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Willow Creek Chicago – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
Oct 132007

The Sunday I attended Willow Creek Chicago Church was the three-ring circus I was expecting and then some. There were good points. The music was good, and they had a string section in addition to the usual praise guitars, drums, and keyboards (I love strings). They also had a small choir plus praise team. There was both drama and dancing. The pastor is a good speaker, and the sermon had interactive aspects. But everything was very “I” and “me” oriented with a “what can God do for me” mentality. There was also the jump from salvation to heaven. We’re saved to go to heaven. There was nothing about building God’s kingdom and being Christ’s ambassadors here on earth. There was a huge emphasis in the sermon that we are made in the image of God, but there was nothing about imaging God to our world. We’re saved to have a private, personal walk with Jesus until we go to heaven. There were also no ties with the church-at-large or the historical church. There was no communion, which didn’t surprise me. There was nothing said at the end of the service about going out to be God’s image in our communities and doing kingdom work.

The Willow Creek service tended to be on the schizoid side. We sang. Then there was the welcome and greeting each other. The sermon was next. The first time I thought the sermon was over was when the drama started. But the sermon continued after that. Then there was a song, and the sermon continued after that and then finally finished. Then more songs. The service was set to get people emotional and elicit an emotional response (one of the final songs was “I Could Only Imagine”–again no hint of “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” or a more up-to-date song of that vein–only heaven). It was also very personal and very private: Jesus saves me. Jesus loves me. There wasn’t any intentional corporate communal worship outside of shaking hands with a few people. EVERY song revolved around the words “I” and “me.” There was no “we.” There was no corporate sense that we are God’s people here to do God’s will and build God’s kingdom.

The Sunday I attended was their one year anniversary, so they had a slide show. 95% of their volunteers are for the Sunday morning service. Most of the church’s resources are spent on that one service. There is some community ministry, but considering the church runs 1,200-1,500, it doesn’t seem like a lot. They do have small groups and are starting neighborhood groups that would meet once a month. But again this is around 5% of the volunteers, which is what percentage of the church? And how many people actually attend the small groups? That number was not included in the slide show. Are they getting the substance and grounding they need in the groups? Because they are not getting it Sunday, or that Sunday anyway.

I definitely like William Law’s order of worship better. As I said in my previous post in this series, there are many modes of worship: singing, reading, listening, communal, and sacramental. At Willow Creek the major two modes of worship were singing and preaching with a nod to the communal through a short greeting and offering. Outside of the singing, the congregation sat passively through most of the service except for the few interactive parts of the sermon. And it was a long service due to the anniversary stuff: 1 hour and 45 minutes.

I would like most of my church’s resources to be going out and most of “church” to take place outside the walls of the church. I want most of my volunteers to be out and about making a difference in the world. This is not going to be too big of a problem, since the church I’m planting will start in my living room (I’m planning on starting January 6). And I’m wondering if that’s a good way to start? No upkeep or maintenance expense; we can focus on what we can do in this neighborhood, in this community. How can we be the body of Christ in the South Loop incarnationally while we don’t have a building or formal place to meet? I like those questions. I think I’m going to be doing church very differently from the traditional model. And I’m okay with that, or I’m getting okay with it. If nothing else going to different churches and services helps me solidify my philosophy of ministry and worship. And I think that is a good thing.

Related posts:
W Is for Worship
A Via Media for Worship

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 Posted by at 3:18 pm

  4 Responses to “Willow Creek Chicago”

  1. Shawna, Mark Hendrickson here (Stefanie’s hubby) from NTS/HQ. Check out this link from Sally Morgenthaler where she pretty much trashes her previous work in the area of worship. She’s also got a chapter in “Emergent Manifesto of Hope.” It gets REALLY good toward the end, and after reading your Willow Creek post I think it might be helpful.


  2. Thanks Mark. And I remember you. After all I knew both you and Stefanie at seminary before you even started dating. And now you’re old married folk having a baby! Congratulations. I’m sorry to be so late answering your comment. I’ve been having a lot of headaches (goes along with depression), so I’ve been limited on computer time.

  3. […] also: Willow Creek Chicago A Via Media for Worship W Is for Worship […]

  4. Your blog caught my eye this morning, as a hymn historian, because of your passing reference to Frank North’s powerful hymn, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.” (Today is the 159th anniversary of his birth.) But I found your comments on Willow Creek most interesting.

    I’m no certainly no fan of their style of ministry, but I do have one caution: Though I think you assessment is likely correct, it is perhaps a little unfair to judge a church by one service. Perhaps they do things differently other times. Speaking of the church I attend, and the many churches where I’ve preached, that is the case.

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