In 2007, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago made a rather stunning admission. Its church model, influenced by practices in the business world, defined spiritual maturity as participation in programs. And programs had abounded. Membership had grown phenomenally. Local church leaders from around the country flocked to its training programs and implemented their own versions of Willow Creek.
At the church we were then attending in St. Louis, we had witnessed – and experienced – the implementation of the Willow Creek model. Programs proliferated. Ministries were made over. Studies of books of the Bible were replaced by studies of The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson and Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. Some ministries, successful and needed ones like the prayer ministry, were eliminated.
At congregational meetings, when asked if the church was aiming to become a Willow Creek, the elders would deny it. Over successive meetings, the questions became confrontations. The elders would deny it, often heatedly. And they would continue to send staff to Willow Creek seminars and training programs, and invite the congregation to Willow Creek video training programs.
I was asked to be a member of the elder board on the basis of my experience in corporate communications. I declined, pointing out that it wasn’t one of the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy.
We stayed at the church longer than we should have. I kept holding on and praying for change. It only got worse. Ultimately, the church lost a huge percentage of its members, hit financial difficulties, and laid off numerous staff members.
And then came the 2007 statement by Willow Creek. They had been wrong. The model had been wrong. Programs and participation did not result in spiritual maturity. People were not being helped. People were not become more mature and better equipped disciples.
I do have commend Willow Creek for its admission. But for those churches that went chasing the Willow Creek model, and chased it for years, this was a train wreck. We may never fully know the extent of the wreckage, the wreckage in local churches, the wreckage in the church at large, and the wreckage in individual church members and families.
Last week, I began reading Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I was ten pages into it when I thought the authors were writing about my own experience with churches we’ve attended.
Slow Church is about how churches, and especially if not solely churches in Protestant evangelical America, have been capture by the culture. And it’s about what might be done to find a way back. I won’t call it a recovery program for the Willow Creek problem, but there is at least some truth to that. The book contains so much insight that I plan to write about it here for several Mondays to come.
I wish the authors had written Slow Church a decade ago. It explains much.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.