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Brian and I call it "Mecca." Not because we revere it to that degree but because we know folks who do. Folks who call it simply "Willow." As in "Hey, are you going to Willow's conference next week?" and "We're getting moving video walls like Willow!"

Willow Creek Community Church is perhaps the most imitated church in America. Hundreds of church, many I've played at, try their darndest to replicate Willow's success.

Imitation is nothing new and nothing bad of course. Imitation forms the core of Christian belief after all. Disciples are like their teachers - Jesus taught. Follow me - He said. Do as I do - Paul begged. So there's tremendous good in having a big brother, whether a person or a church or a business or a philosophy, to model ourselves after.

I wonder though if some of the problems of imitation come when the paragon isn't modeled in every dimension, when we copy only a fraction of our model, or even worse, neglect essential details.

Take art, for instance. Let's say I want to paint like Rembrandt. I buy canvas and brushes and oils and painstakingly replicate every brush stroke of The Night Watch. Every twist and twirl of his brush is exactly imitated by mine.

No matter how well I copy Rembrandt's craft I'll fail at replicating him. Rembrandt is the hardest painter to forge - so says an old art teacher of mine. Why? His paint.

He made his own paint out of all sorts of weird stuff - like his own blood. His unique concoctions aged on canvas differently than his contemporaries, becoming rust colored with the abuse of time and the elements. That detail is hard to replicate and often overlooked.

Copy what a Rembrandt looks like today with twenty-first century store bought canvas and oils and the image may look like his for a while. But over time the modern work and his elderly one will drift toward dissimilarity. Our oils will maintain their color for the most part and his will continue to sink deeper and deeper under a sheen of bloody brown. The detail neglected will reveal itself. The fraud will be apparent.

So it is with Willow. My friend who works for WIllow is one of its biggest fans. He gushed facts and figures and stories about her greatness as we walked together across its gargantuan campus recently.

He showed me their cafeteria and marveled at their technology (thumb scanners to keep attendance in the middle school ministry?). I noticed the plethora of ministry logos, printed signage, cool fonts and images, loads of decorating and design details. We talked attendance and capacity and budgets. He described the music and the production of a typical Willow church service, down to the roomy cat walks, moving video walls and retractable staging. All the stuff its imitators lust to copy.

It's this stuff I already knew before my visit - the stuff that had me wondering if Willow was just another event church. I'm against attractional or event church. Not that you should care but I am. I've tried to make it clear here that attractional event churches are just as likely to have pipe organs blaring on Sunday mornings as they are electric guitars and video screens. It's not about style! It's about emphasis. If the bulk of investment (all kinds) is flooded into the church event (service) at the neglect of the other dimensions of church then such a church is an event, an attraction, and little more. Such a church does not create imitators of Christ (disciples), but merely spectators and consumers of Christ. (Where your treasure is, is where your heart is right?)

My friend helped me understand WIllow in a new way. It's imitators and I missed some key details. It's more than an event.

For instance, Willow has a membership process that is quite involved. It's not what the early church had for sure - it's not two years long. But it requires hours of study, a signed commitment making many promises and acknowledging the responsibilities and duties of being a member of the church, and a face to face meeting with one of hundreds of trained membership counselors who go over the wanna be member's "homework" and reiterate the importance and specifics of the membership commitment being entered into.

This membership is reaffirmed every year with more study and meeting and another signature. Every year.

Members promise to be involved in learning, serving and giving and more. And they deliver. That massive auditorium at Willow was built by both outside professionals and Willow members. Members donated massive amounts of time and sweat to wiring, installing, painting, plumbing and constructing the place they would one day worship in together. That was their duty, as they saw it, as members of a family called Willow Creek.

And there's more. Lots more that goes unimitated and unnoticed. An aids office with a staff of more than a hundred, unpaid staff members who are just so stinking rich they've decided to donate their fulltime work to the church, hundreds of cars given away to single mothers, houses built, orphans fed, a robust missions department, mentoring programs, bible study, justice initiatives, racial reconciliation trips, and on and on. And it's not just programs - I think. If my friend is telling the truth - and I think he is - the leadership of the church measures its success not on the number of attenders each week but on the number of "participating members" who are actively taking advantage of tools and resources and relationship in the church for knowing God and making God known.

What's this have to do with relevance? Well, in my brain it's related because the things often imitated about Willow Creek are the things seen by its imitators as essential to being "relevant". The brush strokes and shapes. Folks I know who copy Willow's church services do so because they want to be as relevant as Willow (and as big). So they theme their services and assemble praise teams and hire a producer and print Excel spread sheets detailing how long every song and announcement and video will last. They copy the event Willow, everything they deem essenntial.

But they're using the wrong paint.

Willows paint, on its best days, is made out of more than its imitators may realize. It's made out of the blood of discipleship, mentoring, service, community, benevolence, mercy, compassion, truth and love. Painting with anything else is crafting a fraud easily exposed.

Exposed by a single mother asking for help but getting referred to a government agency because mercy is sung about but not lived out. Exposed by a preschooler playing with a hired teacher because membership doesn't require service. Exposed by a twenty-something emaciated by "faith for dummies" every Sunday morning, starved for deeper understanding of scripture and life and answers to tough questions.

Forget "relevance" and all its squirrelly definitions for a minute. Let's talk obedience. Willow Creek, I believe, is obedient because it's striving to be a church in every way, and as such its members are expected to be loving, merciful, studious, active participants in a church imitating Christ everywhere and all the time.

Copy that.

Read HOW RELEVANT IS RELEVANT? Parts 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and you're caught up.


Blogger Kyle said...

Well said Shaun. I often believe that we only judge what we don't understand. This is a great example of what a humble pusuit of understanding can look like. Well said.

Anonymous euphrony said...

I have a friend who works for Habitat for Humanity (one of their few paid employees, he supervises constructions). He talks about how everyone who is getting a new house built is required to put in so many hours of "sweat equity" working on their own home's construction. It makes them intimately involved in the house. It makes them accountable for the house, so that it is not a throw-away gift but a precious one. This seems to be one of the points you are making, Shaun - that we have a stake in this thing we call the Christian religion. We have a great free gift, but without the sweat equity we do not cherish it, we do not take it into our hearts and lives, and we do not really know the Christ whose name we casually wear.

Another point that makes good comparison is Habitat's practice of selecting specific people to receive a house (through application and interview) rather than taking all who walk through their doors. Some are put on waiting lists, because only so many houses can be built at a time, but some are outright rejected as unsuitable or a bad candidate. In the same way, Jesus tells us that not everyone who calls on His name will be saved. We are told to expel the immoral brother. We are told to test the spirits, to see what is of God. What would happen if we actually confronted that guy on the third row who smiles and sings and prays on Sunday morning and then goes and overtly lies, cheats, and steals his way through the business week, rather than let him continue to sit there unchallenged? Or the adulterous couple on the back row? Or the guy who says outright that he doesn't have time for more than Sunday morning because he must focus on his career? We would risk losing a member in name only, and chance turning a life from sin. We would draw each other out of complacency and on to service and ministry.

Sometimes it is hard to see past the moving video walls to the heart of what makes a church grow. Good series.

Blogger Sonflower said...

Relevance: applicable, important, significant

Real: genuine, authentic, sincere

I'm glad you use more words than I do...glad you can draw a picture, paint, whatever....

;-) I like the paint you use.

Blogger Vitamin Z said...

I've written along similar lines here:


Anonymous WhoresLove said...

I Love Whores

Anonymous WhoWhatTrans said...


Blogger Kathryn said...

church. . . *sigh*

I get so sick of all the talk about church services, but I really like to hear about church service. Thanx for outlining what you have here. . it made me think less of how things go on Sundays and more of day to day in the community.

Blogger PixieGirl said...

As a Willow member I appreciate your words. Our big church building is only a tiny fragment of the Church or the body of Christ. I can only imagine what the world would be like if we all started focusing on what counts!


Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Amanda, thanks for the link and for stopping by.

Question. As a "participating member" at Willow Creek, can you tell us more about what exactly the membership process is like? What exactly does that counseling session entail? Is anyone ever de-membered (is that a word?) for not living up to their commitment? What's that process look like? How held to your commitments as a member are you really? How's that done?

The reason I ask: We have a similar commitment folks sign at our church. BUT, no one holds us to it. It's useless really. Wondering if you guys take that commitment more seriously than your imitators...and what that looks like.

Blogger travis jenkins said...

good words...now how do we at peoples become originators instead of imitators?

Blogger PixieGirl said...


Neat that you ask. Our membership process takes you through a 5G study that focus willow believes to be the core of our church

Grace- Knowing what God did for you personally. Extending news of a free gift to others.

Growth- Living in the word and learning to be a deciple.

Groups- Having a core group of accountabilty partners. People doing life together.

Gifts- Learning how God uniquely wired you. Actively using your talents and abilities in a God honoring way.

Good Stewardship- Remembering that any resources you've been blessed with are intrusted to you by God, and you should freely give back for the greater good of humanity.

I have to say they do a pretty good job of holding you to this commitment. Every year we are asked to reafirm our membership and at that time we sit face to face with someone we trust who would know where we're falling short.

I'm not sure what the process is for those who are asked to withdraw their membership, but I do know that it has happened.

Hope that helps!


Blogger Kathryn said...

that sounds so good.


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