Jesus and the Economist

kinnon —  December 21, 2005 — 11 Comments

EconomistjesusceoThe Economist investigates the mega-church as business phenomena from it’s particular British perspective in the December 20th story, Jesus, CEO. Willow Creek is their primary journalistic focus.

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.)

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

11 responses to Jesus and the Economist

  1. Is Willow Creek “an accurate representation of the church found in the New Testament?”

    Here’s the church found in the New Testament:

    “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous sings were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” -Acts 2:42-47

    That is the church of the New Testament, and it is one of two passages of scripture (the other being Luke 15) that inspired the birth of Willow Creek. I have yet to encounter a church that takes the New Testament church more seriously than Willow Creek.

    I would expect a reader of Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and Donald Miller to be a little less judgemental.

  2. Bill, I don’t know if you have ever heard Hybels talk about the three parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son. If you doubt his heart for people, then see if you can get ahold of the “Becoming a Contagious Christian” video. As Hybels discusses these parables, it is obvious (to me anyway) that he has an incredible compassion for those who have lost the way.

    I don’t agree with everything Willow has done… but then again I probably wouldn’t agree with everything ANY church has done. I’ve been to Willow for their arts conferences. I leave inspired each time.

    That said, I don’t know why you have such a bone to pick with them. I say that with all sincerity. I love to read your stuff and think it would be great to meet over a couple of cups of coffee someday (though we’re not exactly neighbors), but the Willow Creek “jabs” just don’t sit well with me.

  3. Kim and Dustin,

    First let me say that I appreciate the rebuke, Proverbs tells us that iron sharpens iron and that is what I hope we are engaged in here. Please note that I have done an update to the post that further explains the last comment and that it was not specifically directed at Willow Creek – my initial writing suggested otherwise. I would appreciate it if you haven’t already, that you read the Economist article and let me know what you think. I’d also challenge both of you to read David Fitch’s book, The Great Giveaway – David is working in ministry in Chicago and has written a very interesting book. You can visit his blog here.

    Let me further add (in my defence) that my comments are based on having worked with mega-churches in North America since the early ’90s. Much of my apparent reaction is based on experience.

    I look forward to further discussion – and hope you both have wonderful Christmases.

  4. Egads! Guilty as charged. I had not read the actual article. After reading it, I would agree that it is fair. Although I did not care for some of the wording:
    “One ruse is to break the congregation into small groups.”

    Ruse? That’s not a loaded word.

    Honestly, I’m conflicted about the whole argument. I agree with many of the points, but I don’t know that Hybels or Warren deserves to be placed in tandem with Osteen, Dollar, and Joyce Meyer. Not that I see the latter group as “evil” but as more responsible for the “Christian Lite” teaching that is mentioned in the article.

    In my opinion, Hybels and Warren are just guilty of being very shrewd marketers. They’ve realized that most people who are not receptive to church are more receptive to a non-threatening environment with strong application of biblical principles… not hermeneutics and doctrine. But I don’t believe they wish for people to stay in that position. I’m sure Willow Creek’s desire to for people to transition from the seeker service into stronger biblical teaching in the member services. It’s allowing people to migrate into a life dedicated to following the teachings of Jesus. Hopefully, they go further and further down the rabbit hole.

    Not everyone has a Damascus road conversion.

    Did you ever see the Diane Sawyer interview with Mel Gibson around the time of the release of The Passion of the Christ? He made a statement about why he is in such a strict sect of Christianity. He responded that he is a man of little will power. He needs strict guidelines. Other people maybe do not need that same strictness. This made me a little less likely to jump to criticism of different churches.

    Having worked with mega-churches doesn’t mean your criticism is valid (not sure that’s what you’re saying anyway). I’m overly critical of Southern Baptist and Charismatic churches mostly because I’ve been a member of both.

    A few points of the bottom line:

    1. Willow Creek is not above reproach. I realize that. And really, they don’t need me to defend them.

    2. I’m glad these questions are being asked. We need to keep each other honest as every man is righteous in his own eyes (and many churches are righteous in their own as well).

    There are my takes Bill. Glad we can discuss this as mature, considerate, loving brothers (and a sister) in Christ. Truly.

    And a Wholehearted Merry Christmas to you and your family as well.

  5. is discussing the same article: link to

    A comment from Greg makes one of my points better than I did:

    “i’m appalled that all mega-churches were simply lumped into the same category. lakewood and willowcreek aren’t even the same style of church! same for world changers and saddleback. i had a hard time making it all the way through this article just based on the broad, sweeping generalizations that all mega-churches can be compared to one another. not to mention the fact that rick warren of saddleback gave back his entire salary whereas creflo dollar bought stuff for his own personal gain.”

  6. Dustin,

    I think it’s important that we examine the filter through which the Economist is viewing the phenomena of the mega-church. The UK is definitely a post-Christian nation and the Economist writes from that perspective. Whereas you and I would not necessarily lump Hybels & Warren with Dollar and Osteen, they see them all as being incredibly materialistic. Perhaps to us there is a huge difference but the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily see that much of a difference.

    My personal reference to mega-church experience is meant to explain that I have been both inside and onside with much of what I now find myself uncomfortable. It is the consumer-driven gospel that makes our faith cost-free – we market the better life available in this form of Christianity, ignoring Jesus words that we are to pick up our crosses and follow Him (along with hundreds of other verses that speak of a costly gospel – but one that is worth the cost).

    The passage that Kim cites (Acts 2:42-47) is hardly a description of any of the mega-churches in North America – let alone 99% of North American Evangelicalism (including the church I attend and love). The passage is also a moment in time in the life of the church. Those same apostles (save John) would be martyred for their faith – and the church would be scattered throughout the known world (causing much growth). There momentary sense of peace and "prosperity" was shattered – to the eventual blessing of the church universal.

    In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan askes Mr. Beaver, on hearing about Aslan, "but is he quite safe?"Mr. Beaver is shocked, "Of course he isn’t safe! But he is good!"

    We have made the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords safe. But he isn’t. We have marketed this user-friendly Jesus to draw people into the church – and have kept those folk entertained by using great technology, powerful productions and good oratorical skills. But have we caused the kingdom to grow in North America. Apparently not.

    In spite of the growth of the mega-church phenomena, the actual numbers of church goers in the U.S. is not increasing commensurately. But the church is exploding in the rest of the non-Western world.

    Perhaps the Economist finds our version of Christianity incongruous with what it sees in the rest of the world. But I won’t lose hope in what God can and will do with His church in North America.



  7. Hi Bill, thanks for the interesting discussion.

    I had read the Economist article and was not surprised by it at all. It’s a recycled version of the same old tired story that’s been circulating for more than two decades. If you will look at it again you’ll see that there is no indication that the article’s author bothered to speak to any members of the congregation, spent any time at the church, or interviewed any of it’s leaders. All of the information included is junk you could find doing thirty minutes of web surfing. (In fact, entire passages are paraphrases of articles [though usually less colorfully worded] that have come out in the past couple of years.)

    I’m sorry if you’ve had bad experiences with “north american megachurches” but that doesn’t justify the kind of assumptions that you make in your comments. It is one thing to have private reservations about someone else’s congregation, but if you are going to go public and name names then you ought to be very informed about what you are saying. Frankly, I don’t get the feeling that you know Willow Creek all that well.

    In your response you write, “The passage that Kim cites (Acts 2:42-47) is hardly a description of any of the mega-churches in North America.” Now let me make it clear that I agree with Dustin – no church is perfect, not even my beloved Willow Creek. But I don’t think what Luke is describing in Acts is a perfect church, but rather a church that is excited about the gospel, committed to community, self-less and generous with its resources, and an irrisistable image of the kingdom of God to those far from Him. I have to say Willow Creek is an Acts 2 church and if you have evidence to the contrary now is the time to share it.

    For the record – Willow never has and, God help us, never will teach a “prosperity gospel.” The concept is a peversion of truth and is inappropriate in any Christian church of any tradition or size. I think the Christians who put their faith in that gospel are to be pitied above all Christians because, unlike the true Gospel, that is a hope that will disappoint.

    I just have one final point to make – it says in the Bible that you will know the tree by the fruit. If the thousands of transformed lives is not enough good fruit for you then here is some fruit that doesn’t get as much attention. In the last twelve months alone the congregation of Willow Creek raised $300,000 for victims of the Tsunami, $710,000 for victims of AIDS and poverty in Africa and Latin America, $800,000 for victims of Katrina, donated $1,000,000 worth of food items to local pantries, sent over 200 volunteers to assist in the Habitat for Humanity 2005 Blitz Build, sent over 400 volunteers to assist the recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, and in one thirty day stretch the congregation thousands participated in nearly 300 local service projects. This doesn’t even include the normal operations like the CARS ministry, the homeless shelter, Willow’s own food pantry, the special needs programs and many more.

    Now before you accuse me of just being another number obsessed mega-churcher, I’d like you to think about what those numbers represent – they are the first fruits of the men and women I go to church with. Men and women who give away their cars, take on second jobs, skip their vacations, all to give to the cause of Christ in this world. I know that it says in the Bible not to let the one hand know what the other is doing with regard to giving, so I probably shouldn’t talk about these things, but I thought you should know that these are the actions of the men and women that you are so eager to paint as lazy, self-obsessed consumers.

    Peace to you this Christmas, Kim

  8. Kim,

    In regards to the Acts 2 passage, which please note that
    I say applies to 99.9% of North American Evangelical Christianity,
    rather than just Willow Creek and include my own loved church in that
    statement. Luke is not describing a "perfect church" (your words) –
    rather he is describing the earliest church – where they held
    everything in common, selling their possessions to provide for the
    needy, met everyday in the temple courts (not inside the temple), had
    meals together constantly in each others homes and the Lord added to
    their number daily. I’m sorry Kim, but I’ll stick to my earlier
    statement – it is not a description of the North American Evangelical

    WC is to be commended for its giving with the numbers you have stated –
    would that other churches be as generous. Put in perspective, the
    amounts work out to about 5% of Willow’s yearly budget and (according
    to the WC Global web link to the Latin American and Africa giving) as much as 20% of those funds are used for administration of the funds.

    "prosperity gospel" statement is a straw man argument. I do not
    "accuse" WC of preaching this. I do suggest that the rest of the world
    views the North American Evangelical Church as being materialistic, a
    point well made in the Economist article. Have a developing world
    Christian wander your 155 acre campus, marvel at your new $72 million
    sanctuary, check out the books in your bookstore and then ask her what
    she thinks is important to the average North American Christian – and
    whether she can reconcile this with Acts 2. You’ll be shocked by her

    Kim, I have not stated anywhere that I have had "bad
    experiences" with North American Megachurches – I did say that I am now
    uncomfortable with them – having been both inside and onside with them.
    My developing world experiences have probably had much to do with that.

    Peace to you, as well, this Christmas. (And know I’m praying for you regarding the FMS.)

  9. Willow Creek and other mega-churches like to try and attract the “unchurched”. To do this they remove things from their services that would be spiritually uplifting to Christians, ie in-depth Bible preaching and spiritual songs with meaningful words. And they replace these with things that appeal to the worldly desires or the flesh like shorter and lighter sermons rife with jokes (many inappropriate), songs with words that focus on man and his feelings toward God, not Jesus, and drama. In effect they have become more like Unchurches. So if an unchurched person attends an Unchurch, they remain unchurched. Evangelism is an important part of being a Christian, but ONLY a part. How many times did Paul mention evangelism in his letters to the churches? When evangelism is the focus at the exclusion of all else it becomes an idol. Church should be about worshipping God not pleasing the carnal desires of man.

  10. That this discussion is more interesting than the article is an encouraging sign. What amazes me though about this discussion is the general lack of specific criteria for measuring the health and success of a church. As well as how to measure the transformation of a human life. Having served as a consultant to churches for the past decade, I can tell you that no one church is alike, even within the same tradition. Each are on their own particular journey. The real question is how honest are they about both their strengths and weaknesses. My impression is that places like Willow Creek and Saddleback have heard their critics and are responding. There are many problems and many issues with churches of all sizes, traditions, styles and denominations. Somehow God in his majesty is able to work through all of them to achieve his will. For me the measure of a church is the personal initiative that the average member takes to make a difference for the kingdom. If they take that step, and so with openness to learning, then they will become transforming agents for the church. I find that this is a dilemma for churches to create, no matter what size. It is so because this is really the measure of the Holy Spirit’s control of the individual. What I expect to see is chaos and change. Movement toward new things and movement away from other things. I expect to see dynamism that people cannot exactly describe. If everyone is doing the same thing in the same way at the same time, it is not only boring, but loses the character of that personal initiative expressed for the benefit of the church community. There is a spectrum that connects megachurches with small churches, and that is the degree that the fellowship provides a transformative experience for the individual member. It tends to happen with a smaller circle of people. Megachurches create small groups to facilitate this. Small churches are already such, and often miss the benefits of being small, because they don’t know what they have. There are other issues that come with size, both large and small, but the bottom line is whether individual member feels the freedom to change at the instigation of the Holy Spirit. In so doing they honor the Lord in their lives, even when they don’t totally understand what is happening. That is why a close circle of caring, honest, wise relationships are important, no matter what size church you are. There is much more to say. But I’ll wait until another time.

  11. Bill, sorry for misunderstanding your reference to your work with North American Megachurches. Are you actually saying that it isn’t any bad experiences with megachurches that leads to your anger toward them, but your empathy with those living in poverty? If that is the case, I applaud your empathy but I imagine that there are many more appropriate ways to respond than to deride other Christian’s congregations.

    Let’s go back to Acts 2 once more, becuase I think it is that important. It is as convenient as it is dangerous to assume that Acts 2 is some lost utopia that we shouldn’t even have the hubris to shoot for. The Holy Spirit that dwelt in that church is the same one that dwells in your church and mine. To shoot for anything less is to sell out.

    When I was 19 my mom was disabled by illness and my dad was laid off, we had no hot water and our car was on it’s last leg. Willow Creek heard about our situation and gave us 6 months of unlimited food pantry visits, sent a team of people over to fix our plumbing and clean up our much neglected yard, made available free career counseling for my dad, and gave us, completely free, a Buick Century sedan. My parents were not even attenders. Our story is just one of thousands that you would hear if you came out to the chicago-land area and started asking about Willow Creek. You would be shocked.

    About the numbers I shared – I specifically chose those number because they represented 0% of the regular budget. Let me explain – every week folks come in with their tithes and offerings. The operating budget (which includes all regular programs, including those meant to serve the under-resourced) is funded by the regular tithes and offerings collected at weekly services. But when a special need arises, like the Tsunami, or AIDS, or Katrina the leadership asks that, if we feel the desire to give, we do so seperate from and over our tithes. (In some cases contingent funds built into the church’s budget are added to these seperate donations.)

    This is significant because, without taking any funds away from the ministry programs that were already written into the budget, (like CARS, the homeless shelter, the food pantry, etc.) we strive to meet additional needs as they present themselves every year.

    And that is how we built the new auditorium, classrooms, and offices. The funds were raised over and above the regular tithes so that the operating budget would remain untouched and none of those programs suffered. In fact, during the three year period that the additions were being built, Willow’s Extension Ministry (help for the under-resourced) atually had a tremendous growth spurt.

    As for 20% of the global funds going to administration costs…if that is true then we received a false report from Global Connections at last weekend’s service when the Director, Warren Beech, informed us that, thanks to the partnership of several local businesses, we were able to send over $.98 of every dollar.

    Regarding my “prosperity gospel” statement: both you and Dustin mentioned that some people lump Willow Creek with Osteen and Meyer. I simply wanted to make it clear for your readers that we do not preach a “prosperity gospel.” It’s a common misconception, even if it is not one that you share.

    David, thanks for your thoughts. I would add that there are many idolatries to tempt Christians, including the idolatry of conformity.

    Ed, beautifully said! I especially liked the part about honesty. You can’t live in the light and hide in the dark at the same time. Sin is to be feared and abhorred, but not hidden, especially when it occurs in the church. If confession and repentance are like breathing to the Christian life than it ought to be so for churches as well.

    Merry Christmas guys! (And thanks, Bill. The prayers are much appreciated!)


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