church in the Seattle area. See article on 'Ordination Day at New Song-Salt Lake.'. At New Song-Salt Lake on May 24, Lewis Ruff reportedly said that Mr. Szakonyi was going to be examined by Northern California Presbytery, presumably for licensure, at its next stated meeting.-Ed.]