Visit to Solomon’s Porch

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on November 08, 2009

In addition to a visit to Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, Shadows and Symbols also had the opportunity recently to visit Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Because Solomon’s Porch is a much smaller faith community than Willow Creek, I’ll be keeping many of the details of the service/meeting at Solomon’s Porch purposefully vague. Since the service at Willow Creek had more than 10,000 attendees, there was really no expectation of privacy for what was said or heard there by anyone present. On the other hand, the meeting at Solomon’s Porch had only 100-120 people present; so, even though their meetings are open to the public, there should be a much greater expectation of privacy for any services that are held there, and I’ll be respecting that here.)

Just walking into Solomon’s Porch is a wonderful experience in itself. Meeting in what used to be a moderately small and traditional church building, Solomon’s Porch has completely redesigned what most of us would expect to see when we enter a church. Instead of pews or rows of stacking chairs, one is greeted by circles of easy chairs and sofas. In the middle is a stool that can be rotated for the speaker to see everyone. The concept is similar to theater in the round. The part of the room that used to be for the choir also has sofas and easy chairs. The only difference with the old choir area from the rest of the room was that it was elevated slightly. Most traces of traditional church building symbols, such as a pulpit or altar, were also not present. A large wooden cross, however, was visible above the old choir area. Solomon’s porch is also an artist’s colony, and several original paintings from that artistic community are visible next to the wooden cross above the former choir stage.

After a period of time, the music band, a group of about four musicians, began to play a set of original songs, each evidently composed by musicians within Solomon’s Porch. The music was great, refreshingly original, and one of the best parts of the service. The lyrics of the songs were definitely original as well and somewhat open-to-interpretation as per exact theological meaning. Periodically, the music stopped and gave way to what I might term “a light touch of liturgy”.

Rather than a sermon from one pastor or preacher, there was a guided discussion time, with readings from Bible on two projection screens on both sides of the church building. This part of the service was led by the leader of Solomon’s Porch Doug Pagitt. The thing that I noticed (and respected) the most about this was that, rather than shying away from controversial subjects, Mr. Pagitt and the congregation took theologically difficult subjects head on.

The pace of the service was leisurely and the exact starting and ending times of the service and the parts within in it didn’t seem to matter or be important. In fact, Solomon’s Porch is really a community experience rather than a church service, as you would commonly think of it. So if you’re ever in Minneapolis on a Sunday night, I’d highly recommend a visit to Solomon’s Porch.

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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.

The New Monasticism: The 12 Marks: Mark #5

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 21, 2009

“Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church”

To say that we are the body of Christ is to say that we are the ones that are inside of him. It is also to say that we are the visible expression of Christ Jesus on the earth. We, the body of Christ, are the conscious expression of Christ in this world.

The word “church” originally meant “called-out ones”. So, to be in the body of Christ means to be called out of the way of life of the world-systems of the kosmokrator and into the body of the Lord Jesus himself. To be his called-out ones, we are called out of …


… and into …


By saying that we are submitting ourselves to the body of Christ, we come into complete agreement with God’s plan for the world. A body submits itself to the direction of its head. Likewise, the body of Christ submits itself to the leading of its head, who is the Christ.

And God’s plan for the world is not for millions of individual but separate and disjointed relationships with him. Rather, his yearning is for a fully unified assembly of followers throughout the whole world. Yet this is something much more than a temporary meeting of people from time to time. Rather, it is a living and organic body of followers. It is a state of being where we are in him and he is in us. This is truly what it means to be bodily present.

Ultimately, this mark implies a radical coming-together of the body of Christ in love. This is where perfect love casts out all fear.

Book Review: “Quitting Church”

Posted in: Reviews by bill-o on October 11, 2008

“Quitting Church” is a very good snapshot of the current state of the Church in the United States. As the field of accounting has both the balance sheet (a snapshot in time of the finances of a company) and the income statement (the top line and bottom line), this book could be compared to the balance sheet of Christianity in the U.S. The book is written by  Julia Duin, religion editor of The Washington Times.

[A little background that is not in the book might be helpful here. “Church quitters” are often looked upon very negatively in evangelical church circles. They are usually seen as spiritual backsliders, a dangerous spiritual state for Christians. “Church hoppers” are those who frequently change church congregations. While not as bad as quitters, hoppers are sometimes looked at with some level of caution, depending upon the circumstances involved. Finally, churches that lose a substantial number of members are often called “dead” or “dead churches”.]

In the past, mainline denominations were losing members during the last few decades. Today, it is the evangelical churches that are cresting in attendance and beginning to lose congregants. Evangelicals, who once openly criticised mainline churches for being “dead” are now beginning to watch their own members head out the doors. The author says the following about what she calls (appropriately) the “evangelical monolith”: “… [It] is simply the emperor before losing his clothes. The form is there, but the substance-the strength and the people-has long departed.” “Quitting Church” is a book which discusses the issues surrounding this new phenomena of people quitting the evangelical church.

A key part of the book was how Ms. Duin compares the state of the Church in the U.S. in the 1970s to today. The 70s were the last move of true spiritual power and fervor in Christianity in the U.S. The 70s were the peek of the Charismatic movement as well as an influx of new believers into non-Charismatic evangelical churches. However, the spontanaeity and freshness of the move of the Holy Spirit thirty years ago has now been replaced with services that are either micromanaged and packaged to the point of being cold, dry, and boring or that revolve around the personalities of their pastors.

The reasons for people quitting their churches are varied: spiritual abuse (not a main topic of this book), boredom, or loneliness (especially in large churches). Men and singles, in particular, are abandoning traditional church structures as they perceive that their particular spiritual needs are not being met. Working mothers may be the next large group of believers to leave. Young adults are also absenting themselves from churches: As Ms. Duin notes, soon, only 4% of U.S. teens will be Bible-believing Christians. If present trends continue, the church in the U.S. will be half of its current size in 15 years.

As with most problems in organizations, we must start by looking at the top, and pastors (ministers) come in for both criticism and sympathy in “Quitting Church”. In the book, pastors are “surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail”. In “Quitting Church”, pastors who started out fearless eventually became timid. After all, fearless leaders “unnerve the structure”. Pastors are caught in a system that requires them to spend 12 to 15 hours of preparation each week to give a sermon each Sunday. This inevitably leads to cutting corners as per the intellectual substance of their messages. What is preached on Sunday mornings is now less and less challenging. Pablum is substituted for substance. In today’s churches, new Christians are spiritually fed, but the more mature are bored. Today’s messages from the pulpit are “spiritual baby food”. Many pastors themselves are burned out and are quitting church, too. Churches in the U.S. are much more akin to Corporate America than to the 1st-century communities of Christ-followers. They are institutions where “senior pastors” and “executive pastors” (terms found nowhere in the New Testament, by the way) act like CEOs and vice presidents of corporations.

So, what would draw people back to church? An answer that Ms. Duin points to is the yearning for community. After all, following Christ means living a way of life. Churches may become more open in format and less focussed on the audience vs. preacher paradigm. House churches are also on the rise. Some will abandon evangelical churches for Catholicsm or Orthodoxy. People could even move to web-based churches where “congregants” log in and out. The emerging church will also draw its share of those who had previously quit church.

As Mark Batterson is quoted as saying in this book: “Coffeeshouse are postmodern wells, and we are following in the footsteps of Jesus and meeting at wells. I have a sense that God is calling the church out of the church.” This reflects what Sam Soleyn calls the “decentering” of the Church. Mr. Soleyn has noted how this decentering process must precede the Church’s eventual “recentering”. The book “Quitting Church” is a good snapshot of the decentering work that is going on in today’s Christianity.

As Ms. Duin quotes a friend of hers saying: “The church is not like Christ”. The church needs to “decenter” to the point where it is like Christ and then it can build towards a brighter and more organic future.


Book Review: “The End of Religion”

Posted in: Reviews,Spirituality by bill-o on August 05, 2008

“The End of Religion” is a book with a serious and provocative title. Yet even though this is indeed a serious work, its touch and tone are light for those readers who are truly seeking Jesus but not a religious institution. As the author, Bruce Cavey, teaching pastor of the Meeting House in the Toronto area, freely explains, this book is for those who love Jesus but who are burnt out on religion.

Even though this is ultimately a theological book, it is conversational in tone. For example, Mr. Cavey’s story of his own marriage having matured into a love-based relationship does more to explain why love is better than law than a long, technical theological dissertation ever could. The author’s retelling of a chance meeting with an atheist who loved the Golden Rule but didn’t know Jesus had said it also provides an important touch of humanity and personality. The reader gets a sense of actually sitting across a comfortable living room and talking to the author over a casual cup of coffee, even though weighty spiritual issues are being discussed.

For those readers more inclined to a Bible-teaching style, a substantive discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as an examination of the Greek word skandalon in the gospels, will you provide you with what you are looking for.

The essence of the book can probably best be summarized in the author’s story (parable) of the couple Bob and Sue. To rekindle the romance in their marriage, Bob planned a special dinner at a restaurant, capped off by the presentation of a blue rose. However, Bob then invited Sue to several more dinners just like it at the same restaurant. What started out the first time as something romantic and special became routine, monotonous, and even more than a little strange each time after the first dinner. And so it is with religion.

For Mr. Cavey, excessive religion is an “organzational dependence”. This is where a person depends in whole or in part in a organization (institution) for access to God. Religion, as he sees it, is marked by the presence of fear and not its absence. It seems that avoiding this fear-and-dependence trap will bring someone much closer to the religion-less life that the author extols.

What does the author means when he says “the end of religion”? Mr. Cavey’s ideas about this title phrase come to a climax in the chapter, “The Day Religion Died”. Here, he writes:

“Yes, the Bible says that Jesus died for our sins. But it also says that he died for our religion. In Christ, God crucified the whole mess once and for all. In fact, by repeatedly emphasizing that Jesus died for our sins, the biblical writers were emphasizing the end of religion as a way to God.”

There is not necessarily a lot of practical application in this book (other than a paragraph at the end encouraging readers to “seek out intentional community”). In other words, if you agree with the author that Jesus declared the end of religion, then what do you now? Such a question is valid. However, that’s not the point of a book like this. “The End of Religion” challenges and confronts long-held assumptions about Jesus and religion. The author properly leaves it to others (expressly including his readers) to illuminate the next steps in turning this theory into practice.

It’s not a main theme of the book, but I do appreciate when the author mentions his own church congregation, the Meeting House. The Meeting House is evidently “a church for people who aren’t into church”. Rather than seeking to build the largest possible institutional church, Mr. Cavey freely admits that he expects his church to exist in a radically different form in another gerenation. Mr. Cavey clearly seems not to be a pastor who is writing his book as a stepping stone to megachurch superstardom or as a vehicle to prop up his own ministry.

If you’re looking for a long, technical treatise on theology, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a breath of fresh air about Jesus and his love, then I would recommend this book to you.

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