How can a mega-church make community its middle name? With five services every weekend (including one for 20-somethings), how can a person who attends feel they belong amid a sea of humanity? And what if anything, has a church of this size, to teach a typical British church? These were some of the questions buzzing around my head as I drove into the vast car park outside Willow Creek Community Church.
The background buzz of people taking their seats before the service was familiar enough. Some had come direct from the snowy car park, others had sipped a warming coffee in the food hall, particularly welcome if like many of those I spoke to, you had travelled a distance requiring a 30 minute car journey. It was 11am on a Sunday morning and the fourth service of the weekend, designed as an introduction to the basic truths of the Christian faith, will start soon.
The main venue houses 5,000 in a tiered theatre-like setting. The platform is framed by large screens which spark into life to show a pre-meeting film of Chicago in the spring, accompanied by classical music. One of a four-week series on 'The Seasons of the Soul ' the 10-minute video concludes with credits which reveal that the local TV station shot the video. My mind begins to calculate how much the video probably cost - but I decide to banish all similar thoughts of envy and stop comparing this to my own or other churches back home.
A platform party of 16 enter together. Musicians strike up an up-tempo instrumental which launches into the first song, which bounces along in a jazz/swing beat.The lyrics are on the screen and some in the congregation/audience sing. But this is mostly a performance song, which then is accompanied by a balletic and graceful dancer. The high sound level of the musicians and the concluding applause emphasises the feeling that I am watching a high quality West End production. Amid more songs comes a brief welcome from one of the singers, then another song crashes straight into a drama - another Willow Creek distinctive.The driving pace is sustained.
Following a brief chance to turn around and say 'hello' a video is introduced. It contains two moving interviews with people who share how God was with them through a season of winter in their lives,before re-entering a time of renewal and hope akin to spring. Here again, Willow Creek 's attention to detail and drive for excellence comes through. The interviews are well edited and beautifully framed with spring flowers and a brightly coloured backdrop.
Another beautiful performance song follows and finally a worship song, which most people take part in.This leads to the offering, which is prefixed by the notice 'this is for regular attenders'. The offering is the one low-key moment of the entire meeting! The preacher, Jim Tomberlin, is one of a team of five regular 'teachers ', which includes the Senior Pastor Bill Hybels,who has been at the forefront of the amazing growth of Willow Creek for the past quarter century.
Hybels was abroad on the Sunday I visited, teaching at Willow Creek Association conferences in Sweden, Denmark and Holland. The church aims to 'encourage and equip ' churches around the world, but has chosen to avoid setting itself up as a denomination. They do not look for churches to become clones or to import their model wholesale. That said,there is much to learn from Willow Creek - particularly their seeker friendly style. Willow Creek Associations have sprung up around the world,including the UK,to offer a range of books,tapes and conferences.
As a visitor to Willow Creek, I didn 't feel awkward or out of place. One advantage of being in a crowd is a sense of anonymity which removes potential embarrassment. Newcomers can feel comfortable in a crowd instead of being singled out for well-meant but embarrassingly over-the-top welcomes from the platform or from regular attenders. I remember one church of about 250 which I visited in Canada some years ago, where as a visitor I was required to wear a brooch in the shape of a plastic rose. I still remember how conspicuous that made me feel.
Another advantage of being surrounded by thousands of others who share your faith, is the sensation of being part of something significant. It 's the same feeling experienced by someone from a small church who attends a celebration at Spring Harvest or some similar large Christian gathering. This can be deeply affirming and encouraging.
Despite its size, the people I met before and after the service obviously felt part of things. The 'believers 'meet for New Community (midweek Bible teaching and worship which attracts over 6,000) and through small groups and ministry service opportunities the church seeks to get people connected and make a difference. Bill Hybels regularly emphasises that despite its size Willow Creek is about community.
Back to the sermon … Tomberlin 's spring themed 'seasons of the soul' talk had three main points; let God replenish you, embrace life-giving relationships, nurture spiritual growth ...
A three point sermon - something familiar I thought! However,I don 't think I 've ever heard a British pastor ever tell his congregation say; "On my first appointment to see my counsellor, he said …" With plentiful use of scripture, projected onto the big screens,particularly from the Old Testament wisdom books, Tomberlin offered practical advice for those recovering from a time of 'winter '.
Like most North American churches, everyone at Willow Creek is given a folded service sheet on arrival which includes a written welcome, the meeting running order, a tear off card to request further information and a space to make notes from the sermon. I noticed many people jotting down memorable quotes from the talk on their service sheet.
A full range of children's groups operate during each of the two Saturday and Sunday services. Occasionally the screen asked parents of child 2126 to their child 's classroom during the meeting. But neither that nor the rude trilling of a mobile phone dented the 'smoothness' of the meeting.
At its close we were invited to pray before we faced the option of a quick exit, a visit to the large bookstore, a meal in the food hall, or going to the welcome centre in order to talk an issue through or join a small group. Tours of the building are also offered - which at first struck me as bizarre - and then made total sense. If you were a newcomer it would help you to locate where the children's groups, toilets, refreshments area, etc all are. This is a church that has really, and I mean really, thought about the unchurched and the newcomer. No 'in' jokes, or prior knowledge is essential here.
The church obviously works hard at empowering and engaging people. Regular attenders can choose to serve from over 60 different community projects committed to transforming the inner city,the suburbs or internationally - in homeless projects, medical assistance, educational support and tutoring to name but a few. Last year 5,100 people from Willow Creek got involved in one of these community projects.
'Choice 'is one of the aspects of Willow that hits you. There is so much on offer. But with the size,choice and excellence comes the opportunity to connect into small groups and build community. But what of other churches within the orbit of Willow Creek?
American churchgoers,just like those in the UK,have a growing fickleness towards church membership. If the church they attend fails to deliver what they want or feel they need,they move to one that does.
It is easy to imagine the insecurity of churches within driving distance of a mega church. Most churches can only dream of the resources available to Willow Creek - so how can they compete? Yet they do,not every Christian in Chicago worships there - far from it, and not every nearby church follows a 'market-driven' approach. And to be fair, transfers are not Willow Creek's aim. Their ministry is focused on reaching the unchurched and their meetings are adapted to this aim. However, transfers can and do occur, which could result in resentment or envy, just as it can in our own church if some leave for the bigger and glitzier church in town.
Rather than be envious or blame the bigger set-up, churches like Willow Creek should be observed and learned from. We should ask where and in what ministries is God blessing us? What anointing for ministry has God given us? What emphasis should we hold? What people group and age are we particularly called to?
As I braved the sub-zero February wind cutting through the cavernous car park on my departure - I saw the evidence of the next phase of Willow Creek's restless desire to grow. New buildings are taking shape to include a 7,000 seat auditorium and classrooms which will help it in its goal to minister to the 750,000 unchurched within a 30 to 60-minute car journey. It appears Willow Creek Community Church has some more growing to do.
Willow Creek Community Church is in South Barrington, which is 45 min-utes drive north-west from downtown Chicago. Founded 25 years ago in a cinema, it quickly outgrew the premises despite running three services every Sunday which had to be over before 1pm. Around 17,000 attend (including 3,000 children) services during the weekend. The church's 90 meeting rooms host 400 events a week. From the out-side the 5,000-seater auditori-um looks like an overgrown conference centre. Inside the state-of-the-art facilities include a huge food hall, ded-icated venues for childrens and youth work, bookstore and offices, as well as the main venue with its confort-able tip up theatre seats.