Filtering the Waters of Willow Creek
I was fortunate to grow up in California during the late 1960’s and 70’s. During the early years of that period I learned to backpack in the Coast Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. During those days, you could drink pure unfiltered water from the lakes and streams without fear of catching giardia. By the mid-seventies with the explosion in popularity of backpacking, it was no longer safe to drink water without first treating it with a special tablet or filtering it. What a pain! You could no longer dip your Sierra cup into the waters of a rushing stream and satisfy your thirst with great tasting cold water. Sure, the water still tasted great, but you would put your health at risk of picking up some nasty parasite without filtering the water.
I have spent the last two days drinking deep at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit. The water tasted intoxicatingly good! I wish I could have imbibed without filtering, but I believe the health of the Church and its ministry is at stake. Frankly, I don’t trust the source. I’m afraid there is a certain amount of contaminants naturally in the waters of Willow that have negatively affected the American Church in the last thirty years.
There are many things about Willow Creek that I admire. Bill Hybels’ mantra is that the Church is the hope of the world. Since the Church is the only conduit that God has established for the Gospel, I absolutely agree with him. And Hybels has made that point consistently throughout his ministry. It is a message that needs to be sounded over and over again in the current milieu of rampant individualism even among Christians. I am also inspired by Bill Hybels’ commitment and energy to the Kingdom enterprise. I confess: I cannot hold a candle to his passion, intention, and actions. I also applaud the way that Willow is always assessing its ministry and refining their practices to best accomplish what they believe is the mandate of the Church. Indeed, in many ways, Hybels and the ministry that he has built through Willow Creek are a gift to the Church.
It is difficult, then, to stand in criticism of Willow. But I believe what we drink from that source must be filtered in order to ultimately fulfill Christ’s mandate for His Church in sustaining health and growth through the long haul.
It seems to me that Willow Creek is youth ministry on super steroids. I observed some of the adolescent attitudes that form the perspective of most youth ministries at the Summit. They’re subtle. But they’re there. I heard it first when Hybels introduced the event. Though it was held at a church and most of the audience were Christians, he assured us that “we wouldn’t be hearing any bad choirs” or experiencing any of the other trappings associated with the traditional church. That was my first alert and I’ll return to the matter of “bad choirs” later in this post.
I have never seen any “ugly” people on the platform at Willow, except of course if they were world-class guest speakers or musicians. All are youthful and vigorous. Even Bill, who is sixty-ish, has maintained his youthful good looks, a discipline that I applaud. It seems clear to me though, that Willow will only intentionally use the same kind of people that we see on television, marketing all our consumer goods and services. There’s an embedded message in all those cool and beautiful people.
Relevance is a core value for Willow Creek. I heard that term at least a dozen times in the last two days. I believe relevance in ministry is important, but I have yet to hear a good theological rationale (though I think there is one to a point) for it from anyone who subscribes to Willow’s values. I think rather than from a theological imperative, that Willow simply mirrors exactly the values of our culture. Our modern western culture values relevance so highly that it intentionally ridicules the past and worships the culture of innovation. Has that not been the case with Willow Creek? Willow reflects this aspect of our culture so well that it has been very successful in capturing a very large share of Baby Boomer religious consumers in the marketplace.
All of this is consistent with Willow Creek’s history and values. It started as a youth ministry that was discontent – perhaps even contemptuous – with the traditional church. Willow, it seems to me, has always had a youth ministry approach to “doing church.” In so doing, it has exemplified what a former colleague as termed “the juvenilization of ministry.”(1) This “juvenilization of ministry” is simply a mirror of accommodation to our culture’s infatuation with youth. The result is a Church that is lacking in maturity – just the same as our Western Culture. And we are just beginning to recognize the danger that we are in, both as a Church and as a culture.
I have a second confession to make. I have baggage. Throughout my career of over thirty years I have dealt with the tension of “being relevant” but also understanding and embracing the values of the traditional church. I’ve had to work with colleagues on church staffs who whole-heartedly embraced Willow’s approach. In the mid-eighties I worked under an executive pastor who wanted me to stop using a certain singer on my praise team simply because she was overweight. This same pastor wanted to fire me because he thought I would hold the church back. I liked hymns, organs, and choirs. Fortunately, he didn’t get his way.
As for the “bad sounding choirs,” I have a few thoughts. We have lost a great deal in our churches that have abandoned choirs. The choir used to be a place where the average musician could share their love of music and the little bit of talent that they had in service to God. Churches without choirs have given that opportunity away. What remains is an elite (and typically, cool) small group of musicians who can lead in worship. That is a significant loss that I mourn. I’m certainly not in favor of “bad choirs.” But even bad choirs offered an opportunity for authentic involvement and service in the church. An elite praise team is a step towards, and in many cases, into the professionalism of ministry. Better check your biblical ecclesiology, those who continually rag on church choirs.
During the same period of time in the late-eighties, I sat through a number of seminars led by church growth gurus who told their audiences that if they wanted their churches to grow that they needed to get rid of organs, choirs, and hymns. Uninformed and arrogant “consultants” who had no clue about biblical and historic worship. To them, you used music and “worship” (and it had to be done with a really good band) to form a crowd with lots of positive energy so that the pastor could come in and deliver his “relevant” message to a receptive audience. That’s not biblical worship. That’s a prostitution of worship forms in order to build numbers. For most of my career I’ve had to deal with colleagues (fortunately, not my senior pastors) who drank the impoverished Kool-Aid of the church growth advocates who were, in turn, very influenced by Willow Creek’s practices.
So when I come to a Willow event or read Willow material, I’ve got my filter in place. It’s not fun and it takes more time. I wish I could drink freely. But I know better. I’m a signer and subscriber to the Ancient Evangelical Future Call that states, “Today, we call Evangelicals to turn away from…contemporary pastoral ministries so compatible with culture that they camouflage God's story or empty it of its cosmic and redemptive meaning.”(2) I know the Leadership Summit was not supposed to be a theological conference. I also suspect that one of its objectives was to attract non-Christian leaders to the event to be exposed to the Gospel. In some ways, that was well-done. The few Gospel-themed sessions we experienced balanced out the excellent secular leaders that we heard. But the event was not really Christ-centered as its leaders asserted. I never really heard the full Gospel – the story of God, the Christ Event, the Church and where we fit into the narrative. The Gospel calls were, in effect, an invitation to welcome God into your story – your life - to give it meaning. The Gospel is just (sorry to be so crass), just another commodity that will help you live your life better. Wouldn’t it be better to invite people into the grand story of God – the metanarrative that includes the historic Church? Hard to do that when your core message has often had overtones of contempt for our religious forbearers.
So what did I get? A few fresh ideas and lots of affirmation for my plans to give away ministry and include as many as I can in defining and leading the worship ministry at my church. I’ll also give a blessing to Bill Hybels for what he is trying to do. A Christian leader can find lots of intellectual and inspirational nourishment from the waters of Willow Creek.
Still, for the sake of the Kingdom, use your filter.
1.Tom Bergeler, Associate Professor of Ministry at Huntington University has written an unpublished (as of yet) manuscript for a book describing and analyzing this process that began after WWII and was probably first manifest best in groups like Youth For Christ. I hope he can get the work published. It is a badly needed insight for the American Church.