Willow Creek's Place in History
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 in many parts of the country, who then formed an association of like-minded churches to strengthen and spread the movement.
Willow Creek? Nope. This is a description of Paul Rader's Chicago Gospel Tabernacle. Built in 1922, the church drew massive crowds for a decade afterward.
Enthusiasts call Willow Creek the trailblazer of a "second Reformation" that will remake Christianity. Critics insist that Willow Creek represents a complete surrender to the secular values of contemporary North America. In fact, neither assessment is likely to prove true. The parallels with the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle—and with other large churches in the past—suggest that Willow Creek is not so much charting new territory as it is traveling along one of the main arterials of American evangelicalism.
Willow Creek's uniqueness lies in the circumstances in which it finds itself—and in the way it has built a ministry to meet those circumstances. But its building materials have been around for a long time.
For a century now, self-confident preachers have been willing to reinvent church in order to appeal to the unchurched. They have used nonsacred architecture, innovative worship services, popular music, drama, and diverse programming to meet the needs of people who felt unwelcome in traditional churches. And a few of these new churches—to the surprise and dismay of the traditionalists—grew really large.
The first megachurches
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, churches faced a massive wave of immigrants flooding into the cities. In 1914 one in three Americans was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. In a few cities, the foreign-born outnumbered the native-born two to one. Newcomers displaced older residents in downtown districts, and downtown churches had to choose: follow their parishioners uptown or modify their ministry so that the newcomers would feel welcome. Many churches stayed, and the "institutional church" movement was born.