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Willow Creek

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

The Willow Creek Community Church claims to be the fastest growing and most popular church in America today. The Willow Creek church attracts 20,000 to its midweek and Sunday services. What makes Willow Creek such a phenomenal church spectacular on the American religious scene? The answers to this question and numerous others are found in one Willow Creek publication. It is titled Willow Creek Community Church: Church Leaders Handbook (New, Expanded 1996 Edition). Here is much of the story of how and why the Willow Creek Community Church has grown into a large American denomination in twenty­five years.

An article was printed January 23, 1991 in the Christian Century, written by Anthony B. Robinson titled "Learning from Willow Creek Community Church" that tells a part of the story. The Willow Community Church is located on 120 acres of a manicured campus in South Barrington, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago. A cluster of low lying buildings in the distance looks like a prosperous corporate headquarters. There are no crosses or religious signs to suggest this is a church.

Willow Creek Community Church began in 1975 in a rented theater, with an unpaid staff, borrowed equipment, and a vision for reaching unchurched people in the Chicago area. Bill Hybels and a few associates conducted an informal house survey in the Chicago suburb to locate and identify the unchurched in the area who did not attend any church, and to learn why they did not.

Bill Hybels and his associates with a list of the unchurched started the Willow Creek Community Church. The first Willow Creek meeting took place in the rented Willow Creek Theater located in Palatine, Illinois. This was the church Bill Hybels built designed for people who did not go to church because of indifference or suspicion. The first gathering numbered 125 people. With this list of the "unchurched," Bill Hybels and his group reached out to this large segment of people who did not go to church, or "do church."

Today some 20,000 attend the midweek and Sunday services of the Willow Creek church located in a white affluent "baby boomer" community. (Two generations ago, we would have in mind WASP [White Anglo­Saxon Protestant] neighborhood.)

The services which take place at Willow Creek church today are unlike all other church services on American soil. The well lighted and spacious auditorium with glass ceilings looks like a plush theater with theater seats and wide aisles. The luxurious furnishing attract those who are uncomfortable in traditional churches.

As the people file into the auditorium for the weekend "seeker services," a band is playing subdued contemporary jazz or rock. The worship service begins with the drawing of curtains across a huge stage while the tempo of the lively upbeat music gradually engages the audience.

The worship services gets underway. The band plays contemporary rock and jazz with religious lyrics flashed on a wide video screen accompanied by 16 vocalists and dancers. Actors stage dramatic skits. Congregational singing is minimal and simple. The performance has all the pizzazz of a professional stage show. A thunderous applause greets the conclusion of the entertainment phase. The people are told their applause is for God.

The sermon begins-it is a statement of faith consistent with American evangelism. A knowledge of theology or the church's history is not needed. The sermons address such themes as love, compassion, mercy, and other Christian virtues. The sermons also address the religious needs of the unchurched-the seekers who have come to Willow Creek.

It is easy to understand why "copy cat" models of Willow Creek church in the Nashville area do not even come close to the entertainment flamboyance of the "mother community church" e.g., the Hendersonville Community Church, Woodmont Hills Family of God, and the Madison and Franklin churches of Christ.

The mission of Willow Creek is to reach the indifferent and turn them into fully devoted followers of Christ and make them feel good about themselves. The weird scenes in a Vineyard charismatic church where worshipers in prolonged fits of uncontrollable laughter, roar like animals, and fall out in swoons on the floor are not seen in South Barrington.

The Willow Creek Association

The Willow Creek Association was created in 1992 as the larger parachute organization of the Willow Creek Community Church to form mega denominational churches attracted to the Willow Creek model. The annual membership in WCA which is separate from the Willow Creek Community Church is $199. The WCA is in no sense a structured denomination with a central authority.

The purpose of WCA, as stated, is to turn irreligious people into followers of Christ. Currently some 1400 churches are members of this trans­denominational Association scattered across North America and 18 foreign countries. The membership is expected to grow to 4,000 by the year 2000. Sixty­five percent of the WCA affiliates are denominational, and 35 percent are nondenominational. Twenty seven percent of the churches are mainline denominations, e.g., Methodist, Baptist, and Assemblies of God.

Churches of Christ are not listed. However, we are confident that churches such as the Hendersonville Community Church of Christ are WCA card carrying members. That the Woodmont Hills Family of God and the Madison Church of Christ are "aping" the worship and practices of the Willow Creek church is obvious.

The WCA offers advice and instructions in their Annual Church Leadership Conference where they tell the associate leaders of membership churches how they got the job done at Willow Creek, and how to go out and do likewise. The WCA provides its associate members with a wide variety of religious how­to­do­it kits.

What Are the Connections of Willow Creek
with Churches of Christ?

We do not know, but we can make educated guesses. Max Lucado and Jeff Walling endorse and give their full blessings to the community church paradigm (model). The purpose of this article is first to set forth ideas in a 1989 CSC paper presented by Thomas Olbricht who said that the churches of Christ are in a major paradigm shift taking place at the grass roots level of the churches. For all their saying, "our scholars" who delivered several CSC papers in 1989 and 1990 on the old hermeneutic and the new hermeneutic never got around to setting up the model.

Gary Holloway and Michael Weed have filled in a part of that gap providing a second reason for this article. They have rendered a distinct service to conservative churches of Christ in that they now propose counter alternatives to replace the New Testament patterns for worship and practices in churches of Christ with three proposed church models widely adopted in denominations.

A paper co­authored by Gary Holloway and Michael Weed, titled "The Gospel in Urban Vessels: Churches of Christ Face the Twenty­First Century" was read May 1995 before a meeting of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville.

Both Holloway and Weed subscribe to the view that the churches of Christ are the creation of societal influences over the passage of two hundred years. Holloway and Weed mention two clearly definable optional replacements for the New Testament pattern for the faith, worship, and practices of churches of Christ. They write:

Two models for worship changes are most evident among Churches of Christ. One is the seeker service model of the Willow Creek Community Church ... The other model influencing Churches of Christ is third wave charismatic worship described by church growth expert Peter C Wagner and others [the Vineyard Movement and the Kansas City Prophets-JEC].

The readers of this article will hardly believe their senses after they come to an understanding that Holloway and Weed are saying these influence the worship of the churches of Christ which should be influenced only by apostolic pattern.

And even more startling are the implications of these words which identify the third model identified with postmodern theology: "'Certain cultural trends, such as restorationism,' or 'conservative postmodernism,' may aid in this recovery of traditions, but by far and large there is little sociological perspective to encourage optimism about the future of Churches of Christ. " All we need to do for explanation is to translate this scholarly gobbledygook into ordinary "baby boomer" rhetoric of the marketplace.

They are suggesting there are three models out there - Willow Creek, the Vineyard Movement, and postmodern theology - which are viable options for churches of Christ to adopt in lieu of what the liberals say is the out­of­date New Testament pattern of the church and the old hermeneutic.

There is much more to this story which must wait for time and copy space for the telling. Much of the liberal side of this story is already in print in Wineskins, and CSC papers especially in 1989­1991.

(Editor's comment: Thank you, brother Choate, for outlining yet another golden­calf syndrome among those hankering for the "leeks and the onions" or Egypt. It is abnormal to turn away from the divine pattern given in God­breathed scripture to follow a human pattern that has no higher authority than the glass ceiling of the Willow Creek building. "[T]here arose another generation after them, that knew not Jehovah" - H. A. (Buster) Dobbs .)

Published June 1997