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When the huge new building was finished, nobody in the Chicago area thought it looked like a church. On the outside it looked like a convention hall, on the inside like a 5,000-seat theater. And what went on inside didn't seem much like church either. The first thing visitors noticed was the music, which was lively, contemporary, and professional.

On any given Sunday the audience was as likely to see a play as hear a sermon. And then there was the preacher—dressed in ordinary clothes, he was breezy and compelling; by turns funny and serious; and always utterly irresistible. Critics sniffed that this was entertainment, not worship. Truth be told, it was entertaining. The thousands of casually dressed people who jammed the parking lot and streamed into the building looked less like churchgoers and more like Cubs fans headed for Wrigley Field.

And what happened on Sunday was only the sauerkraut on the kielbasa. The rest of the week dozens of paid staff and even more volunteers organized media productions, prayer services, men's and women's groups, boys' and girls' clubs, summer camps, and food programs for the needy.

They operated a 100-seat restaurant inside the church building, supported dozens of missionary agencies, and ran an extensive small-group ministry that spread throughout the Chicago area.

The idea behind all this was to create a new kind of nondenominational church that would use an interesting program and comfortable surroundings to draw in the unchurched. Once drawn in, they would be enveloped in a comprehensive network of activities designed to give them a supportive community and deeper instruction in the Christian faith. This approach was so successful in Chicago that it immediately spawned a host of imitators ...

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In the Magazine

November 13, 2000

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