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.