Willow Creek Community Church belongs in the suburbs, its massive campus sprawling across a stretch of drained swampland in greater Chicago. The members of Willow Creek are, by and large, suburbanites, and the “programming” behind the “services” at Willow is custom-made for them. The attendants wear polo shirts; the messages are relevant; and all of the members of the band and the drama team are committed to excellence.
“And He gave some apostles, some prophets, some lead guitarists . . . ” This is most certainly true, because, as Bill Hybels, the founder and “lead pastor” of Willow discovered, “lost people matter to God.” Unbelievers—the “unchurched,” in Willow parlance—are turned off by poor-quality musicianship and acting in church; ergo, if we care about lost people, we simply will not set before them thespians or adult-contemporary artists who are not appropriately gifted. We will, however, provide them with a food court (a “safe place” for “meaningful dialogue”), group therapy (a “small group” in which to become a “fully devoted follower of Christ”), and lots and lots of community. The midweek services at Willow—designed for members (averaging 7,000 in attendance), as opposed to the weekend “Seeker Services” (averaging 17,500)—are the “New Community.”
According to Bill’s wife, Lynne (in Rediscovering Church: The Story and Vision of Willow Creek Community Church), Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, Hybels’ mentor, inspired Bill in the mid-70’s to “do something truly great with your life . . . commit yourself to Jesus’ vision of establishing communities of God here on this earth.” On another occasion, “Dr. B.” advised Bill to “just do Acts 2!”
Just doing Acts 2, Hybels programmed an environment free of the trappings of traditional Christianity—the stained glass, the pulpit, the hymnody—which were, in his estimation, stifling genuine community. He freely admits that he was embarrassed when, back in high school, he had brought the “wildest kid in school” with him to his staunch Dutch church, filled with the “already convinced.” After the
ancient hymns . . . it went south. They did a stand-up-sit-down thing several times, and the kid never did catch on. He listened, mystified, as a vocalist sang of seraphim and cherubim. Then there was the Creed. This was a hit, since the veterans had it memorized and Bill’s friend had to stand there conspicuously mute. . . . Then came the sermon. No, please no, not the minor prophets, Bill pleaded silently. But sure enough . . . Amos . . . locusts . . .
This attitude toward the biblical traditions of the Church is increasingly common. Most traditional churches today have either succumbed to this mentality—to varying degrees—or have at least encountered it, usually in the face of a vociferous group demanding that this church wake up to reality before it is too late! If lost people matter at all to us, we must be willing to change!
Willow has been one of the chief vehicles effecting that change. Churches of any denomination that are hemorrhaging members or are just bored with Amos and locusts can join the Willow Creek Association and, for an annual fee of $249, retain the consulting services of Willow and be provided with musical tab sheets, relevant sermon ideas, and a plan to create genuine “biblical” community. This plan is, in fact, a “proven process” to make your church “contagious . . . no matter its size, style, or location.” To put all of this into perspective, consider: There are now over 9,500 churches, of various denominations, in the Willow Creek Association; the entire Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod consists of 6,145 congregations.
What is this elusive community that these churches so desperately covet? And, isn’t it a little bit ironic that suburbanization, the very thing that destroyed real communities all over the United States, is being applied so passionately to the Church, in an attempt to restore community? Hybels and his wife describe their dreams of establishing an Acts 2 church in this way:
We dreamed of a place where the Word of God would be communicated in an irresistibly compelling way. . . . of people getting together informally in small groups and meeting in homes and taking meals together and talking about real-life issues. . . . of a church that would be distinct and countercultural, in which affluent members . . . would funnel their excess resources back into the local fellowship for distribution to the needy.
Isn’t this what Saint Luke describes when he records that “all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need”? Not quite. The events of Pentecost centered on and were shaped by Saint Peter’s preaching of the Gospel, and the Jerusalem community that arose after “they that gladly received his word were baptized” was devoted, first and foremost, to the “apostles’ doctrine.” God’s Word itself gave birth to that community, not the careful programming of the Twelve.
As E. Michael Jones points out in this issue, suburbanization is a means of control, power, “management.” The ethos of the suburbanite, by design, is servitude, deracination, discomfort. Those who were driven or lured to the suburbs left behind real communities rooted in time and place. They exchanged their ethnic and cultural identities for sameness. All of the houses looked the same, and all of the people began to look and sound the same. All of them consumed the same mass media and ate at the same chain restaurants. These were the first “new communities.”
The Willow Creek model suburbanizes both Christians and churches. It steals away people from dowdy, established, Amos-and-locusts churches and cuts them off at the roots from their historic traditions, liturgies, and neighborhoods. They even have their own mass media to inculcate sameness.
And what of those “seekers” longing for community, those lost people who do indeed matter to God? The Willow Creek model draws them to the “Seeker Service” not through the prophetic, apocalyptic preaching of the Apostles’ doctrine (“Men of Israel . . . Jesus of Nazareth . . . ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: whom God hath raised up . . . ”) but by the same cultural ethos to which they are enslaved—the therapeutic message of a Jesus Who meets the felt needs of suburban life.
So powerful is the darkness of the hour, so deracinated are the Christians that attend the remaining traditional churches, so divorced are they from their own theology, that it is only a matter of time before someone asks your pastor, “Have you ever heard about a place called Willow Creek?” The signs that this has already happened are obvious to those who are properly catechized: the emergence of the word unchurched in place of unbelievers; the addition of a “contemporary” service; the removal of the pulpit; the proclamation of a need for a “small-group ministry”; or, the most obvious, the announcement of plans to sell the old building, badly in need of repairs anyway, and to purchase some “prime acreage” at the edge of town.