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.
"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?