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
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
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
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
(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