A Brit in South Barrington 1

After two weeks’ holiday in Italy, a single-Sunday stopover in UK, I flew to Chicago to attend the Willow Creek Leadership Summit 2005. These have been going for ten years, having grown out of a concern of Bill Hybels (pastor of Willow Creek Community Church) to resource, encourage and foster leadership within the Church.

Now when the news got out that I was going to Willow Creek this summer, some consternation ensued from two broad groups. The first was from the local crew in Bristol, that I was going to a conservative American church, and that I would come back sold out to an all-American, unreconstructed, all-boys-together approach to church leadership. The other group was Emerging/Alt contacts, who wondered how on earth I could end up going to a church which reflects the kind of Christianity which Emerging Church finds itself in a critical relationship with. All this has given great scope for some leg-pulling, Darth Vader jokes and such like. In fact, I first encountered Willow Creek at the Birmingham International Conference centre for some weeks back in 1992. At that time, I was planning what became Third Sunday Service, and it helped me clarify exactly those new aspects of alt/emerging Christianity needed to offer which were not being incorporated into other tried forms of church (such as Willow) which could be found over in USA. So after a fashion I’m already a debtor to them for the way I’ve come to understand postmodern mission and church life, even if it’s been something of a via negativa.

Spending several days in the area of South Barrington, Illinois (the Chicago suburb where WCCC is located) is instructive in itself. This is the heartland of corporate America. Most of the big American based multinationals have significant bases in the Chicago area, with the Western edge of Chicago being the place where management and executives seem to work and live. This is my first real exposure to the commercial mid-West. This is the America where everyone drives everywhere because everything is scattered across large distances. Shopping is in huge department stores and malls, there are no streets with shops out here. The verges are manicured and irrigated, but devoid of pedestrians. There is no litter. The local Starbucks is filled with executives working at their laptops (some even had printers on display). The whole place is a living, eating, breathing model of The Seven habits of highly effective people (or any other management-consultant book you may wish to select). The achieving is high, the stakes are high, the salaries are astronomic. Everything is slick and very, very professional. As Patrick, a fellow delegate observed: they speak a form of English, but think a form of German. Large, anonymous towers house the offices of the local workforce during the working day. All roads are dual-carriageway and straight. The housing is spacious and tucked away down discreet avenues. Walking around at 9.30am it felt like a meticulously-ordered but, to me, very soul-less physical environment. The conformity of it all made me feel on-edge.

We are staying at the Schaumburg Marriot. The temperature is climate-adjusted. The background music is all out the 1970s. It’s the apotheosis of being a baby-boomer in mid-America. And again, to me, rather spooky. If this is Stepford Wives country, then I suspect that quite a few of the Stepford Wives these days are probably corporate executives, with Hispanic maids to keep the house clean and tidy.

Willow reflects this culture almost exactly. It is about the size of a medium-sized airport terminal (or corporate HQ). The complex includes a conference auditorium which can house about 7000 people – larger than any permanent conference facility in the UK. This is corporate church for corporate America.

Under the surface, however, the usual aspects of church remain the same. Despite its size, Willow Creek is founded on volunteer Christian ministry by lay people, rather than an army of paid professionals. Its worship is broadly similar to the soft-rock worship-song culture of many churches the world over. Its size, however, is enormous. From a mission-perspective, it is an example of an appropriately encultured form of missionary church. Unlike many churches, which could sleepwalk in a culture where the majority of people attend church, Willow has been constant in its attempt to evangelise consistently, sensitively and persistently. That is probably the secret of its size and continued life. It’s exactly right for the place in which it’s located and for the people it’s aiming to serve.

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brodie 16/08/05 - 1:59 pm

Hope you had a good holiday.

Interesting post. I’ve been offered a ticket for a “Global Leadership Summit” that Willow Creek UK are running here in Glasgow. I’ve hummed and hawed over whither I should go or not. Like your friends who questioned you going state-side I’ve an aversion to big, glitzy, pre-packaged, business model ‘Christianity’.

I think I will go now – hey Darth Vader has a great suit!

Thinking Anglicans 27/08/05 - 1:11 pm

holiday weekend columns

(This is a bank holiday weekend in England.) Christopher Howse writes his Telegraph column about the Pope in Cologne, The revolution of the Magi. The Guardian godslot is by Fred Sedgwick and is about the Book of Common Prayer, Prayers…

Amelia 30/12/05 - 11:58 pm

Interesting observations about my home town. You really hit at the heart of the town- if there is one- with one exception: no one I know has ever had a maid. We do have polish cleaning ladies.
Willow Creek, by the way, is seen as a somewhat creepy organization by the youth in the area. The story of its foundation is very neat- in a business studies kind of way. You should get the full story from the church.
FYI, the church is the only structure big enough for Barrington High School’s graduation. Imagine walking across that stage with your mortar board and tassle.

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