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The Church Where The President Speaks

Category Articles
Date December 1, 2000

The Willow Creek Church is in a suburb of Chicago, one of the ten most wealthy and powerful cities in the world. It is a booming educational, medical, cultural, legal and economic centre with a hinterland of 6 million people. It is the ‘Bible button’ of the Mid-West, the city of Moody Bible College, Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. If some Christians were thinking of locating a theological seminary then Chicago would be an obvious place to choose. So the Mid America Reformed Seminary has been newly situated in that dynamic conurbation. It has scores of churches which have more than a thousand people in the congregation. This has been part of Chicago ecclesiastical history: for example, throughout the 1920s more than 5,000 churchgoers packed the Gospel Tabernacle every week.

The Willow Creek Church is 25 years old, and every week-end 17,000-plus people attend six services, two exclusively designed for young non-church-goers, and so programmed with music and drama. The services are characterised by 50 vocalists, a 75-piece choir, seven rhythm bands, a 65-piece orchestra, 41 actors, a video production department. and an arts centre with 200 students that serves as a farm club for future talent.

William J. (Bill) Hybels is the founding pastor. He was raised in the Christian Reformed Church. He has signed the statement entitled ‘Men, Women and Biblical Equality’ which promotes the ordination of women. Hybels speaks for Robert Schuller’s school of evangelism and church growth. The US President, Bill Clinton, recently visited the Willow Creek pastors’ conference and spoke to the men and women there about his fall and restoration.

Willow Creek has been designed like a large attractive shopping mall. There is no cross or any religious symbol on the outside of the building, nor on the inside either. The ‘worship’ area is an auditorium with theatre seats, and a stage and podium but no organ. One enters to the sound of popular rock-type music played by the 20-piece group on stage. One strolls past TV monitors with lists of church-related activities on the screens. On the platform there is someone signing the service for the deaf contingent.

The event begins with a drama sketch. For example, a man and a woman are waiting to be called up yonder. The man has a duffel bag of good works. The women does not. She goes to heaven. The man does not. Somebody then sings, ‘Only by grace through faith.’ The message might seem to the stranger present to be saying, ‘As long as you profess faith in God you are sure of getting to heaven, no matter how you live.’ A Christian would have understood the confused drama spot, but not an unbeliever.

Then a couple might sing the complete version of ‘Only by grace through faith.’ They are good singers, as Americans are. The congregation is invited to sing just once in the service and it might be a little chorus like, ‘Hallelujah. Sing hallelujah. For the Lord is good and his mercy endureth for ever:’ ‘Endureth’–interesting. Not ‘endures.’ No one will be impressed with the quality of the congregation’s singing. It is pathetic. Unbelievers, it is said, are not used to going somewhere and singing (though every big game begins with the crowd singing the National Anthem) so that is made the reason why there is no congregational singing in Willow Creek. It is quite unlike the charismatic renewal movement’s emphasis on 45 minutes of singing.

Bill Hybels does the announcements. They can include an expert slide presentation of all the ministries of Willow Creek especially if there is a ministries fair and they need more volunteers. At the end of the intimations the collection is taken but visitors are told they are not expected to make a donation. The offertory might be taken to the song, ‘Down by the river side.’ This apparently has religious lyrics as well as the more folksy, ‘I met my little bright-eyed girl, Down by the river side, Down by the river side, Down by the river side.’

The message is usually given by Bill Hybels. When an acquaintance was there he heard Hybels begin by saying to the congregation that they could be divided up into three groups: those who came to drink in his wisdom; those who were 50/50 giving him three minutes to hook them with something interesting; and finally those who hated him and his mother … Odd beginning. He was on that occasion clear and precise in preaching the demands of God but not so lucid and winsome in presenting the gospel. He rebuked the seekers present that few of them were coming on Wednesday evenings to the weekly ‘sacrament of communion’ where they would worship and praise God.

The last duet was introduced and people were urged to stay for these ‘last two and a half minutes’ instead of heading for the car park. Hybels went down from the stage to sit in the front row and made some notes. A prayer ended the service, and Hybels and the singers were gone.

The congregation can stay and eat an expensive lunch at the food court and then walk around the ministry fair. No one will speak to you. That is part of the vision of Willow Creek. ‘Unchurched Harry’ is considered to want to be left alone.

What does one make of it all? Whatever might be said to the contrary, the intent of Willow Creek is to aim Sunday’s meetings at the crowd of unbelievers present, not at the Lord, and that is what you get. One of the beneficiaries of this approach is going to be the liturgical churches. Worship as evangelism, or therapy, or entertainment is bankrupt. It will not feed the soul. Worship in which we read, preach, pray and sing the Bible will alone sustain and nurture Christian faith and piety. As Terry Johnson says, ‘There we have order without suffocation, freedom without chaos, edification with entertainment, reverence without unthinking routine. Reformed worship aims at the glory of God alone, and so provides a format in which true worship may take place. God’s word alone rightly orders his worship–not the inventions and traditions of man. The glory then goes to God alone.’

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