A Brit in South Barrington 2

A slightly jet lagged post this one… OK, the Willow Summit is now two days finished, and I’m processing the experience. Culturally, it’s certainly a long way away from the kind of worship and form of Church which lie at the heart of my passions. I can understand, now, something of the drive behind the American Emergent movement not least in the radical departure which they are trying to make. Let’s face it, Willow ‘works’ in the sense that it draws people into an encounter with a gospel message and gives them both the opportunity to respond personally to Jesus Christ and to be integrated into the life of a (very large) church. Would that more UK churches were fractionally as effective at evangelism as Willow Creek. The story of church decline in the UK (currently 55% in UK ‘practically never’ attend church, as opposed to 18% in US: source – USA Today) would be very different if churches showed such commitment to evangelism. But, along with other exponents of Emerging Christianity, I would also want to ask questions of what is being offered, and how it is capable of being received.

I found most of the worship totally disengaging. The quality of the music and presentations was flawless, but the event was coming at me from the front. I was a member of the audience, singing along. But I believe worship to be most expressive of the Body of Christ when all those present are ‘ministers’, each with a significant role in the action of worshiping. Watching, listening and singing along is a poor substitute after experiencing the kinds of hands-on, physical and interactive engagement of Alternative Worship (or, to a lesser extent, more routine liturgical/Eucharistic worship). Alongside this liturgical observation I have a parallel homiletical one: the presentation of the gospel was from front to audience. There is nothing particularly unusual with this model, which Willow did with consummate skill. But again, the Emergent emphasis is different: the gospel is not only a message, but something lived and celebrated in community. Therefore the idea that it is something which is normatively handed over from a presentation at the front now feels very unsatisfying.

This is not to say that Willow folk aren’t living the gospel, but their emphasis on up-front presentation is at the expense of expressing this in what everyone is called on to do in the celebration. I guess that the demands of quality in presentation are at variance with the risk of seeking expression of the gospel through an ordinary, flawed group of people. Moreover, the expression of gospel in community means that it sits very uncomfortably alongside the more unified ‘corporate’ ethos of a Willow-style presentation. Real instances of discipleship tend to be more amateurish, more tentative, than a ‘corporate’ presentation, with its implicit quality-control. No serious corporation would consider placing a half-developed, buggy product in a sales-presentation. But my reading of the New Testament suggests that that’s what Jesus intended the Church’s mission to be like. Of course, Bill Hybels (who is the primary example of the product on display) is honest and transparent about his own failings. But the vast majority of persons in the room would only experience their discipleship outside of the auditorium.

In terms of mission, I found myself reflecting on a comparison with the retail sector. Visiting the Willow Creek was uncannily similar to visiting the big shopping mall in Schaumburg, not far from Willow, which boasts at least three very large department stores. Walking around one of these I happened to comment to Patrick that in Britain (at least in Bristol) these stores would be bankrupt. The age of the big department store, which covers a huge range of products seems to have given way to the smaller boutique, which specializes in a particular kind of niche, style or product. People no longer want to buy their merchandise from a large, anonymous retailer. They want to explore a more individual, eclectic, quirky and personal range of products that are available from smaller shops. Now in terms of the inculturation of mission, this accounts for eclectic, new-age spiritualities. I would not wish to defend this approach, for it surrenders to relativism. None the less, an impersonal, genericized mode of church seems to me to be akin to a department store, rather than a smaller, quirkier context where the individual has a sense of playing a part, making a difference and having a shared sense of ownership. To the postmodern mindset, following the crowd is the last thing you want to be doing. Indeed I was reminded of this principle being exemplified in Karen Ward’s preference for avoiding chain-stores (as well as department stores) in preference to locally-owned trading outlets. This has an ethical component, but it’s also a reflection on what it means to be a human in relationship with other humans.

ALL THIS SAID … There are questions that the Willow kind of approach can ask of Emerging Churches. The first concerns the degree to which Emerging Churches are committed to evangelism. In the UK context, with the huge reduction in Christian affiliation which has occurred in recent decades, that we should only be mildly concerned about Evangelism strike me as either willfully negligent or selfish. Yet many Emerging/Alt groups still seem concerned about the needs of their members at the expense of being concerned to bring the Christian message to people of no faith. I usually talk about this being Church in ‘therapeutic mode’ and, frankly, I’m more than tired of it. The real ‘healing’ surely lies in finding new ways of communicating who Jesus is which do not have the failings that we’ve experienced in other, inherited modes of Church. Although I don’t think the future lies in the way churches like Willow do this, there needs to be a commitment to being a Church-in-mission for postmodernity expressed by Emerging churches, otherwise we will fail to find our destiny as part of the wider Commission Jesus gave to his disciples.

Secondly, while I dislike the ‘church as corporation’ model I discovered at Willow, I am challenged by their commitment to doing things well and getting things done. Too often there’s an amateurishness to building Church (and, for that matter, doing worship) among alt/emerging groups which has more to do with laziness and slipshod approaches than to do with theology or missiology. What’s wrong with working out a clear plan, with a clearly stated set of outcomes and then working and planning to see those outcomes come to fruition? To me the answer would be ‘nothing, provided that the whole process is subject to continuous review and adjustment and is realistic about the fact that we’re culturally plotting a course in unmapped territory’. If I’m right in this, then Alt/Emerging groups do have something to learn from the commercial sector in terms of management techniques as a means to this end. Every creative endeavour has to cope with what Harold Macmillan referred to as ‘events, dear boy, events’.

The Big Unanswered Question for me is the one that surfaces from time to time in Alt/Emerging blogs, lists etc., namely the shape of leadership which is appropriate for the Church in postmodernity. The leadership model of Willow and similar churches is clear: the founding pastor at the top of a very well-structured corporation. This has been explicitly rejected by most in the Alt/Emerging context as dehumanizing and debilitating. There is, furthermore, a parallel questioning of whether there should be any professional or paid roles within postmodern community groupings. There is even discussion as to whether any leadership should exist at all (although my own take on this is that leadership always exists, whether acknowledged, recognised or not). In such a discussion context, translating the leadership models of Willow-type churches to the Alt/Emerging/Postmodern ones seems almost impossible, since this form of Church is as far removed from the metaphor of a business as it is possible to get.


richard 16/08/05 - 7:31 pm

excellent post. thank for this Paul – really helpful and challenging

DashHouse.com 17/08/05 - 11:57 am

A Brit in South Barrington

A Brit reflects on his experience at Willow from an emerging/alt.worship perspective. He models generosity and honesty in his evaluation….

John H 17/08/05 - 8:39 pm

Thinking back to your earlier posting about Willow, I find myself wondering if their approach is actually linked to the lifestyle of the wider community. If everyone is locked into the kind of work-centric culture you describe, then no-one will have the time or energy to engage more actively. If the best the average Jill or Joe Christian can manage is to give generously and hope to be able to have at least one Sunday a month when they don’t have to be in the office (and you can forget having a mid-week evening where you get home before nine), what other options are there?

J.R. 18/08/05 - 4:18 am

Good thoughts. I “attended” the conference from Colorado Springs. As a pastor of an alt/Emergent/20somethings community of faith, I don’t agree with everything Willow does. (Ironically, my dad is on staff at Willow). However, they do an amazing job with this conference.

And the idea of evangelism in the Emergent world is haunting me. This new approach, I have found, isn’t bringing in a new way of evangelism and the kingdom isn’t getting significally larger because of these efforts. I would love to see evangelism stressed more. Hybels had said a few years ago, “Where is the evangelistic movement of the next generation?”That question still remains relatively unanswered at this point.


paul 18/08/05 - 10:47 am

In response to John H: the interesting and challenging thing is that Willow is committed to every-member ministry, keeping its numbers of paid staff to a minimum. The Summit was “staffed” by huge numbers of volunteers from the church, who had taken holiday leave to serve the delegates this way. In addition, the normal ministry of the church relies largely on volunteers who give of their time to the church, even if they have high-intensity jobs and family committments. This I find both impressive and perhaps a bit scary. I hope that this sacrifice also supports a healthy lifestyle where church ministry is kept in tension with personal and family support as well as job commitment. Again, it challenges some of the Alt/Emerging approaches which can sometimes become a bit self-indulgent and me-centred.

Kim 18/08/05 - 6:04 pm

Hi Paul, great conversation. “Full participation” is absolutely a value at Willow. But it’s not scary. I suppose some people overdo it, but that has more to do with their own neurosis than the church.

Imagine you are a member of Willow, you believe that the local church is the hope of the world, you see amazing things happening all the time, wouldn’t you love spending your free time being a part of it?

Rather than getting burnt out, most people are spiritually fed by volunteer work. Suburban sprawl like we have here can really isolate and dehumanize people. Serving elbow to elbow with brothers and sisters in Christ can be one of the most refreshing things we do in a week.

Rick Unruh 18/08/05 - 6:14 pm

For many years I was integrally involved in the musical component at a large church that used Willow Creek as one of the models for worship. Yes we had a very polished band, many small groups, and loads of volunteers. We also had attendance in the thousands every Sunday. There where however, many problems with this model that in the end resulted in me needing to leave that church behind.

Most of the work was done by a core group of volunteers, about ten percent of the congregation doing everything imaginable. Often as you have correctly noted, healthy balance of lifestyle, family, work etc. suffered greatly.

Additionally one of the main reasons that the Willow Creek and other mega church models work (at least in North America)is that while they offer a sub-culture that is a familiar but sanitized version of pop culture, at the same time they divide the world into a place of us and them. The unstated or sometimes very clearly stated message is that you certainly want to be one of us and not one of them…

This kind of theology makes for very committed people but is unhealthy and in my opinion is incongruous with a vision of a big, inclusive and loving God. Too often it is also hardly “good news” to those who may not conform to their Americanized Christian worldview!

cheers, Rick

paul 18/08/05 - 6:49 pm

Hi Kim – wow! a voice from The Source! You’re really welcome and thanks for joining the conversation (and for linking the post on your blog). I think your closing words about the social context were really illuminative: I found the physical environment of the Chicago suburbs quite isolating, with everything spread out and transportation exclusively through automobile (few sidewalks). So I can see what you mean. I guess it’s an interesting question to see how much our church habits, desires and likes/dislikes are related to the way we socialize in our physical environment. Lots of food for thought there.

Rick, thanks too for your comments. I hope that my “comments by an outsider” help illuminate what is cultural, what is theological and what is ecclesiological (gosh, what a lot of -logicals!) in the discussion between emergent forms of Church and more established forms of Church. From my perspective as a Brit I have to try and get some kind of external leverage on my own cultural prejudice. For example, we Brits tend to value qualitative style over quantifiable success, so have a natural aversion for something outstandingly successful with a large take-up. At its worst, this is just cultural snobbery. However, I guess the dream ticket is “qualitative success”. One thing that I also ought to mention in this discussion is that at no point in the Summit did I get the feeling that Willow looked down on smaller churches or leaders of smaller churches, quite the reverse.

Kim 18/08/05 - 8:01 pm

Thanks Paul!

Rick, while the church you left might have been modeling Willow in some areas, it got that “us against them” attitude somewhere else.

Willow is more inclusive than any Christian institution I’ve ever experienced. Hmmm, that might not be saying much…But my point is that Willow’s heart is for the outsider.

We call our weekend programs “seeker” programs because they are designed, not for us, but who feel like church is not for them. Even small groups are set up with inclusivity in mind. We call it the “open chair.” If you’re not looking for someone to fill that open chair in your group you’ve become a clique, and cliques have no place in a church.

And at Willow inclusivity isn’t just about avoiding a club mentality, it’s about embracing diversity within the body, not fitting everyone into some kind of mold. This is something Willow overlooked for a long time, but these days you couldn’t spend a week at Willow without seeing the expression of that value.

I’m not saying Willow get’s it right 100% of the time. There are plenty of valid criticisms that could be raised, I just don’t think that an “us against them” mentality is one of them.

rick unruh 19/08/05 - 1:22 am

Kim…First off let me say I am not trying to be antagonistic. I sometimes wish these conversations could be had over a cup of coffee so you could hear the inflection in my voice and see from my face I am not trying to fight. Words on a screen can often be taken with much more forcefulness than intended.
I do know a lot about “seeker sensitivity” Ok so there are chairs open, I suspect the point of the open chair is to get someone in it so that same someone can be helped to become a Christian IE: more like you…That is a kind of us and them view (in or outside the body of believers)
I don’t want to get into an argument about inclusivity or diversity but I also suspect you and I have vastly different views about what those terms mean.
By way of example let me ask …at Willow how many women are in positions of pastoral and/or ministerial authority? How many gays and lesbians are in positions of pastoral and/or ministerial authority? How many same sex unions has Willow Creek blessed? How many Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Communists, terrorists, Wiccans, Rastafarians, atheists, Gays, Lesbians, (pick any type for that matter) do Willowers believe are welcome within the kingdom of God. These questions are a litmus test for Christian inclusivity and diversity. God loves everyone! The “Good” Shepherd collects all the sheep!

While I appreciate that Willow engages in very public discussion with many “outsiders” and many other faith groups, I contend that underlying all such discussions is the view that those “others” are lost souls condemned by the God that Willowers would call a God of Love. Perhaps one day we could choose to believe that in Jesus all of creation is reconciled.

If Willow really is a place of diversity then you should share this link with Bill Hybels he might like to join in. http://jointhewalk.com/pa.htm

cheers, rick

Kim 19/08/05 - 5:46 pm

Hi Rick! Thanks for clarifying what you meant.

I don’t believe that orthodoxy and inclusivity are mutually exclusive. At Willow we are trying to live out the great commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” These words speak for themselves.

We do have women in every area of leadership; board of directors, elders, pastors. We do welcome everyone from every background into our community. And we do preach the Bible, including it’s exhortations on sexual conduct, faith, and salvation.

jason 19/08/05 - 9:36 pm


i’m not sure a community that has absolutely no defining boundaries actually qualifies as a community. jesus’ own gospel is an invitation to “be one of us, and not one of them.” if you erase all vestiges of exclusivity then there’s nothing to be invited out of, and nothing to be invited into…because you’re already in.

now, i am a big believer that the gospel is incredibly hospitable; that the doors are wide open for everyone to enter. but there’s a significant difference between saying on the one hand that transformation is available to everyone, and and saying on the other hand that affirmation is availabe to everyone.

rick unruh 20/08/05 - 2:30 am

Ok I love these sort of conversations….

Kim great to hear that women are very involved in Willow. That is very encouraging indeed. Regarding “preaching” the Bible, I have read the Willow statement of faith and am aware, for the most part, of what gets preached.

Jason, the closing line of your first paragragh is exactly the point. You are already in. Everyone is. That kind of affirmation is truly transformative.

Erik 22/09/05 - 4:28 am

Thank you for your blog on the South Barrington experience. It was a Godsend.

Amazing timing — I was just discussing the Willow Creek Leadership Summit worship yesterday with an “emergent” worship leader who has been challenging some of my long-held notions of worship and church structure. Our church and student ministry staff (about 30 sraff) have been wrestling with some pretty fundamental questions over the last year about “What is the church?” “Why do we do things the way we do?” “What does authentic community, ministry, and worship among postmoderns look like?” etc.

Our leadership team was in South Barrington for the Willowcreek Leadership Summit. Your observations in your blog were tremendously helpful for analyzing where we are as a church and, perhaps, the direction we need to head in this challenging and exciting transition God has been leading our churches/ministries in.
Thank you!

The Writer


The Time

clockTH clockUH Valve clockTM clockUM Valve clockTS clockUS
  • Category Cloud

  • Meta

  • Make me happy!