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.
• • •
Jonathan blogs at Ponder Anew.
59 thoughts on “Jonathan Aigner — Farewell, Willow Creek: Where the “Regular” Churches Can Go From Here”
Exactly. This author sounds like Satans voice attacking the Bride of Christ. Every local church has issues–every one! Pray. Pray for Gods will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven (I make no claim to fully know Gods will for my own life let alone a whole local church. Grow up in the Lord 🙂
Your Christianese Moral Virtue Signalling is duly noted, Vinny.
Another facet of The Coming Evangelical Collapse?
And not having sex.
“He does seem to think that the outrage over abuse and mis-conduct is ridiculous. Wonder what he’s up to.” he’s not ‘up to’ much, because he’s been dead for a long time, so he wasn’t commrenting about our current cultural climate–that quote at least 30 years old. mr. capon could write some baffling things, but he was a good guy, and his book about the parables, called ‘kingdom grace judgment’ is pretty awesome. happy labour day every body.
Sounds like Chan stumbled onto a copy of Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church.
It would have been interesting to see what RFC would have said about SGM…
I understand Capon to be saying that “actionable peccadilloes” are as much a result of the model as they are individual choices. The leadership model that Willow Creek enshrined cloaked from the “congregation” actionable peccadilloes of the high leader for an extended time. And, as we have seen with WC, the entire “board of directors” had to resign.
There, the corporate model works just fine. ;o/
depends on the ‘atheist’, I’d say, for how they write . . . . some are more ‘Christ-like’ than you find on heavily homophobic sites like SBCtoday where some who write are vitriolic in their contempt for LBGT people.
I’d say take people as they come. The old labels turn us into something that keeps us from doing that and we are the losers in the end, and so is our community, and apparently, our nation.
Why are atheists now writing for Internet Monk? Harsh, judgmental, and not very Christ-like, you say? Exactly what I thought as I read this post. Guess we’re even.
I must add my two cents worth and that is with inflation factored in. I have really enjoyed and appreciated the comments here today. It is one of the times where the comments are far better than the original article.
Single 16-25 year olds (and the accompanying sermons against ‘predatory dating’) and Married 35-50 year olds (and the accompany sermons against childlessness).
Funny how the happiest couples I know started off from that ‘predatory dating’ approach or chose to stay childfree for a very long while.
Funny how the unhappiest singles I know did not engage in ‘predatory dating’ and chose instead to keep waiting for ‘God’s chosen’.
Funny how the worst off couples I know were forced to have kids early and often before establishing themselves.
Yet more lies. Yet more bs. Reality and truth and happiness is so often the opposite of what’s preached.
….yes, I am bitter, and guess what? I’m not ashamed of it or afraid of being called it. Because bitterness can help fuel rage which leads to change which leads to justice and love.
I think it’s Aigner who was being mean, not you. You just called him on it.
I agree, Bryan. Megachurches are not going away. If I personally had to choose between going to a mega or going to none, I would stay home. But my preferences doesn’t change the fact that they are here to stay, in all likelihood far longer than the mainlines where I make my church home.
I agree Ric. The fall of Willow Creek and others churches like it, for good reasons or bad, hurts real live people, and many of them. It’s like a death, for some. The tone of the post was mean-spirited and uncaring.
Yep, there is a lot of demographic and economic pressure wound up in the mega-church phenomenon.
> tend to drift away after a few years; I’ve not been able to establish why
Because the principle reason for going fades?
> or simply because megachurches offer . . .
. . . child care! This is a **BIG** one.
And when I was younger, college age, it offered a community of peers, which no smaller church could provide. The smaller churches had, and have, **VERY** high median ages.
Many mega-churches knew to place themselves near colleges and universities, or at least at interstate exists where they were easily reachable.
So the megas offer systemic advantages for 16-25 and 35-50 year olds. I have not looked at any data in a long time, but I would wager you tacos you will find bulges in the age distributions matching that pattern.
Bitterness, frustration, and exhaustion easily intermingle.
He may not be principally bitter. 🙂
I know. It is built into how most affluent people in America live, the church is called on as a backstop to sociological and community decay. So, it steps up, but that isn’t its proper role, so it’s weird.
Later on as the children get older often times church gives way to sports, which can serve the same purpose.
The transition from that to something else is still a dimly lit path.
I don’t know that I’m channeling cynicism – I certainly hope not. More like resignation. I’ve faced it myself. When faced with the choice of attending a smaller, real community, true pastoral, caring church vs a larger megachurch…….the choice was incredibly difficult. And I’ve seen the same decision being made by Christian friend after friend. It’s sobering. I don’t see ANYTHING on the horizon to change this trend. Certainly not Willow Creek. It’s going to take something much more foundational than that.
I’m speaking what I see as the truth – megachurches aren’t going away – as much as I feel that would be good for the American church. So if that frightens you……what frightens me are people who are afraid of the truth.
But it’s no reason to join hands and walk off the nearest cliff. That would be quite the overreaction!
It’s a typical Patheos outrage post and not what I’ve come to expect from Internetmonk. Honestly, I don’t feel like I was being mean – it was a ridiculous post by Aigner. I compared him to the worst of Christian outrage culture – on both the right and left. That’s all – I didn’t make personal insults. fwiw
Really big churches are not new. Apparently there have been churches of several thousands since the last century – tens of thousands is the product of better transport and a higher population, not any particular innovation, as far as I can see. Willow Church’s collapse may be particularly spectacular but mega churches seem to have a natural shelf life: although there is a trend towards bigger churches generally, none of the biggest churches now are the same churches that were the mega churches of 20-30 years ago.
I have looked into the statistics on this and it is true that megachurches tend to recruit in the main existing churchgoers (although not always “poaching” – they may grow because they are in an area lots of people are moving to who have left churches back gone etc). Megachurch attendees also (according to some statistics) tend to drift away after a few years; I’ve not been able to establish why, or where they go, or if they stay in a church at all.
I think cause and effect may be muddled here, though: if small local churches have something megachurches lack, why are people leaving the small churches for megachurches? The trend is way older than modern marketing methodzin any event.
My suspicion is megachurches are a symptom, not a cause, and given how long the trend for ever larger churches has actually been going on it has little to do with flashy audiovisuals or pop-concert style praise bands. Christian churches have lost or are losing something which made ordinary modest size church communities work as a vehicle for the Christian life and the work of the Holy Spirit. People are drawn to megachurches because they hope to find it there, or because enthusiasn, excitement and spectacle can be a reasonable substitute for a fair period of time., or simply because megachurches offer (only better and with a bigger budget) all modest size churches do if they lose or are losing this “X” they no longer have.
I don’t know what this “X” is, though. I think it may centre round community, round people’s lives being intertwined outside just Sunday mornings, or through mentoring and discipleship and spiritual formation of people into seven days a week Christians rather than Sunday morning churchgoers, or something. The church needs to find it, though, and fast, or die on its feet.
Yeah, I first noticed the quotes, which discredited everything after. Plus, apparently fighting against harassment hinders the spread of the Gospel (uh, no).
I had the same reaction as Ric. Although I believe that the points Aigner makes are good ones, the tone of the piece put me off.
Besides the general consumer values we hold as a culture, I think the push toward megachurches is one of the results of the “wretched urgency” that our dear Michael Spencer described so well. If wretched urgency is what “the gospel” produces, then the wrong gospel is being preached. “What does Jesus say the Good News is in the Gospels?” was the question that led me into the wilderness and eventually out of Evangelicalism – ironic, since “evangelical” means “according to the good news”. I came to believe that what was being announced was not good news, because it left so many loose threads dangling and, in many cases, it left people hanging out to dry when the promised “wonderful plan for your life” did not materialize, or other difficulties arose.
Hello John B.
“It is sad that good people of all faiths who get betrayed by their leader are the ones who really feel the impact and have a crisis of faith, in many cases.”
I was thinking that if the ‘faith’ was in those who did wrong, then sure there would be a ‘crisis of faith’;
but in the case of the faith of Christ, those who kneel at the foot of the Cross already know the capacity of our kind to do evil on this Earth.
Good counterpoint, Ric. I’ve witnessed large churches too where Christ has been the center.
I think the point is, though, that megachurches have a tendency to have a sort of gravitational pull toward its charismatic leader. There’s a real danger, then, of them losing focus, and a real need for good, healthy accountability processes. Clearly if a charismatic leader doesn’t allow for associates or lay-leaders to point out their blind spots, unhealthy practices have a danger of creeping in.
It is a shame, though, when Jesus’ churches take a hit because of the failings of its leaders. Lord have mercy indeed.
I find myself deeply disturbed by this article. We seem to have forgotten that Willow Creek is a church of Jesus Christ. If we are Christians, the people of Willow Creek are our deeply hurting bothers and sisters. We should be praying for their healing, the healing of the victims, and, yes, the healing of Bill Hybels.
I have been to Willow Creek for a conference. It was excellent. Jesus was the center.
Growing up, I was part of a church of around 100. As an adult I was part of a church of around 3,000 Both of those churches were full of loving, caring Christ-followers who tried to represent Jesus to others. The size of the church doesn’t determine its spiritual life and vitality: the Holy Spirit does. I think that tearing down churches that are different from ours and rejoicing when tragedy strikes them grieves Him deeply. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
Apologies Bryan! I thought the author had written the post just for this site, but he didn’t.
I like Chan. He seems to wrestle honestly with the tensions of being a leader, especially a church leader.
I agree with both of you, ATW and Patricia. That Capon piece is dripping with a smugness and coming from an angle I’m not sure I agree with. For instance, the paragraph that begins, “For still another thing, all the clergy, mega or mini, who try to turn back the tide of marginality begin to burn out at an alarming rate” is a real head-scratcher. Burnout leads to “sexual harassment”…??? Seriously. And why the use of “quotes” around “sexual harassment”, Mr. Capon? Do you not believe there’s true sexual harassment happening?
Then there is this:
“As I said, there may well be some good intentions behind our current alarms and excursions over sexuality. But we’re certainly smashing a lot of Gospel china in the process.”
Umm…Mr. Capon…WTF??? Good intentions? “Alarms”? And no, don’t use the word “But…” to downplay the seriousness of what’s going on!
Not that Bryan needs defending, but when a person (like Jonathan Aigner) says this – “I’m sorry if I sound bitter. I’m not, really” – then uses words and language that sound bitter, he’s deserving of a little critique.
So I see Bryan’s point.
That said, I also liked Aigner’s blog post. He just shouldn’t have claimed he’s not bitter.
He does seem to think that the outrage over abuse and mis-conduct is ridiculous. Wonder what he’s up to.
Bryan, you can make your point without being mean. Do unto others, etc.
I do believe that the church growth movement was a mistake, and that American evangelicalism has become morally bankrupt. But things are not going to really shift in our religious landscape – aside from the steady flow of people leaving church altogether – until we have some positive examples of what Christianity in the 21st century *should* look like, instead of just all these examples of what it *shouldn’t*.
Willow Creek shows us what a pastor should not be (a celebrity, a CEO, an entertainer, above the law) but that’s only a useful insight if it leads us to a new understanding of what Christian leadership should be – humble, servant leadership that empowers others and directs their attention to God rather than to the leader.
I get it, but this also can be tripping over a line.
“””they could contribute to the body but they’re just sitting there quietly . . . attendees would simply greet each other for 30 seconds and mainly hang out in cliques once a week”””
How does he know that? Not that he is wrong, but wrong how completely?
Just saying, as I’ve set there and listened to rebukes in this category, after doing all kinds of stuff, knowing other people in the audience who had done all kinds of this the speaker would have no idea were even something to do.
On the other hand it is easy to empathize with his frustration. Ugh, reality is so messy.
“””Religious leaders who abuse their positions of trust should be dealt with quickly, harshly and given no second chances or “understanding””””
On this we completely agree. They can be in the community, no one should be excluded from that. but NEVER again Leadership. One has no “right” to Leadership.
“””Place the blame on where it belongs, on the ones who commit the act or enable the act to be done. “””
“I got frustrated at a point, just biblically,” Chan said during a talk at the Facebook headquarters in California last Thursday. ‘I’m going wait a second. According to the Bible, every single one of these people has a supernatural gift that’s meant to be used for the body. And I’m like 5,000 people show up every week to hear my gift, see my gift. That’s a lot of waste. Then I started thinking how much does it cost to run this thing? Millions of dollars!…So I’m wasting the human resource of these people that according to Scripture have a miraculous gift that they could contribute to the body but they’re just sitting there quietly. … [T]hey just sit there and listen to me.’ Moreover, he felt the church wasn’t following God’s command to love one another — attendees would simply greet each other for 30 seconds and mainly hang out in cliques once a week.”- Francis Chan
By the way, The Astonished Heart was published in 1996. A lot more Gospel china has been smashed since then.
By the way, The Astonished Heart was published in 1996.
I have always been surprised at how juvenile and inept the church leaders who abuse their positions are in their actions. The high profile ones like Hybels grope, rub , talk and act like 14 year boys who do not know how to control their actions. These guys , thankfully, are not Harvey Weinstein level pervs who use their power and position to their advantage. Hybels could have really used his position to take advantage of a lot of women. I guess they are somewhat constrained in their actions by their positions . It is , not a good analogy, but like a guy on a subway who tries to “cop” a feel or press up against a woman because of the opportunity.
Religious leaders who abuse their positions of trust should be dealt with quickly, harshly and given no second chances or “understanding” . Place the blame on where it belongs, on the ones who commit the act or enable the act to be done.
It is sad that good people of all faiths who get betrayed by their leader are the ones who really feel the impact and have a crisis of faith, in many cases.
By the time I get to Phoenix…By the time I make Oklahoma…he left out Albuquerque.
Shades of Glen Campbell or odd coincidence?
“””insisting on the moral irreproachability of even minor functionaries “””
No, it is asking the people of the church not to be creepers. It is asking them to behave with the same as people nearly everywhere else are expected to behave.
I have no idea what Mr. Capon is talking about, and I suspect he has no idea what he is talking about. This sounds like the most round about of culture blaming. There was no fear of liability or law suits involved in Willow Creek, no “OMG we are such a litigious society now”, it was straight up cowardice and moral failure.
I have sympathy for the cynicism of “what they really care about are the programs to keep their kids entertained”.
I have heard people say exactly that s-o–o-o many times. They go to church, while they have kids, for “moral foundation” or what-not; like the church is a program to keep the kids off drugs. But, then, maybe that works sometimes? I have lived long enough to see a few of those kids morally outgrow their parents [in some cases a low bar, but still].
> Some will stay in that culture, certainly. But some won’t.
Yep. This is a let-those-with-ears-to-hear-listen moment.
Of course, some people won’t, does’t mean it shouldn’t be written.
Concerning ‘size’ and holy places, this from C.S. Lewis:
““Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”
I gotta agree with Bryan, it’s not them, it’s us. WE are the ones who choose to attend; no one is holding a gun to our heads. WE are the ones who chose NOT TO attend the small corner church with it’s paucity of programs.
CHARISMATIC leaders will always be in demand.
I don’t see that the collapse of the megachurch movement in America is imminent. Setbacks don’t equal collapse. If it does come, sooner or later, it is just as likely as not to lead to an exodus of people from institutional Christianity altogether. The implication in this post that there is a competition between megachurch culture and traditional liturgical church culture, and that the disappearance of the megachurch movement will redound to the favor of liturgical churches, is an unfounded assumption. One thing for sure: whatever befalls the megachurch movement here in the U.S., it is thriving globally, and nothing happening here will have much of an effect on that. Global Christianity has an inertial motion that has little to do with American trends.
“what’s happening at Willow Creek isn’t going to change anything. It’s a blip.”
Some will stay in that culture, certainly. But some won’t. And pieces like this and Jethani’s are precisely what we all need to hear right now.
I don’t think the fall of Willow Creek means that the megachurch/ movement is going away anytime soon, not here in America or globally. The tone of this post is way too prematurely triumphant, to the point that it sounds out of touch with reality; and, despite the protestation of the writer that he is not bitter, it sounds bitter through and through. The old adage applies here: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Heck, don’t count them while the eggs have yet to be laid. This is a case of wishful thinking.
So no one ever learns from their mistakes? Or from other’s mistakes? Are you that cynical? Bryan, people who think like you frighten me more than the ones you describe. Because if you’re right we might as well join hands and walk off the nearest cliff.
oh yay, a wannabe copycat Jon Pavlovitz meets Matt Walsh in a competition for the “I’m outraged!” award of the month. What a ridiculous screed.
If you want to read a thoughtful take on this whole thing and the cult of celebrity pastors then look up Skye Jethani. But this is just a tirade. I hope it’s not a taste of what’s to come at internetmonk.
Look, I actually happen to agree with most of you points. I decry celebrity “pastors”, the demise of pastoral care, the ridiculous big-box shopper mentality of today’s mega-church.
But the reality is that what’s happening at Willow Creek isn’t going to change anything. It’s a blip. People will continue to attend mega-churches. Because in the end while people claim that what is important to them is relationships and intimacy what they really care about are the programs to keep their kids entertained. Because the average person doesn’t view their pastor as a celebrity – it’s always someone else’s pastor.
Why am I first ? Weird.
Seriously, this post is phenomenal.
Nothing else to say.
Thanks for this.
Should have been written years ago and shouted from the rooftops. Pretty much saw this coming years ago.