Visit to Willow Creek Community Church

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on October 14, 2009

Sorry for no posts lately. Shadows and Symbols has been on travel recently, including visits to two interesting churches. I’ll be describing my impression of these visits in the next two Shadows and Symbols posts.

Willow Creek Community Church is the third largest megachurch in the United States. Its main campus is located in the northwestern Chicago suburb of South Barrington, Illinois. I visited Willow Creek’s main campus recently for its Saturday night service.

The Willow Creek facilities are massive. Just driving up to the parking lot is like driving into the parking lot of a basketball or hockey arena or a large shopping mall. Parking attendants guided our car through each part of the parking lot to our parking space. After leaving our car, we entered one of the large number of doors into the main campus building. We walked down a wide hallway that led into the open air cafeteria. Food service lines, where people could buy cafeteria food, were visible on the right side as we walked into the cafeteria area.

Rounding another curve, we finally approached the main auditorium. And I say main auditorium because there is another smaller, overflow auditorium next to the lake on the left as we walked past the cafeteria. The main auditorium can seat thousands of people in theater-style seating. The very large room is divided into balcony, mezzanine, and main levels, each separated by escalators.

After taking our seats near the front of the main level, the house lights were dimmed and a set of drummers on the stage began a series of energetic beats. After a period of three minutes, two large choirs filed onto the two sides of the stage. A handful of  praise singers or leaders also came onto the stage and positioned themselves at the front of the stage and began leading the congregation (audience) in a series of fairly simple praise songs. Two very large projection screens displayed the lyrics for each song in English and Spanish. The volume of the music was loud but not overpowering. It seemed clear to me that the volume for the music had been carefully considered and calibrated.

The overall experience of the Willow Creek music for me was that it was very professionally produced and managed, but that it was in no way a transcendent spiritual experience. For me, probably the best part of the music service was the scripture reading by the song leaders during a musical pause in the middle of the songs.

After the music, there was a series of announcements and a brief video presentation. After this, Willow Creek senior and founding pastor Bill Hybels came onto the stage to give his message, which lasted about 25 minutes. Bill Hybels, one of the foremost proponents of the “seeker-sensitive” movement for churches (although that’s a term that I don’t think that Mr. Hybels uses), gave what appeared to be a completely scripted message. During the message, Mr. Hybels did explain his approach to evangelism, which is closely linked to local churches. Other than, perhaps, the importance of evangelism and its link to the local church, there was little that was spiritually challenging or profound during this talk. There was some mention of fighting poverty and social justice, but this seemed to me to be dissonant to the ears, hearing it inside of one of the wealthiest church facilities in the United States.

I would like to stress that there is no spontaneity whatsoever during the Willow Creek service. Nothing is given to chance or surprise, and every action appears to be scripted down to the nearest second. The lighting in the auditorium is fairly dark, so it is difficult to see one’s neighbors or read anything (such as a Bible) other than what is on the projection screens. The setting made it impossible to interact with other people during the service time, other than a brief time of saying hello to one another near the beginning of the service.

Shadows and Symbols did appreciate some of the people that I met while visiting Willow Creek, including some of the other congregants and ushers. I also appreciated that people genuinely seemed to be pleased to be there and were positive about their experiences at Willow Creek. Willow also had none of the very visible displays of the American flag, such as Matt Pritchard of At The Margins saw when visiting the largest megachurch in the United States, Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas. In fact, the Willow Creek auditorium displayed no typical church items or symbols of any kind, such as a cross, a pulpit, or an altar.

However, that being said, Willow Creek appeared to Shadows and Symbols to be overproduced and too large in numbers. A person could both enter and exit the service anonynously, with no meaningful contact with other people within the church community. While respectful of Mr. Hybels’s innovative approached to evangelism, I encountered really nothing that could be said to be a spiritual experience. A completely secular presentation could have been substituted for the Willow Creek service and it might have produced about the same level of spritual transcendence or sense of community.