Sunday at Willow Creek
In the previous issue (Winter 1995) of Touchstone , we published G. A. Pritchard's “Artful Evangelism,” which assessed the “strengths and weaknesses in the use of the arts at Willow Creek Community Church.” Because of both the high visibility of Willow Creek and the high level of debate its Sunday programing has engendered, we felt our readers would be interested in the responses of our editor and associate editors to Pritchard's article. What follows are not critiques of the article per se, but some of the various responses, questions, observations, and ideas that came to mind after reading it. (Ed.)
S. M. Hutchens
On one hand, God has made the Church as he has made human beings, so that some of the most delirious pleasures come with the use of its organs of generation. Young, vigorous churches whose overflowing energies are directed mostly toward reproductive ends should not be blamed for reveling in the joys of their youth, nor should one be surprised if their curious ecstasies result in the bearing of many children. One sometimes senses the envy of the impotent and barren in criticism of such churches.
On the other hand, of the body’s members it is not the tongue alone that is a world of iniquity, exquisitely hard to control, and prone to all sorts of wickedness. So scrutiny of the philosophies, methods, and activities of superabundant churches by the larger community of faith is good and necessary. The questions asked in the process must be accepted as part of the discipline they need to remain faithful. Sensitive spots are bound to be discovered, since the best of churches, like the best of people, have not only spiritual blemishes, but also sometimes dark and shameful sides whose exposure causes real pain.
The sum of the matter is found in Ecclesiastes: “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.”
James M. Kushiner
“Artful Evangelism” by G. A. Pritchard ( Touchstone, 8.1, Winter 1995) raised some concerns that I think need to be addressed. But first, I must emphasize that we should be charitable in our assessment of Willow Creek. Its desire to reach out is not wrongheaded and should serve as a lesson to churches that are comfortable in stagnant pools of their own making. Having forgotten the words of their own hymns and liturgies about God’s desire to reach all mankind, such churches reach out to almost no one, yet denigrate the “dilution” of the gospel at Willow Creek. They easily succumb to an unconfessed jealousy over the growth of “mega-churches.”
We must remember that the Lord of the harvest is eager for laborers—he uses even unskilled or less than ambitious ones, according to his parable about the laborers in the vineyard. God saves men even through the disreputable if he has to—he spoke through Balaam’s ass (and Balaam, too). Willow Creek ministers, while vulnerable to criticism like everyone else, do not seem to be disreputable, but churches that bury the talent given them may be.
Now, my concerns. First, I am troubled by how holding seeker services on Sunday mornings may affect the shape of a Christian community. For nearly 2,000 years Christians have worshipped Christ on the weekly anniversary of his Resurrection, recapitulating both his atoning death and his saving Resurrection in the eucharistic liturgy. (That Willow Creek Community Church does not do this is to be expected since it comes from the non-sacramental, evangelical portion of the Protestant spectrum.)
So what does a Willow Creek Christian do for worship if he, like most Christians, is unable to attend their midweek worship service every week? Those who wish to do what Christians have traditionally done for generations on the Lord’s Day (that is, worship “Christ as God”) are given only seeker services aimed at “unchurched Harrys” week after week, year after year. This is no way to wean babies from milk.
Second, while admittedly there are other activities at Willow Creek during the week, the church is, I believe, unduly dominated and thus defined primarily by its seeker service, an elaborate evangelism program. Historically, theologically, and biblically speaking, it would seem that any such evangelism ministry—which is admittedly a high-powered, temptation-laden world of drama, image management, and show-biz glitz—should be under direct pastoral (episcopal) oversight within the context of a larger church. Those with the primary pastoral oversight should not themselves be engaged in seeker-service outreach—they have a pastoral responsibility for dealing with excesses. Given the natural temptations, it is a formula for disaster of the type the evangelical community knows too well.
Third, the medium and method of the seeker service should be seriously critiqued (as Pritchard has done more in depth elsewhere), for the medium is important to the message. While I am not absolutely convinced about this because I do not know enough, permit me a question: If the modern methods—based as they are on television and modern entertainment—used at seeker-sensitive-style churches have altered the way we learn and process information, might not the way in which religion is presented affect one’s perception of what religion is saying? The entertainment medium renders its audience passive, and does in fact attempt to persuade it with images and emotional moments. Might not a Harry converted under these circumstances expect that God predominately communicates through how Harry feels? That emotions are on the leading edge of spiritual health? That we are passive, and God is the initiator? What about cross-bearing and the way of ascetical Christianity and active engagement? How is such a weakness in unchurched Harry’s understanding of Christianity corrected if he only attends the same kind of seeker services in which he remains a passive observer? I don’t know if Willow Creek deliberately addresses these issues in its discipling process—but it doesn’t on Sunday morning and that is when most of its people go to church.
Finally, if Willow Creek is the wave of the future, then the blind spots pointed out by Pritchard are going to be passed on to other churches who are being taught by Willow Creek to change their services. Abuses are likely to occur, not only because of human weakness but also because Willow Creek does not understand the problems and therefore cannot help churches they teach to avoid them. It’s like passing on a virus without the antibodies. For example, a Willow-Creek-style church in western Michigan, featured on an ABC News primetime special with Peter Jennings, “In the Name of God” (March 16), exhibited a tasteless, irreverent program that appealed to unchurched Harrys. Also, if Willow Creek is the wave of the future, then the spirit evident in the advertisement of this issue’s “No Comment” (page 2) is a discouraging sign of things to come. Marketing competition will reign: “the liveliest, the best, the deepest, the most spiritual show in town.” But I do not think marketing the gospel in this manner will survive the test of time.
I do not believe Willow Creek will be the wave of the future. Perhaps within a generation it will see only the farewell wave of the hand, while Christians will still meet on Sundays for worship as they have been doing for centuries, proclaiming “the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Willow Creek is not, I think, quite as original as it pretends, perhaps because it is provincially reacting against a particular sort of modern American Protestantism. What Willow Creek does with the arts is only what the liturgy is intended to do, and what it does do in many Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches, and in a few Roman Catholic churches. (My apologies to our Roman Catholic readers, but the worship in every Roman parish I’ve ever visited has been appalling, and the Novus Ordo itself obviously was written by priests in committee.)
The difference, of course, is that liturgical worship requires commitment, humility (to accept that which one does not understand or like), and effort, three things Willow Creek is careful not to require of “unchurched Harry.” The question, which Dr. Pritchard delicately raises, is whether Willow Creek requires them of Harry once he has been “churched.” Has their method changed their message? I have no answer, but I have my doubts. (This is not to deny the good they do, or the churches’ failure to evangelize and need to learn from Willow Creek.)
Pastor Hybels claims that they use their methods only to convert “unchurched Harry,” and that once he is converted they preach for “total commitment.” What, then, is the life of total commitment they teach? Do they teach their people to turn off their televisions and read the Bible closely? Do they teach their people to fast? Do they demand they keep holy the Sabbath Day? Do they insist on a biblical marriage discipline?
I ask because many “renewed” Episcopal parishes make the same defense of their church growth liturgies, but make no real effort to move their people beyond the emotional religion of Sunday morning, nor challenge the religion of the suburbs. While they proclaim the authority of Scripture, they teach their people to treat the Bible as a divinely inspired self-help manual. These parishes are characteristically hostile to homosexuality but apply a therapeutic rather than biblical model to the question of remarriage after divorce; arguing in the case that suits them that law should not overrule the needs of two people who love each other, but rejecting the same argument in the case that does not suit them.
I do not mean to convict Willow Creek by analogy, but one fact makes me wonder if the church is not similarly acculturated. The evangelical feminist Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian is the “Willow Creek theologian.” In his book Beyond Sex Roles, he asserts (to take but one example of error) that Galatians 3:28 teaches that “Sex distinctions are irrelevant in the church.” It does not say that, and cannot be made to say that. What is one to say of a church whose theologian so misuses or misinterprets Scripture in the service of a fashionable ideology?
Patrick Henry Reardon
One thing we know for sure about the way the ancient Christians worshipped together on Sundays—they did not “wing it.” The structure and most of the content of their services were determined by a magisterial Tradition that they felt free neither to contradict nor substantially to modify. From 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 to Justin Martyr in the second century and Hippolytus in the third, then to the majestic liturgical legacies of Jerusalem, Rome, and Byzantium, there clearly reigned a common understanding about the appropriate elements of the common worship. Uniting the variants among the local churches, one rule stood supreme: “I handed on to you that which I also received,” a canon that left no room for working from scratch, shooting in the dark, going with hunches, or the hedging of bets.
In what perhaps even he thought one of the funniest pages of the Bible, the author of 1 Samuel 5 describes to what nonsense people must resort when, unexpectedly dealing with the divine, they are obliged to “wing it.” In a story that bears striking resemblance to the Greeks’ abduction and return of Chryseis in Book 1 of the Iliad, we learn how the Philistines grabbed hold of more than they could handle when they captured the ark of the covenant. They were obliged to dream up a proper protocol for returning it, the sudden outbreak of an epidemic having insinuated to their attention a serious displeasure on the part of Somebody Upstairs. This really was a shot in the dark, because an informal survey revealed that no one present had ever before returned an ark. So what to do?
First, they had noticed lots of mice running around at the time, a circumstance prompting modern scholars to conjecture that their affliction was bubonic plague. The Philistines themselves at least recognized that the two phenomena seemed related, so they made little golden statues of mice to put into the ark.
Second, the affliction had involved boils or bumps of some sort on their bodies, arguably also a symptom of bubonic plague. (Discovered “in their secret parts,” however, these bumps become hemorrhoids [“emerods”] in the King James Version, a sane and solemn rendering that will go a long way, I submit, to explaining Psalm 78:66: “He smote his enemies in the rear.”) A fine sense of liturgical reform prompted them to fashion little golden bumps and place them in the ark beside the mice.
Instructed by Holy Scripture, the ancient Christians knew the danger we court when we start to “wing it” in things divine; we may finish by introducing our little replicas of mice and hemorrhoids into the Holy Place, at which point it is senseless to inquire if the artwork is well done. From all such experiments, may the Mercy be praised, there is a Tradition to spare us.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Sunday at Willow Creek” first appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.