Willow Creek and postmodern worship

Mega church. There. I said it. Now you can hit me.
I need to write a seperate blog entry because some of you want to clobber me regarding mega church and i would rather you did it here, in the comments section. some of the mega church people may also want a few swings. As i said last week, you cant please everyone and in some cases, neither group will like me for what i am about to say.
This started when i said that a large church wants to hire an “Emerging Generation Pastor”. Many of you gave your negative views of mega church and i called you “snobbish”. I still think you are snobs.

To throw another element in their for even further juicer conversation, yesterday was my daughters birthday (Elizabeth turned 11) and she wanted to go to a kids church. We took the whole family to . . . you will hate me for saying this . . . Hillsong London.

Hillsong – like Willow, Saddleback, and their derivatives, are doing a great job in attracting suburbanites to a church service that is done well (excellent is the term of choice). Not my style, i need to say. The music i listen to is not WHAM or Britney (look at the left column for what i am listening to and 80’s easy listening rock is not one of my choices). And i feel talked down to when the pastor starts the “How many of you . . ” questions, even though others seem to smile and are quite happy to raise their arms to the questions and get a lot out of the pep talk . . oops, i mean sermon. There are some people whose lives are boring and they need some loud poppy Jesus music to sing to, and a message to boost them up for the next week, and colorful graphics that make them feel that they are part of a movement that is lively, and happening. These churches succeed in what they set out to do. And we should congratulate them, not get snobbish and elitist.

Why don’t many in the emerging culture respond to mega church? Let me take a stab.

1. We feel manipulated. The constant use of background music makes us feel manipulated, as does the man talking on the big stage with no one allowed to interrupt or add to his comments. Powerpoint is a program designed to sell a product and will always create suspicion among creatives.

2. We feel insulted. The cultural bar is lowered to a shockingly low height, and we find ourselves trying to sing music that we would never listen to and viewing graphics that are targeted at soap watching, TV dinner eating, mall-shopping consumers.
[i’m not describing the attenders here, but the mass-production art and style]
Are we therefore snobs? Perhaps we are and we need to repent so that we can worship side by side with cultural morons. Or perhaps we just need to find a worship environment that allows us to worship and speak out in our own language and culture. Which, by the way, is actually how Willow Creek started out.
We are also insulted in being treated as if we cannot handle a heavy-duty spiritual experience, as if we are spiritual lightweights. In reality, we are quite open to a spiritual jolt, and may be disappointed when we do not get one at a seeker sensitive/targeted church. What we are scared of is getting stuck in a room full of cheese and not being able to defend ourselves. Unfortunately, our fears find fulfilment and a very cheddery climax.

3. We feel dumb. The pastors message is aimed at lamers who want to be winners. We are not trusted with the source code of the Scriptures but rather with the pastor’s 7 points that are, apparently, better than the Bible verses. We would rather see the code, rather have the pastor read the Bible verses.

4. We feel like we haven’t been to church. There is little or no historical connection with the church of the past. There is lots of action and activity and very little or no reflection or rest. Again, it is church for bored suburbanites who need a lift, not for creative people whose lives are full with color and adventure, and who would rather use a church service as an opportunity to take time off to pause and reflect.

Am I hitting the target?
I know you all have structural and philosophical issues with the Pyramids of Megachurch, but i am keeping this to a more emotional level.
OK – I have vented some of the criticisms and stopped a few of your snobbish comments. Now keep reading to see some positive things (if you have the guts to keep reading)

Mega churches have battled to get respect and understanding, and some of the paths they cut have become highways for us in the emerging church. In some ways, they are forerunners to emerging church.
Por exemplo:
Willow Creek Church managed to digitize and layer worship into discrete elements – drama, song, and message could now be layered over each other rather than be chronologically linked back to back. Drama could now be used to highlight a problem but it did not have to answer the problem – the message could do that later. This prevented the cheese element that plagued Christian drama at that time and was a big step forward.
Another invention was the idea of blending the elements – the actors would stay on stage while the singer started the song, the preacher would interact with the props from the drama, one element quoting the other, or layering by continuing at the same time. This layering effect is normal for emerging worship, but was radical back then for Willow Creek, and a forerunner of postmodern worship.
Willow Creek and postmodern worship. I always wanted to use those words in the same sentence. Yes, I know, its all very modern – the big stage, the show, the predetermined outcome, but there are also pomo elements . . . if you look for them.
Willow also deconstructed the idea of Sunday service on a sunday. They shifted it to Wednesday and got a lot of flak for it. Today, we have gone even further, and many of us have replaced the service with other events, and may no longer even have a service. But we move ahead in the freedom that churches in a previous generation created for us.
And we should be thankful.
Thankful even for Mega-churches. Come on, you snobs, be thankful.

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name “Precious” :-)

34 Comments

  • Nice Andrew. I especially like the “source code” imagery in Negative #3. I’ve spent too much time doing Microsoft instead of open source. That needs to change. Also thought your positives were pretty balanced. Good stuff.

  • Stupid Question -I take it Powerpoint is selling Microsoft? Should we all move over to Apple? I don’t understand the argument. It’s a tool that can be used in worship like any other.

  • recognising differences isn’t snobbish. slagging them off, and refusing to recognise value in someone ‘other’ is. Failing to recognise difference is actually ultimately snobbish, becuase it refuses to acknowledge the other person’s point of view.

  • I’ve often told people that I don’t think it’s a matter of “mega-church” versus “emerging church.” In true pomo fashion, I’d say it’s “both/and,” right? God is doing something in the mega church movement, and God is doing something in the emerging church movement. He is accomplishing His purposes through both. And I think both have things worth praising and things worth criticizing.
    I think your criticisms of mega churches were well put. I just question the wisdom of challenging someone’s “snobbery” by making sweeping statements like calling all mega church congregants “soap watching, TV dinner eating, mall-shopping consumers” and “bored suburbanites.” Those are obviously over-generalizations, and someone on the other side could make similar judgments (i.e. “All pomo, emerging church people are bitter artist types who are so full of themselves and so theologically off-base that they can’t handle being a part of the larger Church, they have to go off with each other and huddle in an ethno-centric, homogenous clique” — or something like that).
    Why does the discussion have to be the deconstruction of mega churches (or the mega church as the end of civilization) and, conversely, the emerging church as the end all and be all of the future of Christianity? I think what you’re trying to get at, Andrew, is that we can peacefully co-exist (megas and emergents), even be iron sharpening iron (as the Bible says), instead of being at each other’s throats, putting each other down, and questioning each other’s faith. As much as I hate to put it like this (because it’s so trite), I can’t resist … Can’t we all just get along?

  • hey andrew,
    great points, thanks for sharing them. would love to hear (maybe in a followup post) how you feel about how megachurches do youth ministry….
    blessings
    -tony

  • The good news, Andrew, is that there are a number of good emerging models of “mega-church”. These are trying to break free of the stuff you outlined (and I totally agree with).
    One example.
    I would encourage folks to look at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They do not make people feel manipulated, insulted, or dumb. They also try to foster a connection to the past.
    Tony, I’m not sure what “youth” ministry looks like there, but since two-thirds of the congregation (of 10,000) is under the age of 35, my assumption is that they rock pretty well. The fact is they are also only 4 years old so they don’t have the trappings of institutionalism yet. Check em out at http://www.mhbcmi.org.
    Blessings.
    Brian

  • I recently critiqued an article written by Rick Warren, Why Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Church Model Will NOT Evangelize the 21st Century Culture. It takes up many of the same issues and has engendered the most negative feedback ever!
    But the process of writing this post led me to reconsider my viewpoint (a little). I will quote part of it here:
    My wife, who is a Marriage and Family Therapist and studying for her license, is reading an interesting book Escape from Babel by Scott Miller. She recently read me this finding reached by Miller’s Institute for the Study of Therapeutic Change (where they research what works in therapy):
    Research points to the existence of four factors common to all forms of therapy despite theoretical orientation (dynamic, cognitive, etc.), mode (individual, group, couples, family, etc.), dosage (frequency and number of sessions), or specialty (problem type, professional discipline, etc.). In order of their relative contribution to change, these elements include: (1) extratherapeutic [40%]; (2) relationship [30%]; (3) placebo, hope, and/or expectancy [15%]; and (4) structure, model, and/or technique ([15%]
    In other words, how to do therapy (or what theoretical model is used) contributes only 15% to any change which is exactly EQUAL to the placebo effect.

    The same may apply to the model used by a church to reach people–relationships, placebo and external forces all outway our theoretical models.
    Just a sobering thought…

  • I went to advvertising for an Emerging Gen pastor to see whether I was being a snob. And realised I was wasting my time – they ain’t going to appoint a woman, are they? This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but it does mean they’re VERY different from what a lot of us are talking about in ’emerging’ conversations.

  • Andrew, I will admit that I was shocked to see your “add” for an emergent pastor…so, I am probably a snob as well. That being said, I honestly feel what you are saying about being thankful for the churches that have come before us. This is something I need to keep reminding myself. Peace

  • Though I don’t agree with the underlying values of the mega-church, I can’t deny that God is using it in the lives of people (especially boomers). Though I can’t handle the spoon feeding of Saddleback’ teaching and books, there is a 50 year-old guy reading “Purpose-Driven Life” for the first time as act of surrender to God.
    In the long run, what kind of followers of Jesus are mega-churches creating ? Unfortunately, mostly consumeristic, market driven Christians. When we’ve “arrived” at THE way of doing church is when we get into trouble. The mega-church “appears” to have arrived since they have more to show for it (big building and more people). But some of the emerging churches think they have arrived as well (thus the snobbishness). I hope the young emerging churches never try to arrive, but try to be faithful to the context and mission God has called them to.

  • If I had read this post even 9 months ago, I would have gone off on a rant about a bunch of pseudo-intellecual artsy-fartsy elitists. I have, read, learned, studied and grown alot in that time and am grateful Andrew, for your balanced discussion of the mega vs emerging thing. While the whole emergerging concept is still a very new way of thinking to me discussions like this one continues to open my eyes. On the question of snobbery, I believe it boils down to this: Do people connect with God and with others,do they grow closer to God and others in both the emerging and mega context? Yes, of course they do! To claim otherwise from either side of the discussion would indeed put one at risk of being labeled a snob.

  • I am a Christian teenager that attends a rather large church, one that is almost a mega church. And naturally I attend the churches youth group. I am new to the concept of the emerging church, and have much to learn. However, the fact that there is a seemingly small fued going on seems silly. We are all Christians, no matter how big or small the church you attend or the style in which you praise God, and so forth.
    Anyway, I [who attend a close to “mega” church] find myself being taught by teachers who, although love the Lord dearly, have to teach at a lower theological level because of the fact that many of the teens are coming into the church with no knowledge of truth and little church experience. At home, however, my parents often engage in theological discussions, in which I learn and thus grow. [I am only referring to the youth group setting when I talk of lower level of teaching, in many other areas such as preaching it is quite deep and meaningful]
    Despite the mega churches downfalls, it brings in secular kids, and teaches them the good news. All the modern culture influence [such as style of music] is needed to make Christianity appear as appealing as possible to furthur spread the gospel. Whether this is good or not I am not sure. That’s all I have to say.
    God bless.

  • Good post, Andrew. I really enjoyed reading it – your writing still is always engaging!
    I previously posted something about the irony of advertizing for an emerging minister. It probably did sound a bit prejudiced; I’m sorry. I do respect what the mega-churches have done. But, I do not agree with many ‘program-based’ or ‘mega’ churches because their attendees are merely… merely attendees. They are not part of the church, but rather seem to merely attend church. The vast majority of people in megachurches cannot use their gifts and be part of community.
    I realize that what I’m saying is very stereotypical. Many ‘megachurches’ have now become ‘cell-based’ churches, and I think the small groups allow for people to build close relationships and to serve.
    I’m not saying that the emerging churches have ‘got it all together’. We definitely don’t.
    ** snobby… I guess. :p **

  • Andrew, I appreciate your thoughts on this stuff. They remind me a lot of what Paul wrote to the Philippians a couple thousand years ago (Phil. 1:15-18):

    It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

    Emerging church, mega church, mini church, cafe church, home church: as long as Christ is preached, it’s all good!

  • We’re probably all reacting to the formula for church that the “successful” pastor uses when he writes his book on “principles” that are supposedly transferrable and can be used anywhere – as long as we are exactly as charismatic, intelligent, good looking, and personable as said pastor, and also happen to live in exactly the same place with the same people. Most people that I know that have adopted the megachurch principles are leading struggling (supposedly), frustrated, little churches and are wondering what is wrong with them. Nothing a church growth consultant couldn’t cure, I’m sure.
    As long as we focus on “steps to success” and “principles for prosperity” in our ministry, whether it be in emerging churches or megachurches, we continue to miss the point. Geez, is it really all about us and our styles and forms? I thought this whole thing was about Christ. Are we so busy creating the perfect church for us that we are going to end up in the same boat as previous generations? Most people that come to Christ that I know, actually come in to a relationship with Jesus because of who He is. I’ve yet to hear someone say, “I’m turning to Christianity and forsaking my old lifestyle because you have great music.” Or great community. Or great art or creativity. All of those things are vehicles for the message and are important factors, but the message of the gospel is the power of God that brings us from darkness to light. Maybe it’s actually more than a message – maybe we need to look at the gospel in a fresh way. As long as we simply see it as a message, then we seem to constantly try to market it in one form or another. Just some thoughts.

  • Remember Carman? The Christian singer that used to be popular in some circles? On the one hand, you had people who thought Carman was the greatest thing since Swiss cheese. On the other, you had people (like me) who couldn’t listen to him without shuddering at the musical bastardization and artistic bankruptcy prevelant on his records. But if God uses him to reach people, maybe you should just sit back and be thankful that someone is reaching those people. There’s nothing saying that you have to listen to his CDs.
    As I read more about emerging churches, I can understand why snobbery is a potential danger. I’m making generalizations here (which is also admittedly dangerous), but it seems like a lot of pomos drawn to emerging churches are intelligent, insightful, artistic people. That’s not a bad thing – your personality is part of how God made you. But if you allow those characteristics to give you a feeling of superiority, that’s where pride and snobbery take root. Last time I checked, pride was a greater sin than firing up PowerPoint.
    There are Christians out there who shop at the megamall, attend a megachurch, rarely read, think Dumb and Dumber is the best movie ever, vacation at Disneyworld, and listen to Carman.
    Maybe that means you don’t have much in common with them, but it doesn’t mean God loves them any less than you, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you are closer to God, possess greater faith, or even have better theology than them. And while you may dislike their church because it doesn’t do anything for you, it’s possible that your church might not do anything for them, either.
    That’s why we need more than one kind of church. I agree with many of the criticisms I’ve heard leveled at megachurches, so maybe that means I should attend an emerging church, but it would be naive and snobbish for either the megachurch or the emerging church to offhandedly dismiss the other movement.

  • Cage Match: Mega vs. Emerging

    Andrew Jones has an interesting post on his blog about mega-churches versus emerging churches. He outlines four problems he (and other postmodern “creatives”) have with the mega-church model. Here’s my reaction to his post: I’ve often told people that …

  • In all of our wisdom; what is that we believe the Church is here to do? Are we here to serve or be served? To give or to receive? I am sure that I read an answer in the bible once, but since we are creatives- intellectuals even… What is our answer?

  • There is a light at the end of the tunnel for Willow Creek. Its Axis Ministry is targeted towards emerging generations. So much so that the youth ministry is losing kids to it. It was originally started as an 18 to 20 somethings ministry in the mid 90s by Dieter Zander, now part of Emergent. They already affect things that go on in the normal church and as they mature, there is the chance of making real changes. Their website is http://www.generationaxis.com.

  • Andrew, I hope the irony in your statements was intentional (perhaps an attempt at charming self deprecation?) because otherwise you’ve painted a picture of yourself as an intelligent man with a blind spot the size of his big head. I’ve been attending Willow Creek for 11 years and have been a participating member for 6 and while I’d like to say thanks for dolling out a few compliments for our programming and production teams you should know that Willow is more than a stage and a check book.
    Maybe it makes us fodder for snide editorials, but we are a church that actually seeks to attract morons. In fact, they come by van loads from the care center down the road. And it’s not just morons we’re trying to reach, it’s soccer moms, and executives, and shop clerks, and alcoholics, and anybody else we can coax into the car with us. Do I personally enjoy listening to another KennyG style sax solo for the millionth time? Not really, but I’m willing to compromise because (if you’ll forgive the sentimentality) I want my whole family in church with me, not just my cool friends.
    I think the relevance of the Mega Church is a non issue; you know a tree by it’s fruit, after all. Instead you ought to be more concerned with your smug attitude toward others. Imagine one of the Hillsong Christians coming across your clever little critique on the internet. Do you realize that “brotherly” is one of the last words anyone would use to describe what you wrote about the congregation at Hillsong London?
    [andrew- thanks kim.the peope who read this blog very rarely attend any church like yours or hillsong. i was trying to capture the dissonance of the emerging culture, and how they experience megachurch, based on what they tell me. i was also trying to be a lonely voice in a shouting of criticisms towards megachurch. i guess i havent succeeded yet.]

  • i think the overcommercialization of the Church and Christian Culture in general is kind of scary. i find myself trapped in that mindset often. the megachurch, even though there are many good things about it, i think is the epitomy of it. i’ve attended some churches that are trying to be megachurches, and it didn’t interest me even a small bit. but that’s not to say that it lacks value.
    it may seem silly to say that relevance is all relative, but in many cases, it’s true. i have friends who prefer the megachurch feel to the emerging church feel (if there is such a thing), and i can’t fault them. too much fluff, in general, for me though. i want real. or as real as we can be without exposing too much of our “real” selves. hehe.
    btw, glad to have found your blog. i like the conversation going on here.

  • I loved that Blog! The mega church is both good and bad for th kingdom. Just like the emerging postmodern whatever we are going to call it will be. It will have a level of effectivness and it will create a level of disfunction so lets all get of our high horse.
    Shawn

  • There are two basic and sound approaches to church
    1) Talk about the Bible and apply it to life.
    2) Talk about life and apply the Bible to it.
    They appeal to different mindsets and places in life, and are equally valid. “And” not “versus”, why does there have to be conflict here?
    I grew up in non-spiritually thinking family, school taught me that Christianity and having a brain were mutually exclusive, and 2) had no pull or attraction for me. The Bible didn’t appeal to me, I didn’t give it any credance.
    Going to a 1) seeker church and coming to understand what the Bible really says, what it claims, and learning that the Bible and a brain can coexist very well helped me overcome my upbringing, ignorance, and arrogance and I accepted Christ.
    Now I prefer 2), and I go to a church with Bible church roots and contemporary worship style. While I was a new-born Christian spirtual milk nourished me just fine, but solid food is what I need to grow from where I am now.
    And considering mega-churches …
    Healthy things tend to grow, and a church that isn’t growing probably isn’t that healthy. What do you do when your church grows from 200 to 1500 over five years? Say “Oh no! We could become a (shudder) mega-church! We’d better stop serving people, stop loving each other, and back off on going deeper with God, or we’ll keep growing!” ??!!?? I would hope you would say “How can we love and serve each other and our community more? What would God have us do with the resources he’s entrusted to us? How can we bring more people towards relationship with Christ?”
    If you’re scoffing at mega-churches from a “been 200 members for the last 30 years, and that’s the way we like it” church, you need to change perspective, friend. Are you in a self righteous holy huddle with little fruit to show? Even if it turned out that 80% of the people in a 5000 member mega-church were only there for the show, 1000 people would be chasing relationship with Christ.
    Jesus hung out with an aweful lot of drunks and tax collectors and other non-believers. Some of them were seekers, some were there for the party. Jesus never batted 1.000 with them, and he’s got skillz 🙂 …
    Peace,
    Vince <><

  • Andrew, I agree with your points, though I’m not sure what category I fit it (I’m a post-church person – don’t go to church but still profess a faith in Jesus). And those are also the reasons why I don’t go to church anymore.
    I wish those who go to mega churches who get so up-tight about brave people like you who make comments about them. Good on the mega churches that are doing good things and changing lives etc, but I hope they can also show that same grace to those who don’t seek to follow their practices.

  • Eyes still want everyone to be Eyes and Hands still want everyone to be Hands and Feet still want everyone to be Feet. We still see so dimly. These are premodern questions and answers to the same old, same old. Nothing new here, really.

  • This depends on what type of people you are trying to reach. I personally don’t enjoy feeling like I am at a rock and roll Hollywood service for Jesus. I have been at large gatherings that were focused on Christ and his Word, but these seem few and far between. For me a Mega Church will never do. My PERCEPTION is that a mega church has to compromise their message and beliefs in order to grow past a certain point, because the percentage of people in an area that desire to give it all for Christ is not usually large enough, in America, to float a mega church. This makes it easy to view mega churches as dangers to Christianity, telling people “Keep Sleeping, Everythings Fine, Don’t Think, Close Your Eyes”
    However, I must also say that we tend to love underdogs and hate sucessful things. How many musicians have been elevated by their fans, only to have their fans turn on them once they reach the very success their fan base was moving them towards. Who wants to see Ken Jennings win at Jeopardy again (No one). Who wants to see him lose, everyone. What I am saying is that is if “relevant” thinkers withdraw into their own huddles and do “emergent” things, they will become very popular and in 20 years, people like us will be under attack by a new generation for not doing it the right way (whatever that means.)
    We have to understand that every revolution needs thinkers and thugs. I often say I’d rather be a blissful idiot than a eyore who can pontificate his misery. We can’t forget the masses who need Christ, and offer them the latin mass (which I personally prefer to the Rock and Roll circus). We also can’t sell quasi biblical agendas, cheap powerpoints, and women who way less than their makeup to thinking Christians.
    A difficult line to walk. Both / And. May the force be with you.

  • Thankful for mega-churches?

    One of my favourite “future church” bloggers, Andrew Jones, aka TallSkinnyKiwi, encourages would-be emerging church leaders to be grateful to the mega churches, and to the foundation they have lai…

  • While the theme of this blog is one to which I might empatize, the absence of scripture in formulating opinions is a dissappointment. God (through Solomon) told us that the fear of God is the beginning of truth. The irreverence shown to our triune God in the responses to this blog is a fearful thing.

  • Yea good points. i know how u feel. spesh about the whole background music thing it get to me. But in saying that. what is church. I dont beleave its what happens on sunday morning or when ever that happens. cause church i beleave is just simply this christians sharing life together and i havve found that people put too much focus on these meetings. Not that its a bad thing but who realy cares. At the end of the day all that matters is God and people and everything else should just be a tool to build that. So I dont think it realy matters what meeting u go to or if you dont go to one as long as god and people get uplifted.
    and i think as long as we focus on that the church will grow stroung. and with we dont thats then satan can get a foot hold in it and bad stuff happens.
    but on the side personaly mega churches dont do it for me. i find it too big and too classy almost. but god made us all diffrent and he made me into some one that doesnt want to follow the crowd and likes doing creative stuff not that it makes me better just diffrent. so if mega churchs up lift those 2 things i reckon they chould go hard.

  • Well I must say that the reason why they are a mega church and yours is not, is due to the fact that they are touching real people’s lifes. I happen to think that you are a little bitter and jelous and well if you are not you sure come off as sounding that way. I happen to be a jr. High Pastor at a 300 member church (not a mega church)and I am greatfull for the resources that these larger churches have the man power to put out. Maby you should consider using them! ha well they have helped my church feed it’s members and hit the issues that are going on in their lives. This post is mearly a slam at a Fellow church that we ahould be loving and being unified with (JOHN 15) not trying to pick it apart. This post was out of line and all propaganda!

  • Size isn’t everything. Rev Moonie conducts weddings of many thousands – I doubt many of us would describe that as good.
    Andrew has every right to post whatever he likes on his own blog – and given this post is several years old, I bet you took a long time to find it.
    Apart from that, you’ve clearly not read the post as it is supposed to be building bridges between em.church and the megachurches.

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