Musings on music, sports, life in general from Quincy, Illinois.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Willow Creek

I went to Chicago on the train this weekend to hang out with the Reynolds family. I miss them a lot since they moved from Quincy and we had an awesome weekend. Saturday we went downtown and then to Lincoln Park to join in the St. Patrick's Day festivities. It didn't take long for us to realize we were about 20 years too old, so it was an early night but a fun experience.

They live in Inverness, near Palatine, and Willow Creek Community Church is just down the road (in Chicago, just down the road means anything less than 10 miles). So we piled in the van this morning and went to the king of the mega-churches, because I've heard so much about it. Young Mike Reynolds says, "It's like going to a rock concert!"

He was right, in more ways than one.

This place is huge, a series of space ship buildings connected on a massive lake-fronted property. This is the church built on being non-traditional, built on bringing people in who would otherwise not go to church, and they've struck a chord with many of the late baby boomers and now Gen Xers — DON'T make it like a church. This is not your father's church. And that's the whole idea.

You know it's a huge place when they have guys wearing orange vests directing traffic in the parking lot.

You don't walk into Willow Creek as much as you stream in with a lot of other people. There is this sort of expectation hanging in the air — something I've almost never felt when going to church. There is a coffee shop area, a bookstore, a huge commons area to just hang out, a "front porch" area to meet people, computer kiosks with Internet access. "It's like a mall," Tom Reynolds said. "God's mall."

There are signs pointing to the different sections of the worship area, just like a major sports venue. We took one of two escalators to the second of three levels and looked at the "bulletin," which isn't a bulletin at all but a "playlist" of the week's activities and an explanation of the message. This place is huge and it's hard to guess how many people it holds — 6,000, more maybe? It sort of looks like a giant movie theater morphed into the bridge from Star Trek. The stage has about 30 televisions placed on strange angles, and there are two giant movie screens on either side of the stage.

Nope. Not Rev. Dirk's old churches. Not even close.

The band hand, and I mean this is a real rock and roll band, had a couple of guitar players, bass player, a drummer behind a massive Plexiglas encased kit, a keyboard player and a singer. One of the guitarists/singers also plays sax. They opened with a rock instrumental and I kept thinking how strange it was, until I realize it's not that different from the organ music you hear to start church. Same principle, anyway.

There was a greeting and then a video "Behind The Music" look at the band, their influences, and why they play music. It all tied into the message of "How To Save A Life" and was interspersed by the band playing some of their favorite songs.

Have you ever been to church and heard the band break out into The Police or Bon Jovi? Neither have I. Until this morning.

Teaching pastor Nancy Beach's message was highlighted by a drama, the band playing The Fray's "How To Save A Life" and a Nickelback video. That's right. A FREAKING NICKELBACK VIDEO. All loosely tied into the message of bringing church to the unchurched. Suddenly it was 70 minutes later and we were wrapping it up with the band playing "Lifesong." Unfortunately it was the only the song the congregation (again, old and outdated term) sang, but I was told they usually do more songs.

The critics say the mega-churches don't teach the doctrine, that's it's too easy to be too anonymous, that they don't differentiate between the church and the outside world.

Maybe so. But here's the question I kept asking myself — when was the last time I really got something out of church, or really looked forward to it for the right reasons? And if I have a chance to go to Willow Creek again, why would I jump at the chance and be genuinely excited?

This will make some people who read this blog mad, but it has to be said — churches that don't change, that don't update themselves, that stubbornly refuse to accept we are living in 2007, not 1967, are doomed to failure. I should know. I go to one. And it's on the fast track to extinction. And ... it will be very hard for me to go back there after experiencing something like Willow Creek.


Anonymous said...

Highland HS's Head Football Coach went there growing up . He still talks about it !

Next time you do a write up on Highland ask him bout Willow Creek .

He said the youth group was the greatest thing he was ever involved with .

pravoslavniye said...

I'm going to make some changes in something you wrote:

>churches that don't change, that
>don't update themselves, that
>stubbornly refuse to accept we
>are living in 2007, not 1967, are
>doomed to failure

Churches that do not allow normal growth of their customs and traditions, that refuse to examine how the timeless message can be conveyed within that ever-growing (NOT "changing just because you can change") tradition, are doomed to failure.

And necessary for that kind of growth is rootedness, big tap roots delving down into the soil of worship and tradition.

The problem is that with constant "oh let's change so we don't bore anyone", you never get any continuity, or else it's very thready. You're always doing something new, rarely something tried and true and with demonstrated power over the course of time.

Oh sure, it's "growing" by leaps and bounds now--but what kind of growth? And for how long? The slow and steady expansion and glory of a beautiful oak as it ages? Or the fast, fiery blaze of a flower, here today and gone very quickly, lovely but without real staying power (and remember that 20 or 30 years isn't staying power when you're talking about churches).

That's not to say there aren't good people there or that they aren't doing good things for some folks. But my observations are they aren't feeding the need for WORSHIP, which is in the long run the real reason for church--not lectures, not singing your favorite songs, not going to classes and seminars and movies and outings, all of which are good stuff but not the real reason why we have church in the first place.

Of course I'd say all this stuff, I'm Orthodox. :)

There's some good stuff going on in "contemporary" churches (and I push for some of those things to be adapted to Orthodox use), but too often I see them throw out the baby with the bathwater in their haste to "be modern" and "have a contemporary message" when the real message is (and has been for 2000 years) timeless.

Ah well. I'm glad you had a good experience. Bring it home and use it to revitalize your church--but remember to keep a good firm sense of rootedness and tradition as you grow.

rodney hart said...

Excellent points, ones I would have made myself a few years ago.

Except Willow Creek is not a fad. It was started 25 years ago as a youth ministry and continues to grow.

The Crossing is not a fad. I'm not about to join out there or anything, and there are some things about which I wonder about it, but it just keeps growing.

Why do you go to church? Is it to worship God in an orthodox and precise manner? Good!

What do I want out of church? Something that calls to my battered rock and roll heart?

I'm not talking about a church that aims to not bore people. I'm talking about a church that excites people, that calls to them and stirs them.

These mega churches are doing something right. They are calling out to people who aren't churched, and striking chords with people who are, to be quite honest, overchurched.

If you find something in that, it's not wrong, even if it's radically different.

My church has mostly older members. In 10 or 15 years, they will be gone and the younger members will be called to carry the torch.

If they choose to do it with tradition and custom, so be it.

UMRBlog said...

Having been to Willow Creek when it was a pup and again lately, I concur. I guess needing a nap after church isn't a bad thing. The place is great but it wears me out!

As you and I have discussed, the issue of dynamic and contemporary worship while holding on to worship practices that are satisfying to "traditional" members is very close to my heart. This is a very individualized decision, church by church. I think the starting points have to prayerful consideration and a slavishly focused definition of the congregation's mission and ministry.

After you do all that, then you must consider how to configure your physical plant, designed for Ozzie and Harriet worship/Sunday School experiences. Of course, that invokes the dual problem of how much that exercise costs and how to get the people who really don't want change to help pay for it.

Other than that, it's simple.

Anonymous said...

And what's wrong with Ozzie and Harriet?? The world would be a better place if today's societies lived by the moral values of 1950's television. How about Andy of Mayberry and Lassie? Don't laugh -- there were important lessons on life in those programs. I wonder how products of that day can feed their children MTV?? Small wonder that kids raised on "Jackass" have a skewed understanding of life. Now as far as the church issue ... does Willow Creek serve beer for Communion? I hate the mindset that we must dumb down ANYTHING to appeal to the youth of our society. Those who contend that isn't what's happening, I think have been fooled. And the music --what can be more moving than a beautiful organ and full choir doing a great Bach piece. Now don't get me wrong -- I enjoy Rock & Roll, but don't ever recall hearing a rock song that is profoundly beautiful and touches the soul. There are classical and liturgical pieces that indeed are profund, and once in a while even in musical theater, ie "Les Miserable .... 'With this pen, I write my last confession ...'", etc.

Paul said...

Great story, great story! Points that I have been thinking about a couple years now. I'm not a member of the Crossing, but I am a Christian. I do question several of the Crossing's motives, but no church is perfect. We can even see that in Acts, they couldn't even go 10 years without having problems!

Ideas such as "We should stay the same to reintroduce the old ways of thinking" is totally nonsense and will get your church nowhere.
We simply have to accept the fact that this is the world we live in and it's what we have to work with. This is not a new concept. Stain glass windows were introduced with criticism. Organs were introduced with great criticism because they were only really used at the bar. Now the only place they are found is at church.
In Music class at JWCC, we are discussing the fact that Church music has always changed, and it has always been introduced as being "Satan's music." During this class, I couldn't help but notice that much of what went on in history is no different from today.
Then was organs, now it's full bands. Then it was stain glass, now it's projectors and computers (changeable stain glass is what I call it.)

I will admit, being on the Media team does cause a great deal of bias on my part, but I also feel that God is directing churches in this way for a reason. We can still turn back this Nation to God, but it's not going to be done with hymnals and organs.