August 7, 2018

Up Willow Creek Without a Pastor

The impending fall of the Willow Creek empire – for fall it surely will – is the watershed for the mega-church management model of church.  And the rot has not come from without.  Just like Israel in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, the rot has come from within.  All that those without have done is expose the rot.

The latest Willow Creek revelations do indeed make for sordid, and sobering, reading.

Even more sordid and sobering in light of how the exposé is primarily, though not exclusively, being reported in the mainstream media, in this latest instance, The New York Times.

I’ve read social media comments by Christians doubting the veracity of these reports, or questioning the motivations of the writers, simply because they are in journals such as The New York Times, organs with a suspicion bordering on hostility towards all things evangelical.

That is a wrong-headed approach in the extreme.  And a case of self-denial.

The true worry is that it took secular papers to finally do it.  To make people sit up and take notice.  It’s as if the blinkers were so tightly bound to those who championed Willow Creek from within the evangelical community that it took an outsider to show the problem.

But then again, families are where the most abuse occurs, and family members have a hush-don’t-tell approach. In a deeply, and deeply flawed, pragmatic approach they often size up the option that is the least disruptive to the family and send them to coventry; in this case the many women who don’t sell books or fill out conferences the way the “Superstar Pastor” (the New York Times phrase not mine), does.

The Times is not destroying the credibility of evangelicalism by exposing what went on, it is merely proving that large swathes of mainstream evangelicalism have lost their credibility already.

It’s as if those who are hiding this sort of stuff under a rug do not think that one day it would be exposed, either today by the Times, or on The Last Day by the Lord of Time.

As someone who was never a big fan of the whole Willow Creek model, and belonging to a theological tribe that views that philosophy of ministry as having a big hole in the centre, it would be easy to rest easy: “Ah, that’s not my tribe, that mud doesn’t stick.

Bad move for two reasons.

First for most outsiders it’s not even as if evangelicalism is all the same, Christianity is all the same.  The average secular New Yorker, or Perthite, sees the Christian faith as a monolith to which all parts are joined.  Only those who have the luxury of living in the family home see the various components and their nuances.

This struck me listening to the excellent This American Life podcast on church planting and church planters, in which management speak was a central part of the narrative.  The storyteller commented how often the language of the tech industry start up was used to talk of church plants and the philosophy behind getting them off the ground.

And that’s exactly how it sounded as I listened to it making dinner last week.  Even when the venerable, avuncular squeaky clean Tim Keller came on.

Of course there is a vast amount to Tim Keller beyond the one minute sound bite they used from his church planting video promoting the City to City network, but what they used of what he said, and how they critiqued it in light of the rest of the podcast, left me feeling uncomfortable about what this church planting system – that began in such an organic way – could, or has, become.

Maybe they – the This American Life crowd that speaks for a vast audience -, think we (by that I mean Christians) are pretty much all in the same basket. Which of course they do.

Yet I still remember years back early in ministry work, reluctantly, attending a Willow Creek event in Perth and sitting in my youthful zeal waiting to be less than impressed with how the Bible was handled by Bill.

I was not disappointed – that is  my youthful zeal was not disappointed -, because Bill confirmed my suspicions and pushed the text of Nehemiah through the strainer of management-speak.

I remember another equally youthful zealous friend at that event, going up to Bill and saying to him at the end of the talk with a bit of iron in his voice: “Is that what you think the text is actually about?” only to be met with an equally steely gaze from Bill.  He slunk away feeling a bit embarrassed.  And perhaps that’s a good thing for youthful zealots to feel from time to time.

Yet it would be easy to stand at a distance and watch all that too-ing and fro-ing and denial and gas-lighting of the women involved in the sexual accusations, and think, “That’s not our lot though.”

But, sadly, secondly it is us, and in more ways that just sexual. For if management technique has become the way to grow the thing, it is increasingly being used by all and sundry as the technique to protect the product when it goes off-track.

The same sexual scandals that have sunk evangelicals who hold to the egalitarian positions on church leadership have sunk evangelicals who hold to the complementarian position on church leadership.  Sexually abusive leaders are equal opportunity employers.

But it’s not just the sexual scandal in isolation.  Given the nature of individual human sin we should expect sexual scandals in the church.  This is our chance to lance the boil early and enact church discipline, painful though it is at the time (let the reader understand).  But how rarely this chance seems to be taken, and increasingly rarely as the language of management takes a grip.

Like King David with Bathsheba, the insane decision is made in so many of these situations to cover up one sin with another sin, and before you know it a man is dead, a king is disgraced and a legacy is gone.

Yet do we learn?  We do not.  Not even a Nathan the prophet seems to do the trick these days, not when we’ve got a management framework in place that has rendered him unnecessary.

Management-speak that was used so deftly to set this thing up over the past forty years, was then being used to maintain this thing in the face of accusations that could destabilise what is a financial juggernaut. Statements were put out that denied everything then admitted something, before finally, and frantically, trying to stop everything being said.

But there’s a tipping point.  Just as with pastor Mark Driscoll’s rapid fall, after so many years of people voicing concerns, a recall rush on the product finally convinces those who previously turned a blind eye to act.

And voila! Those who were, up until yesterday, vociferous supporters of the abuser, suddenly find voice – and memory, and the icon falls.  A Superstar is brought down, and the initial deniers present themselves as a solution to the problem they had for so long turned a blind eye to.  Even in the wreckage, the product, not the person calling it out, seems to be the primary concern.

Even in my own experience of publicly calling out a spiritually abusive church system to which I once belonged – one that crossed every theological “T” and ticked every ecclesiological “I” – this was the case.

“A public statement” was being “considered” in response to what I said.  It was amateur hour management-speak, but the intent was clear: let’s shut this thing down before it gets any further.  Protect the product at all costs.

It’s as if that whole invitation for God’s people to call out what is going on in the body for the sake of the body and the glory of God, is thrown out the window at that point.

And when it is it’s usually the person making the accusation who gets turfed out the window with it.






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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

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