Willow de Soleil, Cirque de Creek?

kinnon —  December 24, 2007 — 15 Comments

Imaginechristmas Someone this blog knows well had the opportunity to see Willow Creek’s Imagine Saturday night and has sent ae this report:

Wow! Let me first say, Wow! I have been to Vegas and seen Cirque de Soleil’s "O" and this, well this, was really nothing like it. More like a Cirque-want-to-be – but still, at a production level, quite good all the same.

The pre-show, get-em-to-their-seats production numbers were lots of fun. And the Cirque influence was very obvious – with the acrobats hanging from the grid or climbing up ropes. They must have been pros as I would wonder whether WC has these kind of volunteers kicking around.

And then the main event began. WC has really got the technology down. Mega screens filled with mega graphics telling the mega Creation to Incarnation story – in an hour. And was that hour packed. Angel auditions with film countdowns and everything. (I am not sure WC has a high view of Angels but I might just be mistaken. ) And two less-than-perfect angels providing some of the story telling. They were amusing.

And the Creation story! It felt like we were seeing the Lion King reenacted on stage. (Oh, right. Disney already did that.) But there were cool butterflies fluttering by. Tumbling cheetahs. I have seen cheetahs in the African wild. However, they were just sitting around. The giraffes were neat but I found the rabbit on stilts a little confusing. Maybe Noah left that type off the boat. Noah must have been cut from the one hour production.

I found the Fall story to be, shall we say, interesting. It would appear that Narnia provided primary inspiration for the after effects of the fall. I think the narrator said something like "the icy stain of sin entered the world." Wasn’t Narnia before Aslan’s return, "always winter but never Christmas?"

The high-point of the evening for me was the two female gospel singers performing Oh Come, Oh Come Immanuel. Probably the lowest tech point of the whole event, but the most powerful, all the same.

I did not really understand the staging of Mary’s Holy Spirit impregnation – the snow and the cold wind sounds did not quite fit the story – but perhaps the director and writer(s) were making the story accessible for a Chicago winter audience.

When the production ended, Gene Appel’s self-deprecating style was fairly easy to take. His invitation to receive Jesus was nice and laid back. No pressure. But it did seem rather oddly tacked on to the big production.

Bill Hybels came in at the end to wrap the whole thing up. He told us that DVDs of the event could be purchased on the way out and mentioned that the CBS affiliate would be broadcasting the production Christmas Eve.

A final thought. This was a true mega production. Huge. A real spectacle. Tens of thousands of man hours must have gone into it’s production. Hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million dollars were spent on the production. When I think of Jesus’ humble arrival on the planet, I find this production rather incongruous.

Thanks for sharing this on ae. I appreciate the report and recognize your desire for anonymity.

After reading the report, I’m reminded of David Fitch’s comments on Willow Creek’s production last Christmas. Dave made the comments at the beginning of the year on this blog post, When is a Story Not A Story? : Willowcreek and Acrobats on Christmas Eve. He describes the event (based on a newspaper article) and then says,

…a friend said to me, "they are just trying to be creative in presenting the story of Christ’s birth. What could be wrong with that?" At which point I pondered – at what point is the story no longer the story? Answer – when it becomes a spectacle. According to Paul Ricouer, we know it’s a good story when we "get into it," when we see ourselves "emploted" into the story. This is the idea behind remembering the story, rehearsing it in worship (and the Eucharist), true anamnesis (1 Cor 11:24). The spectacle however turns us passive no longer able to participate in the story. The question is: did Willowcreek turn the story of the Christ child into a spectacle with the use of acrobats? Did the acrobats becomes so mesmerizing that those who came to see were caught up in the spectral gaze, detached and mesmerized, made totally inert as onlookers no longer able to participate in the story? Because when the story becomes a spectacle, the story is no longer a story. And we have gone from an act of worship to an act of spectatorship, from an act of participation to a spectral gaze.

The Chicago Tribune’s story today, Megachurches, megashows seems to reflect this response to the spectacle.

Willow Creek, which first presented the "Imagine Christmas" program last year, aims to entertain, something officials acknowledge the public has come to expect. But it is no different, they said, than what Jesus did to attract large followings — performing miracles in public like feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

  "In today’s world, the church must compete with movies and even restaurants for audiences. Everybody wants to be entertained," said Susan DeLay, who handles public relations for Willow Creek. "People who might not go to church might come to see a Christmas pageant, and if we can share Christ through this, then yeah!"

Some religious experts said such extravaganzas are mostly about drawing people in to fill the thousands of stadium seats in those massive sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. In doing so, they rely on a new advertising technique known as experiential marketing, which essentially takes the focus off a product, which is not unique, and places it on the experience, which can be one of a kind.

"It has nothing to do with the Christmas message. … It’s selling a sensation, an experience," said James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. "What competitive churches understand is that you are not going to sell your service on the basis of doctrine because it’s all the same. When people go to church they … want to know if there’s a good show. And often that’s not coming out of doctrine, it comes from music, theatrics and the sound system." [emphasis added]

Susan DeLay’s comment should shock me. It doesn’t. It is an accurate reflection of the consumer church engaged within the world it thinks its in – competing for the same audiences as movies and restaurants – audiences who expect to be entertained. Misreading Scripture to believe that Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 was a way to attract and entertain large crowds only shows the poor exegetical skills of the consumer church. (Note, the crowds were gathered to hear Jesus. He fed them long after they’d gathered.) Willow Creek and the other churches mentioned in the Tribune article truly feel that they are sharing Christ in that entertainment.

Twitchell continues,

"These are operations that are in show business. They have state-of-the-art jumbo video screens. They have rock-concert-quality audio," he said. "If you go to the services, you are not sitting on pews, you are sitting on Cineplex movie seats. You’re not really watching the minister up front, you are watching the minister appearing on dropdown movie screens. They are accustomed to producing an experience, so this is just the next step."

Megachurch staff read books like Raving Fans – learning how to be improve their customer service. (Note the sign that used to hang outside Bill Hybel’s door as I mentioned here, "What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?.) They highlight whole passages in Connellan’s book, Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney’s Success. They are about attracting audiences in the hope that they can sell those audiences Jesus.

Let me give Dave the last word,

…it is when we attempt to make the Christmas Eve service into a spectacle, when we try to hyper intensify the reality of the Son being born a babe to attract onlookers, THAT WE ACTUALLY REMOVE OURSELVES AND THE ONLOOKERS FROM THAT REALITY. We make the birth of the Son a spectacle to get fascinated by, enjoy as a show, foreclosing the possibility of participating in it. In other words, you cannot evangelize with a spectacle. Isn’t that ironic?

UPDATE: Please read this very good post that adds to the conversation. I’ll be adding Love and Blunder to  my Google Reader.



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.

15 responses to Willow de Soleil, Cirque de Creek?

  1. It’s all in Aristotle, all in Aristotle: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?

    (with apologies to CSL)

  2. What a coincidence! The Christmas Eve pageant that I will be attending in a few short hours is also titled “Imagine.” Do you suppose it might not be original to our local assembly? They don’t franchise these things do they?

    Last week, the senior pastor alluded to the production costs. However, he reminded us, with trembling voice, that we can’t put a price tag on a single soul being added to the kingdom. He said whatever the cost, whether it is the money spent on the christmas production or the millions on the new building we sit in, it is for the individual who might meet Christ through those efforts. “Tell me, how much is one soul worth?”

    Anyway, I’m just reporting. Draw your own conclusions.

  3. How about all the souls lost because they can’t manage the cognitive dissonance? Is there a price tag on that?

    BTW, Bill, it’s not “poor exegesis” of the loaves and fishes passage … it’s either gross manipulation or illiteracy. In either case, that person is not fit for leadership. Sorry … I just don’t have as much grace as you do for that sort of thing.

    I’ll just go back to gift wrapping now … and hide my head in the sand …

  4. David Fitch hits the final note well. But I can imagine the retort from Willow supporters, and they are legion, might be that the goal is to draw them in, get them coming back, and proceed with feeding them milk on up to that solid food later on. So I guess the question to ask concerns what are the number of the 5000+ when I was there who actually come back for services or worse those who say those Christians may be out of touch but they sure put on a good show.

  5. Wow… I stumbled upon your blog and was interested in it because I met Christ for the first time at Imagine Christmas last year. I kept going back and got into a small group, took some of their Discipleship classes, and now am considering a career change and going into ministry… hopefully an urban ministry or such.

    I brought my whole (unbelieving) extended family this year. Three prayed to accept Christ. I am praying that they get into small groups, discipleship, etc–and am helping them do that.

    The Willow Nrighborhood groups have been amazing for me and I hope they can connect to them.

    I can understand people who say “Willow is not for me… not my style”, but i can’t understand a follower of Christ bashing it and saying it is bad for everyone. Really, I’m not sure why Christ followers are always bashing other churches and ministries. It makes me sad and I think it makes God sadder.

    Perhaps there is a way to have enough humility to say “other ways are OK”.

    Is Willow perfect? No.
    Do some people fall through the cracks? Yes.

    But I praise God everyday for them!!!!!

    Merry Christmas.

  6. Thanks, Jamie. I’ve never been to Willow, but attended some conferences and stuff. Some has been useful, some hasn’t. I think I could agree with Bill and other posters here about some things about Willow that hasn’t been too healthy. But I really respect their passion to see people getting to know Jesus, altough they might have let that passion result in other methods than i necessarily would.

    I really can’t find too much respect for the heart behind what their doing neither in what Bill is writing or some of the other comments. It’s rather a graceless tone.

  7. Sarah Jane Seymour December 25, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    I don’t get the need to put down, criticize and attack other churches! I get so tired of the negativity and attacks. I live about 10 minutes from Willow Creek and I don’t go to the church. I’ve been there a few times with friends and I don’t like it. It isn’t my style and it doesn’t work for me. There are lots of things I would do differently than they do (which is why I go somewhere else). But my church still has a lot to learn too. I just see nothing fruitful with Christians attacking other Christians.

  8. Sarah,
    You must really struggle with the Reformation, then.

    This is just a quick response. I’ll be back later in the week to respond specifically to John and Jamie. Am on the road for most of tomorrow and visiting friends ‘tl late Friday night.

  9. Grace is good…. but so are God-given critical faculties. Luther’s grace and integrity show through in the way he only had 97 Theses. If he’d just been having a rant he would have rounded them up to 100.

  10. Jamie,

    First, let me rejoice with you that you have come to know the Risen Savior. God is good! Secondly, I do pray that those three family members become properly knitted into the Body of Christ.

    Now let me respond to some of your other points. I’m not sure who has said Willow is “bad for everyone.” The critique is primarily of the Consumer Church and how Willow is very much a part of that “style.”

    It is pure pragmatism to suggest that because you became a Christian at Willow’s Imagine, and three family members prayed the prayer, that the spectacle of Imagine is beyond sincere criticism.

    I became a Christian twenty-five years ago after watching a two person, one-act play based on Revelation 3:20. Someone I know became a Christian listening to Jesus Christ Superstar. On Christmas Eve, whilst we attended service in an Anglican Cathedral, my eldest son told me of a friend of his who became a Christian simply visiting such a place. In each situation, our Father drew us to himself. There are millions of stories of Christians coming to Christ in the oddest of ways. Because He worked in those situations does not mean that they are somehow anointed. (I listened to Jesus Christ Superstar hundreds of times as a teenager with little or no impact on my spiritual life.)

    Let me recommend you read Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus, David Fitch’s The Great Giveaway and the soon to be released Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. (Barna is a former Willow booster.)

    If you long to see your family members grow in their faith, get them plugged into real Christian community (whether in Willow’s small groups or elsewhere) with people who care about their growth as believers, will pray with them on a regular basis and will help them learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

    My point of conversion only really took hold because a group of Christians took me under their wings and discipled me in the faith. My friends JCS conversion experience wouldn’t have mattered if she hadn’t plugged in immediately to a group of people who loved her. My eldest son’s friend would not still be a believer if he had not been knitted into a believing community.


    Thanks for stopping by and choosing to judge my heart and those of others who have commented here. Please make a point of reading the books I’ve recommended above and engaging in the argument.

  11. While I struggle with franchised church services and productions geared toward entertainment, I also appreciate the sincerity of those who invest their lives in this approach to ministry.

    As Bill said, God can use almost anything in His attempts at drawing someone to Himself. During our production, I honestly wrestled with my feelings about the method. With nearly triple attendance at the services, I thought about the purpose of the event.

    When we talk about Willow Creek, it is impersonal for me. However, as I looked around on Christmas Eve, these were real people, members of my community. Sure there were probably plenty of Christians shuffled in from other churches to enjoy the show. But there were likely at least a tiny percentage of unchurched people, possibly experiencing hope and the gospel.

    That matters to me. I don’t want to invalidate what God can do in their life, or what He has done in other lives through Willow Creek.

    However, I am also aware that He isn’t dependent on this production to reach someone. One of the questions that I wonder about is, when we are busy doing this, what is it that we aren’t doing?

    Can we discuss the methods without invalidating the genuine things that God has done?

  12. Bill,
    Your answer to Jamie was beautiful, and thoughtful. Your post was stunning to me – I had no idea Willow was doing this. The quote from Nancy was also stunning.

    I am speechless.


  13. Grace,

    Your question “when we are busy doing this, what is it that we aren’t doing?” is great. A good response to me, to willow and to others who engage people in “churchstuff.”

    You also ask: “Can we discuss the methods without invalidating the genuine things that God has done?” And I think that is much of what I am searching after as well. Although I agree with much critiscm of megachurch and others around the blogosphere, I often feel a tone of disrespect – and that was what made me write my comment.

    For me one question is what the purpose of the critiscm is. Is it to ask questions that possibly can change the way those critizised do thing? If yes, I think it is needed a more outspoken respect for the heart behind what they do. I think for most people if you feel misunderstood on your intentions your are much less likely to actually listen and involve in criticism.


    I’m sorry if you feel I judged your heart. My point was more to give a reaction for the feeling that you had little respect for others heart.

    As already written to Grace, my response was more “the cup is filled up” after reading lots of blogs over time, than only to this post. For that reason my response came out to hard and concluding – and far to less just questioning what you think. For that I am truly sorry.

    Let me just ask some questions that is meant open – not loaded:
    * What exactly was it in my response that made you feel I judged your heart?
    * Is it just a conincidence or a pattern that three critical responses I’ve read here the last couple of days all have been labeled as judging?
    * Would you prefer that people who are down the same road as you on theese matters engage in conversation, and others stay silent, or is it ok to also come with critical interruptions?

  14. Hi Bill

    I really appreciate your blog and the tone of this discussion. As Christians, we must be willing to enter into constructive discussion and critique.

    I agree with much of what you and others have said, and disagree with much as well. I appreciate much about Willow Creek (and others) and have been inspired by them at times, but also much that I think is problematic.

    We must discuss, challenge, and continue the discussion because the stakes are very high.

    Thanks for providing a place for good discussion.

    (I especially appreciated your reference to the Reformation above… too easy to fall into a “feel good we all must be nice” mentality…)

    Happy New Year and may this Christmas Seasonn continue to bless you!


    BTW, for the record, the church I pastor did “Imagine Christmas” this year as an outreach. It was very scaled down (our rennovated warehouse chapel only seats 135 and we usually meet in the round and have no stage) but also very effective. We are much more of a emerging church than a Willow Church, but we were able to use the gifts in our faith community combined with the arts to tell the beautiful story… and it didn’t cost a fortune either. No professionals, just our folks and their gifts… and it frew 6x more people than last year did. While numbers aren’t everything, an initial connection is important in terms of helping people encounter God and take the next step on their journey in the context of community. Imagine Christmas helped that happen and I’m thankful that Willow makes it available to churches like us. It can be done in a way that is not entertainment or consumeristic, but about art and worship and story-telling… or at least that is what we attempted.


  15. is it just me or are we all a little too eager to find more to bash one bill for

    i’m no fan of willow or their seeker model
    there is plenty in what they do that i find easy to critique and complain about

    but really i think this is over the top and overboard critiscm
    i’m sure evangelism can stand up to being many different things from freindship/serving/or spectacle


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