Christianity Today’s History column has a good article by Michael S. Hamilton about Willow Creek’s place in history. Willow Creek, for those not in the know, is a nondenominational evangelical megachurch (17,000+ every Sunday) in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. With a membership that size, the church has enough money to put together worship services that would make most rock concerts seem tame, and they use every multimedia gadget under the sun to get people into the seats. Furthermore, the ministry team practices what is known as “seeker-sensitivity,” which basically means preaching so as to not offend anyone who mistakenly thought they were following the large crowd to a Bulls game (actually, the official definition is ministering to people’s “felt needs,” or giving people what they think they want, which is basically the same thing as trying to be as inoffensive as possible). Critics of Willow Creek (and similar megachurches around the country) say that the Willow Creek approach gets people in the seats only because of the high-tech innovation and the Christianity-lite, not because of any real theological substance or working of God. Hamilton argues that both apologists and detractors get megachurches wrong. In fact, he says, the high-tech pop-culture approach of Willow Creek is not really that exceptional at all. He argues that tapping into pop culture and contemporary trends has been a habit of evangelical Christians for a long time. Hamilton notes that megachurches have been on the evangelical landscape since the late 19th-century. Church institutions using innovation to reach outsiders is nothing new. Mark Noll makes a similar point in “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” which I read last year. For Noll, nondenominational evangelicalism is the branch of Christianity that has most embraced the American ideals of innovation, pragmatism, and can-do spirit. As early as the antebellum era, evangelical Christians took their new religious and political freedom, as well as technological innovation, and used them to draw big numbers to their churches. Being “seeker sensitive,” dazzling your audience, and ministering to what people think their needs are all have long histories. Evangelicals have sought elements of mainstream culture they could use to draw people to church for nearly 200 years.
Hamilton also compares the social services offered by the modern megachurch with those offered by traditional churches in previous eras. Coincidentially, when I recently made a presentation on the history of Lutheranism in America, I made a strong point that 19th century Lutheran churches (much like Catholic churches) were instrumental in supporting northern European immigrants make the adjustment to life in America by helping them find jobs or housing, by educating them, and by hooking them up with those of similar ethnicity. Hamilton argues that the social services offered by the institutional church in earlier eras are similar to the programs that megachurches have today. Now, I think one could make the case that in previous eras churches were performing essential social services while today most church programs are entertainment, because social services have been taken over by the government (we’ll see how far the president’s faith based initiatives go). However, there are probably enough examples of social services today (and entertainment in the past) that such an argument wouldn’t get very far. Anyway, I think Hamilton’s point is correct that Willow Creek’s position in history is not that unique, and seems that both the hype and criticism around Willow Creek are overdone. And, if history is any indication, the Willow Creek model will not be around forever. Perhaps in ten years, small churches tied to traditional denominations will be the next big thing, in a manner of speaking.