Farewell, Willow Creek: Where the “Regular” Churches Can Go From Here
by Jonathan Aigner
It looks like the beginning of the end at Willow Creek. They aren’t saying that, but I feel like that’s what’s happening.
If so, good riddance.
And you can take the megachurch movement you spawned with you.
I’m sorry if I sound bitter. I’m not, really. More relieved than anything else. Saddened for the stories of abuse, gaslighting, and hero worship. Grieved by the commoditization of human hearts and souls, the theological void, and the liturgical collapse. But relieved that this sad chapter in American religious history is rattling to an end.
Stanley Hauerwas said that the church growth movement was “the death gurgle of a church that had lost its way.”
Well, one of the biggest players is dying a quick death.
It was bound to happen anyway, regardless of the specific failures of Bill Hybels and the inept, buffoonish response of the Willow Creek board.
See, the rest of us are tired. We’re tired of having to compete with the downtown destination or suburban center house of entertainment that calls itself a church. We don’t have the energy, we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the desire, but we’ve felt like we’ve had to conform. Because you were growing, and we were shrinking! We felt like we had to do something drastic.
Paranoia struck so deep in our hearts and souls that, in desperation, we cried out for your bag of tricks. So we signed up for your silly, overpriced conferences. We copied the happy, clappy dreck you dared to call worship. We tried to find a charismatic leader like yours. We tried to be a mini-Willow in our own neck of the woods. We gave up ourselves: our message, our mission, our liturgy, our identity.
No more. We’re tired. We’re disillusioned. We’re embarrassed. We’re just done.
After decades of believing churches like Willow Creek had discovered the antidote, after 25 years of copying, emulating, strategizing, and leadership conferencing, we’re finding out that we’ve built our behemoth, nondescript church buildings on the sand like the foolish people we are.
Well, Weeping Willow Creek and all others of its ilk, we’re on to you. We see the chinks in your armor, and they’re gaping open ever wider with each passing day. Another one of your empires has fallen, and others will follow soon.
We should have known all along.
Celebrity pastors cannot possibly be good shepherds to their people.
Attractional worship is only entertainment, nothing more.
A fast food version of Jesus can never be the real version of Jesus.
The church growth movement leads to a bloated, unhealthy body of people who don’t really understand what they’ve signed up for.
Capitalism does not hold the keys to evangelism.
The Pastor as CEO idea will always fail, often with far-reaching, disastrous results.
Big churches are not good role models for the rest of our churches. In fact, their methods will ruin us, too, if we’re not careful.
Though Willow Creek and those like it may crumble and fall, the church will go on. God will preserve it, and none else can stop it. We know that the cosmic renewal, redemption, and restoration has already begun, set in motion by God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ.
But here in this culture, it must almost begin anew. The megachurch movement was nothing more than a last ditch effort to save a church created in our own image. The calling is clear: Christ must be born again within us.
So church, it’s time to rediscover your sacred, holy identity. It was never just about filling pews. Go on about the gospel that still calls to you. Go on with your liturgy. Preach the Word, administer the sacraments. Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God, even as it become more novel, more strange, and more isolating. Spread the great and glorious news that Jesus Christ has brought into this world, even when your culture no longer gives it lip service.
After all, church, what does it proffer you if you gain thousands of butts in your seats, but give up your heart and soul?
Nothing. In fact, church, you lose, and you lose big.
Adding more campuses is not discipleship.
Hiring more staff is not church growth.
Getting more butts in the seats is not evangelism.
So free yourselves from the church growth obsession.
Free yourselves from your slavery to numbers. Free yourselves from the neurotic counting. Free yourselves from the mind-numbing, maddening task of data disaggregation. Release yourselves from the anxiety over empty pews. Realize that you don’t have to keep wondering what you will eat or drink or wear if your budgets shrink.
Remove the [obsession with church] growth.
Free yourselves from what your Americanized gospel thinks of as success, because if you don’t, you may just end up in the same boat as this giant.
Resist the temptation to use worship as a hook, a holy bait-and-switch. Because your message is sounding more and more like an unwanted, confrontational Amway spiel. It sounds like you want people in your services because you’ve got some property for sale somewhere that’s too good to be true.
Free yourselves for the higher calling of the Gospel of Christ. Be who you are called to be. Stop counting. Stop strategizing. Jesus promises that he is engaging enough, even though the most numerically successful churches claim otherwise.
Maybe it’s time we stop trying to top him, and just take him at his word.
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Jonathan blogs at Ponder Anew.