This immense auditorium is so big, so bright, so surgically clean it’s unnerving. It is, in fact, the largest auditorium in the entire Chicago area–larger than the Arie Crown or the Lyric Opera–with seating for 4,554 persons. Ten minutes before the 11:15 AM starting time, the place is almost full of well-scrubbed, colorfully attired, bright-eyed folks who seem to be just tickled to death to be here on a Sunday morning. They’re a slice of white, middle-class suburbia: husbands and wives with small children and toddlers, tanned middle-agers, graying but still vibrant senior citizens, yuppies, swinging singles, even some unaccompanied teenagers. But few Asians and practically no blacks or Hispanics. And certainly no raggedy types–no homeless, no drifters, and no psychos, for God’s sake.
They all arrived by automobile or van or station wagon. No one walks here. They drove in along a winding road through landscaped grounds–131 acres, with beautiful man-made lagoons and reflecting pools, as well as rows of willow trees and wooded areas bustling with pheasants, ducks, and other wildlife. They were directed to a place in the immense parking lot (room for 2,660 vehicles) with the aid of 625 strategically placed parking cones and a large team of smiling, red-vested “parking ministry” attendants under the expert direction of a walkie-talkie-equipped coordinator standing on the roof. After checking their position in the lot, noting the easily spotted letters and numbers on the light poles, they headed for the auditorium.
The auditorium is part of a sprawling, low-slung modern building complex (355,000 square feet) that looks like a corporate headquarters or a university (construction cost, $35 million). No religious symbols or icons are to be found here, outside or inside–no statues, no steeples, no stained-glass windows. The whole complex is marvelously inoffensive and generic, every touch suggesting efficiency, competence, modernity , success.
The curtains open to reveal a large, deep stage, and a well-rehearsed, seven-member combo begins playing something smooth and unidentifiable. Through the large windows I can see a long line of cars still weaving up the driveway, and I’m reminded of the unending sea of pilgrim-laden autos in the closing scene of Field of Dreams. The visitors keep coming in, filling the upper levels and far reaches of the auditorium, where large television monitors will keep latecomers close to the proceedings. There’s no rush: everyone will be seated this morning, everyone served. A troubling image forms in my mind.
Don’t say that word to founder Bill Hybels or anyone else closely associated with the Willow Creek Community Church. They will tell you in no uncertain terms that this is no quick, low-nutrition stop for spiritual snacking. Willow Creek, says Hybels, challenges people to “deep discipleship,” to a “100 percent commitment” to Jesus Christ.
This megachurch, located 35 miles northwest of Chicago in South Barrington, where upscale housing subdivisions have sprouted amid corn and bean fields, has attracted considerable attention during its 15-year existence. In his recent book Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping America’s Religious Future, Russell Chandler cites Willow Creek as “a prototype for successful churches of the future that will need to reach an increasingly secular and pluralistic society unfamiliar with traditional worship, music and teachings.” And Guideposts magazine named it 1989 Church of the Year for “meeting the needs of the 1990s by presenting timeless truth in a contemporary way.”
Still, the size, slickness, and success of Willow Creek breed suspicion, especially for anyone familiar with the high-powered, well-financed shenanigans of television evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Is this religion for the 21st century, or just the latest in religious gimmickry? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.
The service I’m attending is one of three held this summer weekend at Willow Creek. All are filled to near capacity, ensuring an attendance of about 14,000. Most of the year there are four services each weekend–two on Saturday evening, two on Sunday morning. Together they attract an average of 16,000 people, making Willow Creek the second largest Protestant congregation in the United States. (The largest is First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, where each Sunday Jack Hyles draws 20,000 or more, many of them bused in from inner-city Chicago neighborhoods.) Attendance at Willow Creek is growing, more slowly than a few years ago, but steadily. On occasion it can swell: some 25,000 poured in last year to hear Ollie North explain his personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The congregation is also generous, contributing almost $200,000 a week, providing the church with a yearly budget of $10 million. It has a full-time staff of 150, an equal number of part-timers, and a sizable contingent of volunteers. About 4,500 people serve in some capacity, says Lee Strobel, the church information officer, in positions ranging from parking attendant to food-pantry coordinator, youth leader, or marriage counselor.
This morning the service–or performance–begins with five young singers, backed up by the combo, who belt out a Christian rock song called “Brand New Life” (“It’s a brand new ball game starting today, since my King destroyed the grave . . . “). The crowd claps politely but seems somewhat detached from this polished, enthusiastic rendition. It is no more spirited when called on to stand and join in two verses of “Amazing Grace.” An assembly of 4,000 ought to blow the roof off, but these folks are just taking it all in.
Then come two skits featuring near-professional acting. One is a comic takeoff on the idea of “coming out.” Five people in a beauty parlor talk in cryptic terms about stripping away the facades they hide behind and letting their real inner selves emerge. The moral is vague, though it’s pretty clear it’s not about admitting one’s homosexuality.
The next skit is a heavier musical drama in which a husband reproaches his silent, television-obsessed wife about her neglect of him and their children. When he leaves, she launches into a long ballad lamenting her inability to find meaning or take pleasure in any aspect of her life. She is numb and indifferent, she sings, and despite her efforts to snap out of it she just “can’t kill the beast.” It seems to be a somewhat touching portrayal of clinical depression. But just as she finishes, out from the wings comes a male vocalist who explains to her (in a song titled “A Place to Call Home”) that even though there’s “a void in your spirit you can’t disguise . . . your savior will wipe away every tear and welcome you home.” I begin to squirm in my seat.
Yet the acoustics are so good and the staging so practiced that it’s hard not to be drawn into the performance. We soak it all in, remaining very much the spectators in our cushioned comfort. The applause is polite–no standing ovations, cheers, or alleluias.
What newcomers have to realize, according to Strobel, is that the weekend services at Willow Creek are not intended as worship in any formal sense. That’s why there are no processions, no vestments, no communion. “Weekends at Willow Creek are Christianity 101 and 201,” he says. The lively skits, indeed the whole style of the place, is designed to appeal to “unchurched Harry and Mary,” Hybels’s term for the vast throng that is connected in no way with a religious institution.
According to Christian pollster George Barma, at least 60 to 70 million adults are nonchurched: that is, they lack a church or temple affiliation, even though they may claim on a survey to be Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim. In a lot of cases they just drifted away in their youth and never came back. Others outgrew their belief system. Some were offended by the insensitivity or dishonesty of church leaders.
Willow Creek is out to get all of the above. But the initial contact is intentionally a soft sell. According to Hybels, unchurched Harry and Mary are making “value judgments by the second” when they first encounter Willow Creek. They see the efficient traffic-control system, the well-groomed grounds, the spacious parking lot, the scores of volunteers. In the carpeted vestibule they observe the information booths and the smiling but never aggressive greeters. They hear the high-quality sound equipment and admire the professional lighting. And, according to Hybels’s strategy, the unchurched say, “This is a well-run operation. These people know what they’re doing.” That doesn’t mean they’re ready to fall on their knees and embrace the Lord. But it’s a start.
“Seekers,” says Hybels, “want to be left alone,” meaning they’re not ready to sing, confess their sins, or do anything but sit and observe. Hence theater seats instead of pews, a stage instead of an altar, clear glass walls instead of religious murals. And strangest of all, instead of a plea for money, this announcement from the stage just before the collection: “If you’re visiting us today, we don’t want you to feel any obligation to contribute. You’re our guest, so just relax and enjoy the service.”
This advice, I notice, seems to have a remarkably contradictory effect. As the brown offering bags are passed through the rows, they are soon overflowing with money–paper money, and not a lot of singles. Clearly many gathered here are churched Harrys and Marys who regularly attend Willow Creek because they like the atmosphere or because they’ve brought with them (as all good Creekers are urged to do) an unchurched Harry or Mary they’ve encountered in their neighborhood or at work. It may also be that some visitors are so disoriented by the suggestion not to give that they open wide their wallets out of shock. Whatever the reasons, the method is effective. If 16,000 people are present on a typical weekend, they must be averaging $10 each to account for the weekly take of almost $200,000. I find myself wondering, is Christianity supposed to be so successful? More than one well-intentioned project has gone down the tubes when it became so prosperous that accountability got lost and somebody in the organization started stealing from both Peter and Paul to take care of number one. Church consultant Lyle Schaller also wonders about big operations like Willow Creek. “Who will hold these megachurches accountable for their actions?” he wondered in an article in Christianity Today magazine. “To whom are the senior pastor and his staff accountable?”
The scripture reading at today’s service is Jesus’ story about two men who go to the temple to pray, one boasting about his good deeds, the other lurking in the back and acknowledging his sinfulness. The latter goes home justified, says Jesus, because “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Without any introduction or fanfare, Bill Hybels himself is then onstage with his message. He’s a lean, handsome man in his early 40s who looks like a cross between Pat Sajak and Dick Clark, and he’s wearing a crisp, conservative business suit. His manner onstage is more reminiscent of an earnest financial adviser than of a high-decibel hell-raiser. Everyone, he explains, has at least a “low-grade awareness” that he will have to stand before God someday and give an accounting of his life. It is important, he says, to “situate yourself in a favorable position” for that day of reckoning. “What’s your game plan?” he asks. Some, he points out, have a “self-empowerment plan”: they think that by cleaning up their act and living reasonably decent lives they will come out ahead. Bad decision, he says, because good works just won’t cut it; everyone is a sinner, so the only rational game plan is to acknowledge your failings (like the man in the back of the temple) and wrap yourself in “the merits of Jesus Christ.”
The language is contemporary, the point simple and direct. Though shorter than usual this Sunday, the message is vintage Hybels. He reportedly spends 20 to 30 hours a week preparing these talks, and insists the other preachers at Willow Creek take their sermonizing with equal seriousness. He regularly peppers his remarks with references to current news affairs and uses examples based on his own life.
He’s especially passionate about one thing. “I don’t want this place ever to be known as Bill Hybels’s church,” he tells me. “I don’t want any kind of personality cult here. Our sole purpose is to turn irreligious people into followers of Jesus Christ.”
About once or twice a month an associate staff member delivers the message at weekend services. “We think it’s important to sell the value of God through different voice boxes,” says Lee Strobel, one of the rotating preachers. Strobel, a former Chicago Tribune legal-affairs writer and suburban newspaper editor, was himself an unchurched Harry before he caught the Willow Creek spirit. “I was an atheist, a very skeptical person,” he says. But he was immediately attracted to Willow Creek in 1980 by the anonymity of the place. No one put a hand on his shoulder; he was allowed to sit in the back, to listen and rethink his positions. His rational bent continues today, and he strives to persuade others that there’s only one path to God, and his name is Jesus. What turned him around, he says, was the quiet professionalism of the operation and the persuasiveness of Hybels. “I really believe that Bill Hybels is the most relevant preacher in America.”
Just about everyone at Willow Creek is familiar with the Bill Hybels story. He grew up in folksy Kalamazoo, Michigan, the son of one of the city’s most energetic entrepreneurs. Starting with a wholesale produce operation, the senior Hybels expanded into food processing and packaging, and then real estate. As the heir apparent, Bill studied economics and business in college for two years. Then one day he announced that he felt a calling to the ministry. His father said that was just fine with him, but, in a potent test of the young man’s sincerity, he added that Bill would have to forfeit his share of the inheritance, not to mention the credit cards, vacations, and club memberships. Bill took all this in good-natured stride, leaving home and getting a job as a youth counselor at a nondenominational church in Park Ridge. His starting salary in 1972 was $35 a week. To this day Hybels calls his father, now deceased, “the greatest spiritual influence in my life.”
Meanwhile, he took some courses at Trinity College in Deerfield, a school of the Evangelical Free Church, whose conservative, Calvinistic theology and literal interpretation of scripture impressed him deeply; this old-time religion flourishes beneath the modern trappings at the Willow Creek church. At Trinity Hybels came under the influence of one of his more persuasive teachers, Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian. The son of Armenian parents who emigrated to France, Bilezikian had a profound conversion experience during his college years and launched a peripatetic career as a pastor and biblical scholar, making stops in Boston, Paris, Beirut, Albany, and the Chicago area. In his view, expressed in the Willow Creek magazine, “The church is the reason for history . . . is at the very center of everything God is doing from the creation . . . to the final consummation. And when the end comes and time is no more, all that will be left of the universe will be the church united with her redeemer.”
Bilezikian recalls Hybels as at first “indistinguishable from other students”–a motorcycle-riding youth with “a long haircut and shoes with thick heels–quiet, serious, almost sullen. I felt his cold, steel-blue gaze fixed on me as though I had been secretly placed under his surveillance.” In time Bilezikian learned his student was “internalizing” his theories: “under the appearance of critical scrutiny, he was actually absorbing and processing the content . . . into his own thinking.”
At Hybels’s request, the intense Bilezikian talked with the teens at the Park Ridge church, sharing his convictions about the importance of church. Bilezikian was deeply impressed with what the young man had accomplished. By minimizing formal prayer, hymn singing, and pious talk, the group had begun to reach out to nonbelieving teens as well as churchgoers and was growing so fast that young Hybels could scarcely control it. He confided to Bilezikian his larger vision: the establishment of a New Testament-style church that would somehow connect with the mass of world-weary, cynical Americans who tend to see church as mostly hypocritical hype. Bilezikian encouraged him and has remained an important Willow Creek mentor.
In 1975 Hybels left youth ministry. With the aid of a few friends he conducted a door-to-door canvass in the northern suburbs, asking people what objections they had to traditional church services. The answers in order of frequency: the church keeps asking for more money; the music is uninteresting or unsingable; the services, especially the sermons, are boring and irrelevant to real life; the pastor inspires so much guilt that people feel worse when they leave than when they arrived.
One summer Hybels and his associates zealously sold tomatoes door-to-door, raising enough money to rent the empty Willow Creek Theater in Palatine, where they set up an independent church designed to meet the needs of the kind of alienated and angry folks they had interviewed. The rest, as they say, is history. The old theater was soon bulging, and the un-asked-for contributions were rolling in. Within a few years Hybels was able to purchase farmland in South Barrington and start construction of the great complex. He built it, and they have been coming ever since.
The baptism of new members is taking place at Willow Creek this weekend, and some 125 of the 300 adults to be admitted are taking the big step at this service. It is the most perfectly choreographed piece of churchmanship one could imagine. The lights go down, the sound comes up, and the candidates file forward. They stand individually before Hybels, Strobel, or one of the other church ministers situated across the stage and are touched on the forehead with water. Ironically, this form of baptism would not be accepted as valid by many churches far more liberal in doctrine than Willow Creek. But then many of these new Christians will be baptized again in the lagoon outside the auditorium. The whole assembly is invited to return at 2 PM for the service, to bring a picnic basket, lawn chairs or blankets, and to enjoy the scene as the fully clothed neophytes are plunged into the saving waters.
Meanwhile, the less formal baptisms in the auditorium are accompanied by an offstage voice reading “testimonies” from some of the new members. One woman wrote, “Each day I would awake in physical and mental anguish and wish for a life–any life–different from the one I had. After the first divorce I just drank. After the second divorce I tried to pick up the shattered pieces of major debt with the responsibility of a year-old baby. By the time I found myself going through my third divorce things had regressed unbelievably.”
A man confessed, “Ever since I was a young child I’ve been a thrill seeker. At age 10 it was motorcycles; by age 16 I was drag racing at the local drag strip; by age 30 I had competed in the 24 hours of Daytona at speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour. How can I top Daytona? I came to a point in my life that life in the fast lane wasn’t enough.”
Another woman wrote, “I was brought up in a home that believed in a higher power whom we called God. I knew who Jesus was and believed in him but was never taught about him or understood that one needed to accept him. . . . During college I began to search for ways to fill all my voids. I tried the party scene, the sex scene, the spiritual scene, and finally went into therapy, but living according to society’s norms left me more empty.”
Still another woman: “Life used to be so nice and easy. I had two healthy and normal kids, a loving husband, a home of my own, and a stable and flourishing career. About six years ago I confidently started a small business venture. I didn’t ask for anybody’s advice–not even God’s. Why should I? My track record shows that I am a competent woman. I spent four years trying to get my business off the ground. . . . One morning I just woke up with the realization that we are bankrupt.”
Each of the testimonies ends on a happy note. The confused, the sinners, the self-satisfied had come upon Willow Creek, been impressed with the sincerity and competence of the people, and eventually asked Jesus, as one man put it, “to take control of my life and forgive me for the sins I have committed.”
As part of the ceremony the baptismal candidates take sheets of paper on which they have written some of their major errors and mistakes and pin them on a large corkboard cross standing midstage, the only religious symbol seen all day. By the time the baptisms are completed and the new members are assembled in rows like a smiling, self-conscious graduating class, the cross is a cluttered graphic with papers pinned on it at all angles. “What has happened here,” says Hybels, “is comparable to the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. . . . By receiving Christ, these people have abandoned their personal self-improvement plan and pinned their hope on the cross.”
A medley by the five singers closes the service, but congestion out in the parking lot is somewhat alleviated by the fact that great numbers of the assembly don’t leave. Parents are quietly retrieving their little ones from the nurseries (one for kids with last names A to L, another for M to Z). Whole families are lining up in the modern cafeteria to order hamburgers or chicken and dine in the expansive lunchroom. Teens are playing a little basketball in the spacious gym (three full courts). Others wander around admiring the wide halls of the complex, apparently determined to make a day of it.
The bookstore on the lower level is packed. Here I find a wide selection of books by conservative, evangelical Christian writers, including Hybels and other Willow Creek notables–but none by liberal theologians. Some are combinations of self-help techniques and exhortations from the New Testament. Many are concerned with marriage and other interpersonal relations, with titles such as When You Can’t Get Along, Stand by Your Man, How to Blend a Family, and Christian Men Who Hate Women.
After visiting Willow Creek Anthony B. Robinson, a Congregational Church pastor from Seattle, asked in an article in Christian Century magazine, “If Willow Creek is accessible to the unchurched, is what it offers recognizable as the church? Or has the worshiping congregation been transformed into an audience? Are the weekly services more entertainment than worship?” The latter is a very relevant question.
But if you dig a bit deeper into the Willow Creek core you realize that under the McChurch outer layer is a much tougher inner layer: the conservative theology of the Evangelical Free Church. The soft sell masks a decidedly hard message. Willow Creek promotional literature features a quote from Steven Warner, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who says, “Hybels is preaching a very upbeat message. It’s a salvationist message, but the idea is not so much being saved from the fires of hell. Rather it’s being saved from meaninglessness and aimlessness in this life.”
But that’s not what Hybels says or preaches. He maintains that the individual judgment of the soul after death is what life is all about: “Each person will stand before God, who asks, ‘Has Jesus, my son, become your personal savior and the forgiver of your sins?’ Anyone who doesn’t say yes to that question is condemned to eternal hellfire.” Not much room for waffling there.
Strobel insists that attempts to reconcile Christianity in any way with other religions are ill advised, because other religions are based on “man’s attempt to reach God, while Christianity alone represents God’s attempt to reach man.” The gospels, in the Willow Creek view, are historically accurate documents that prove Jesus was truly God, and they must be accepted as errorless.
The church doesn’t exactly canonize creationism, which denies evolution, but it features creationist authors and claims that even if some sort of evolution occurred God had to intervene from time to time to keep the process on track.
Willow Creek also does not recognize infant baptism, which means most mainline Christians who become members must be rebaptized.
Believers are expected to employ “biblical money-managing principles.” They are to regard themselves as stewards, not owners, of their possessions, and they are to avoid debt, save something every month, and tithe–that is, turn over 10 percent of their income to the church.
On controversial moral matters Willow Creek is anything but permissive. In his book Christians in a Sex-Crazed Culture Hybels finds abortion “an unacceptable alternative” to the problem of unwanted pregnancies: “Jesus said he wanted his people to defend, care for, and provide assistance to the defenseless members of society–people without political power, forgotten people, people with no voice to speak for themselves. . . . While studying abortion, I kept asking myself, who are the most vulnerable and defenseless people in our society? Who has no voice, no vote and no political power?” The obvious answer, he says, is unborn children. Homosexuality is also unacceptable.
The tough teaching, just touched on at the weekend services, may go over the heads of those admiring the grounds, lighting, and crisply acted skits. Many thousands who are here on a weekend appear to be merely enjoying the pleasant ambience. That cannot be said of the 4,500 Creekers who attend midweek services on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. This sizable inner group, called the New Community, gets heavy doses of more formal worship, prayer, hymn singing, and no-nonsense “teaching” from Pastor Hybels and his associates.
Some of these more dedicated souls are involved in the organizational structure of this multimillion-dollar enterprise. Willow Creek has an extremely active board of directors, a council of elders (three of the current eight members are women), a body of deacons, and a bewildering network of miniorganizations coordinating the work of the volunteers. Hybels says he is “an incurable team player” and wants leadership in the church to be as decentralized as possible.
There are innumerable outreach projects that casual Sunday visitors usually don’t see but that touch thousands of people every week. The Sonlight Express is a socializing and education program for junior-high students; Student Impact provides discussion and group activities for high schoolers; Prime Time is for singles up to 32; Focus zeroes in on singles in their early 40s; Quest serves those who are 40 and up. Willow Creek sponsors several hundred small discussion groups of six to ten people who meet at the church or in homes.
The Benevolence Board provides funds for needy families and individuals. The well-stocked food pantry has emergency provisions. The counseling center has a battery of therapists who use “biblical and psychological principles” to help solve problems ranging from teenage pregnancy to marital conflict to drug and alcohol abuse.
Minorities and poor people are hardly in abundance in the communities around Willow Creek, but there is some consciousness of social mission, at least among the more dedicated members. The church has sent teams of volunteer medical personnel and construction workers to poor areas in Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, Romania, Mozambique, and elsewhere. And it uses its youth camp in Michigan to temporarily house newly arrived Asian refugees. Among the more innovative programs is the “cars ministry.” Professional auto mechanics who are church members work two nights a week in the church garage repairing old cars donated by fellow Willow Creekers, and then give them away to poor people. Thus far, more than 80 old wrecks have been made serviceable. They also repair, free of charge, the cars of the needy, especially single-parent families.
When I visited Willow Creek one Tuesday morning, I was surprised to find more than 150 cars in the parking lot. Nothing special was going on, though there were several routine group meetings, regular sports events, counseling, small seminars, some discussion groups, and the regular staff business. The cafeteria was almost as busy as, say, a McDonald’s at that time of day. I could only admire the energy that seems to pervade the whole place and the people who get caught up in it.
According to Lee Strobel, the church roster includes people who once claimed membership in just about every faith imaginable or in no faith. Given the theological bent here, Baptists and other doctrinally conservative folks would seem most at home. Yet there are great numbers of Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians, all of whom come from a different tradition. Strange as it may seem, almost half the people at Willow Creek on any given weekend are former Roman Catholics.
It’s not that they’re being seduced away from their old affiliation by some sinister proselytizing campaign. Hybels insists he’s not out to snare people who are content where they are. And he maintains cordial relations with other churches in the area, to the extent of occasionally exchanging pulpits with local clergy. Nevertheless, a heavy proportion of the faithful who come regularly, as well as many of the “seekers” who just sit and watch, claim some Catholicism in their background. That may be due to the heavy concentration of Catholics and nominal Catholics in the northwest suburbs. It may also be that disenchanted Catholics find the large, friendly, supportive, and relatively guilt-free confines of Willow Creek especially attractive.
For Catholics, as well as for more than a few mainline Protestants, church authority is a critical problem. Those who rejected the institutional authority they knew in their youth in favor of a direct relationship with Christ still may be looking for a large, supportive, and authoritative body that says repeatedly, you’re on the right track. And that’s what Willow Creek is.
Consider Greg and Marty Rose, a handsome, outgoing couple in their early 50s who live in a big ranch-style home adjacent to a golf course in a northwest suburb. Their six children, whose ages range from 19 to 30, are largely on their own now, giving the Roses more time to devote to Willow Creek. Greg, a computer facilities manager, is on the board of directors, and Marty, a nurse, is supervisor of the food pantry. They each spend more than seven hours a week on church activities and talk about their convictions without a hint of self-consciousness.
“You see,” says Greg, “the focus of our lives is not a church, not Willow Creek, not any church. The church is just a means to an end. And that’s our relationship with the Lord.”
Marty adds, “What really matters in life has been resolved. I know with absolute certainty I’ll be in heaven one minute after I die.”
Greg grew up in a large Catholic parish, attended the parochial school, served as an altar boy, and sang in the choir. “That was all a large part of my life,” he says. “I had no bad vibrations.”
Greg and Marty have known each other since they were both 14, and Marty became a Catholic before the two married in 1961. “I wasn’t pressured,” she says. “I really wanted to become Catholic.” During the early years of their marriage they were intensely active in their parish in Arlington Heights, working with teens, teaching religion class, mingling socially with other church members. But gradually their enthusiasm eroded.
Several painful incidents occurred in which priests at the church treated people they knew in a callous, insensitive manner. The Roses began to wonder if all the work they and their friends were putting in was really appreciated. Like many of their generation, they were also shaken by the changes taking place in the church. Suddenly it was OK to eat meat on Friday, the mass was in English instead of Latin, the simple answers in the old catechism weren’t so definitive anymore–they weren’t even being taught in the schools.
“We loved the church, but it wasn’t the same,” says Greg.
“I found it hard to buy into the system like before,” says Marty. “Was our eternal destiny in the hands of God or in the hands of the church?”
For the Roses the final disillusionment involved birth control. In 1975, with five children under the age of 12, they asked their parish priest about the possibility of practicing contraception. The priest said he shared the pope’s condemnatory views, but recommended a priest at another parish, who, he assured the Roses, was providing far more lenient counsel. “That really undermined our confidence,” says Greg. “It was like anyone could think or do what they wanted, with nobody in charge.”
For the next six years the Roses withdrew from church affiliation, their attention focused on raising their kids and surviving some financially rough times. Marty went sporadically to a small Baptist church. She didn’t like the anti-Catholic attitude of the minister, who told her that her father-in-law was in hell, but she appreciated his firm position on who Jesus was and how she needed to get in touch with him. At a friend’s suggestion she attended Willow Creek and was immediately overwhelmed; here was the basic salvation message in contemporary dress and without any of the bitter side effects. After her daughter attended for the first time she told Marty, “I learned more about God today than I did in my whole life.”
Greg held out for awhile, fearful that he’d go to hell if he took up with Protestants. The visible change in his wife, however, broke down his resistance. “She had found something meaningful,” he says. “She was a better wife, a kinder mother, a more lovable person. I couldn’t deny that.”
Greg went to Willow Creek on Mother’s Day 1982 and has been a regular since. Both have increased their involvement a bit every year. “I guess you’d have to call us born-again Christians,” says Greg, who was rebaptized when he became a full member. “Our outlook is very positive. We have a lot of confidence and inner peace.” Absolutes, he says, are back in their life: the Bible as “God’s unerring word,” Christ as their personal savior, and their mission as “vessels for the work of the Holy Spirit.”
As the Roses see it, they have exchanged the authority of a “system” for the authority of a person to whom they now have direct access. What they probably would not want to admit is that Willow Creek is itself a system that facilitates the access they have–and it’s a pretty authoritative system. In a sense, they have exchanged a system that didn’t work for them for another that does.
Hybels never scoffs at other churches, though his comments can sometimes be pointed. Several years ago he gave a talk on what Protestants can learn from Catholics. He praised the Catholic Church’s exalted view of sacraments, its global character, its emphasis on education, and its commitment to social justice, especially in the third world. Then for balance, he talked about what Catholics can learn from Protestants–that is, from the Willow Creek variety. He stressed the personal relationship with Christ, the Lutheran notion of justification by faith alone, the role of the Bible, and the heavy reliance on the gifts of laypersons in the congregation. Then he hit Catholics where it hurts.
He said, “The whole future of Catholicism in North America may well hang on whether or not the Roman Catholic clergy will abandon the bake-sale, cake-sale, bingo-and-Las Vegas-night approach to their raising funds for the local church and return to the sound biblical approach of teaching believers how to handle their resources in a God-glorifying fashion.” Games and gimmicks, he declared, “tend to cheapen and damage the church in the world.”
Hybels speaks with some authority here, since he and Willow Creek have unquestionably tapped into a gold mine. Yet he claims to be fully aware of the dangers inherent in fast growth and easy money. He told author Russell Chandler that because of the fast pace and intensity of his job he came close to “flipping out” several years ago. So now he arrives at his office before 6 AM every day to meditate, pray, and write. And he takes most of the summer off to spiritually recharge his batteries in Michigan. His physical regimen is as strict as his theology. He runs, lifts weights, eats health food, and fasts a day or two a week. He, his wife Lynne, and their two teenage children live in a home near the church that is considerably more modest than those of their immediate neighbors; they have one car. He has instructed the church board not to increase his salary beyond the $67,000 he made in 1990. Of course extra income does come in from royalties on the nine books he’s written and from the how-to seminars he gives three times a year to audiences packed with ministers.
Hybels has thus far resisted the temptation to franchise the success or try to clone it elsewhere. Yet inevitably imitations of the upbeat Willow Creek style are sprouting around the country–several, as might be expected, in southern California.
It may be that Willow Creek is indeed the ideal church for the flock it serves–people who live in the antiseptic subdivisions around South Barrington and Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates, artificial communities plunked down in the middle of cornfields, lacking tradition, roots, even a downtown of their own. These transplanted people, so far out they scarcely consider themselves part of Chicagoland, undoubtedly find a kind of comfort and stability in an institution that is so much like the places they live–new, clean, modern, with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. Yet this place also has reverberations of something more permanent, maybe even eternal. For those who decide to take the message seriously, opportunities to serve are available. And for those who just want to “enjoy the service,” Willow Creek is perfect.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.