Churchy, Churchish, and the Monopoly of Who’s Doing It Right

I did it.

I finally went on pilgrimage to the one of the meccas of American Christianity – Willow Creek Church. There’s the Crystal Cathedral – the Disney-world of church and host of the show Hour of Power which my family and I watched religiously on Sunday mornings before we went to church like it was pregame party – and Saddleback, which I guess is the Southern California version of Willow (or is Willow the Midwest version of Saddleback?), then Joel Osteen’s modest, little basketball-arena-turned-church.

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A friend who had been on staff there a number of years ago took me around. It has been eleven years since he moved on to start a church in a completely different neighborhood with a very different MO and vision for community life. I had a quick tour of the Willow campus old and new additions, auditorium, community center, cafeteria and bookstore. Willow has a gorgeous cafe and the grounds are meticulously kept to look as if the whole place should be in the middle of the woods…Like what I imagine is a Trappist Benedictine monastery in the beautiful countryside of France or Belgium – pristine and reverent. I drove through the entrance, and I thought I was at a college or small airport since there were letters marking off the parking lot. Like terminals. I drove past a little shoulder with a sign that said, “Overlook,” pointing to their reservoir.

This church has an overlook.

There’s something prolific and deeply American about Willow. Wholesome. Midwestern. Pretty, clean, and happy. Successful. Do you hear a little sarcasm? I can’t help it. The stalwart of American Christianity in terms of white-suburban-upper-middle-class-evangelical Christianity was hardly ever appealing to me. But, its singularly monolithic influence on American Christian identity is not to be dismissed so easily. I can’t imagine anyone could grow up in the US without being influenced in some way or shape or form by Willow – small group ministry, egalitarianism in leadership (eventually), and emphasis on the seeker and un-churched. I couldn’t help but be curious. Cynical.

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And then we walked into a new addition called the Care Center – a place where those in economic hardship can go to buy groceries, shop at a thrift store, find free childcare, and even get legal, medical, and financial services on various days. It’s honest-to-God a dreamboat community center. As I stood there taking it all in a kind staff person came up to me and said, Do you have a number? I must have looked confused so she looked at my friend and I saw a mortified look. He quickly explained that we were looking around and on a tour. And I realized that she thought I was there for the services. I looked down at what I was wearing, and sure, I had Oz on my back in the Ergo, and maybe I was a hot mess from a frantic and stressful morning, but seriously? I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and looked around again. Everyone on staff was white. Nearly everyone being serviced was not white. I saw a little of why that may have happened to me. And remembered why I felt like a foreigner and outsider once again not only in this country but even in the place that should have been home – the church.

Despite the awkward moment of being mistaken for a client what impressed me was how lovely everything looked that morning – bright and airy – there’s just something so life-affirming and dignity-giving about being in such a thoughtfully designed place. I thought, “Okay, this is something I get and could sign on.”

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“The Christian life is not a life divided between times for action and times for contemplation. No. Real social action is a way of contemplation, and real contemplation is the core of social action.” 
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

Because it speaks of risk-taking and innovation. I don’t believe any of the other mega’s are doing anything like this right now. So I started to think about church. I’m always thinking about church even though I haven’t pastored a church for three years now. This place doesn’t look like a church. The stadium seating, the lighting, the cafe and cafeteria. I mean, it’s churchy. Churchish. Somehow it has become a place of resources, inspiration, and actually, a blueprint for churches not only in the US but around the world? Why? I’ve heard something about how they do everything with excellence, everything down to the toilet paper they put in their restrooms. Are they doing something different? Are they the only ones who are doing it right? Are they the ones with the keys to the kingdom somehow? I’m thinking again about the American/western ideals of excellence, success, and seriously go-big-or-go-home mentality, and how much American churches conflate theology with ideology, and the waters get muddled a bit.

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What if we have been doing Christianity and church wrong these last 200-300 years in the US? What if it isn’t about the big churches with thousands of seats, but about the dingy porch stoops of row houses in any inner city? What if it isn’t about providing the models and resources for churches, individuals, but walking and journeying with college students, and being where they are in their daily treks from class to dorm, where their leaders are in their family and work lives, and affirming their experiences instead of giving them assessment or evaluation tools? What if it isn’t even about incredibly fantastic community centers but really seeing the people who walk through the doors, I mean, really seeing them and trying to know them beyond the race, gender, and economics and then, working with them to make bigger systemic changes so that there is real equity and not a play/pretend place to go shopping for all the normal life stuff but it actually ends up feeling like a pitying (fake side) hug?

“The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity’s liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” 
― James H. ConeGod of the Oppressed

4 thoughts on “Churchy, Churchish, and the Monopoly of Who’s Doing It Right

  • May 1, 2014 at 12:17 pm
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    OK. I’m going to betray my ignorance here. I think I’ve heard of Willow Creek. I think but I’m not sure. I live in the North East. I’m a Church-going Christian but not part of the Evangelical community. I appreciate hearing about your experience there. It sounds interesting but completely foreign to me; therefore, I can’t agree with your description of Willow Creek as a “singularly monolithic influence on American Christian identity”. American Christianity is a vast arena of differing visions and ideology. Thankfully.

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    • May 1, 2014 at 12:43 pm
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      That’s ok – no ignorance really to confess to necessary – I think the east coast has been somehow immune to the megachurch phenomenon for some reason. I mean there are huge churches, and even Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC (Tim Keller) would be analogous but it doesn’t have one huge central campus. And evangelical has so many complicated historical, theological, sociological layers to it – I mean, in a way we are all evangelical. As my father-in-law, a mainline pastor of a large church in Charlotte (one of the hubs of Presbyterianism) says all the time, “We all want to share the Good News.”

      I was exaggerating – I don’t have any hard facts or statistics on what church has absolutely the biggest influence on American Christianity. But, I’m pointing to the overarching characteristics of American Christianity – emphasis on success, excellence, until recently a very white, male leadership, Biblical authority and literalism, etc. – which I think was maybe initiated by Billy Graham, then we’ve got the Crystal Cathedral and Robert Schuller (though they are less “evangelical,” and more happy-go-lucky, hence the Disney reference), and then Willow and Saddleback. Willow’s pastor (and I think Saddleback’s pastor?) was “mentored” by Robert Schuller – so there’s definitely some family/legacy-like dimensions here. Oh, actually Focus on the Family is a pretty big organization in a similar vein but technically not a church.

      That being said, I feel like no matter what parachurch or church I’m in, or connected to, or even visiting, there’s some kind of connection to Willow. For good and/or bad. Which is why I made that statement. They’ve got their hands and feet in every kind of ministry to every kind of demographic. And I think when the phrase American Christianity comes up that’s what people automatically and generally think of – white, suburban, evangelical, male.

      I agree that there are way more experiences/expressions of American Christianity (I suppose I should even specify – North American or US American). For sure, I’m thankful.

      Reply
  • May 1, 2014 at 7:58 pm
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    Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I appreciate it. The part of this post that had me thinking today was, of course, your experience in the Care Center and also your recognition of the face of Christianity in the US largely being white, middle-aged, male with a Southern or Midwestern accident. It’s all floating around my head along with the virulent racism of Don Sterling and Rancher Bundy, and the recent Supreme Ct decision on affirmative action. I haven’t figured out if I can piece all of these disparate things together except to say that I wholeheartedly believe Christianity isn’t white or male or Southern but needs to express the love and message of Jesus to all. Keep posting! I enjoy your writing.

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    • May 1, 2014 at 8:07 pm
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      For sure, and I totally love your engagement. I believe that Christianity is meant to be so much more, but that American Christianity is exactly what you said – white, male, Southern. And our job is to dismantle it and provide space for that love and message of Jesus.

      Thanks so much – that’s so encouraging, too. I’m lately getting some decent sleep now that the three babies are sleeping more (twins that are 3 and 14 month old boy). But still feel foggy sometimes.

      Reply

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