VISIT Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, an upscale exurb of Chicago, and you are confronted with a puzzle. Where in God’s name is the church? Willow Creek has every amenity you can imagine, from food courts to basketball courts, from cafes to video screens, not to mention enough parking spaces for around 4,000 cars. But look for steeples and stained glass, let alone crosses and altars, and you look in vain. Surely this is a slice of corporate America rather than religious America?
The corporate theme is not just a matter of appearances. Willow Creek has a mission statement (“to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ”) and a management team, a seven-step strategy and a set of ten core values. The church employs two MBAs—one from Harvard and one from Stanford—and boasts a consulting arm. It has even been given the ultimate business accolade: it is the subject of a Harvard Business School case-study.
Willow Creek is just one of a growing number of evangelical churches that borrow techniques from the corporate world. Forget those local worthies who help with the vicar’s coffee mornings and arrange flowers. American churches have started dubbing their senior functionaries CEOs and COOs.
Jordon Cooper feels the article is rather unfair.
I defend (and disagree with) Willow Creek a lot around here for doing what they need to do in their context. I used to work at a WCA church and have been to the Leadership Summit but the Economist article really makes them look soul-less which isn’t the case.
I’m not sure I agree with Jordon. The Economist article expresses the confusion many feel when confronted by the “Church as business” model. Through its peculiar British lens, the Economist presents an accurate picture of mega-churchs and appears more than fair in the process.
Yet three things can be said in the mega-churches’ defence. The first is that they are simply responding to demand. Their target audience consists of baby-boomers who left the church in adolescence, who do not feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to everything else. The mega-churches are using the tools of American society to spread religion where it would not otherwise exist.
One might ask the question whether this “religion” is an accurate representation of the church found in the New Testament, but the Economist doesn’t go there.
UPDATE: You’ll note in the comments that Kim and Dustin have reacted to what they see as an unfair swipe at Willow. My last sentence has been the primary provocation. Unfortunately, my writing has left the impression that the Economist authors were talking about WC in the last quote, when in fact their references were to numerous mega-churches – they mention World Changers Ministries, Fellowship Church, Saddleback, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes, Lakewood and others in the article. (Note, I have also changed the sentence prior to the last quote to say “accurate picture of mega-churchs” rather than “accurate picture of the mega-church”, which unfortunately reinforced the belief that it was a reference to WC – not my intent but easily read that way.)