The Church in a Post-Willow Creek World

In the wake of the Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel failures of leadership, we need to rethink how we “do church.”

The following is adapted from a presentation by David Fitch given at the plenary session at Missio Alliance Awakenings 2019. The excerpt originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org. You can pre-order all conference audio here.

These are sad days for Christians in America. In Chicagoland especially, we find ourselves mourning over two of the most revered leaders of the largest megachurches in the suburbs, both of whom stepped down revealing a legacy of immoral leadership. The headlines are everywhere in the media. And now, added on to this, the Southern Baptist denomination and the Vatican Summit on Child Protection both report endemic sexual abuse among its pastors and priests (and this points squarely at American Catholic priests).

Many Christians are left aghast. The foundations of American Christianity, especially evangelicalism, have been shaken to the core. There simply is no place for us to hide.

Being an evangelical Christian in Chicagoland has, in particular, changed. Among non-Christian friends, coworkers, strangers and neighbors, the moral failures of the leaders of our landmark churches has amped up the redefining of what it means to be an evangelical in our context. Whereas I used to have to fend off questions of: Did you vote for Donald Trump? or Do you hate gay and lesbian people? Now I must also withstand looks of pity, incredulity or even disgust at the hypocrisy and fakery now associated with going to one of these evangelical churches.

And so, it is apparent that being a witness for the gospel as an evangelical in Chicagoland has never been more challenging. We’ve arrived at what could be a cultural moment for evangelicalism in America.

Thousands of evangelical Christians, remnants of Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel, are roaming Chicagoland suburbs asking, Why did these things happen? What have we been doing? How is it that what we believed about what was happening was actually a ruse? Thousands of churches following the leadership models of these churches, going to their summits and conferences, are looking closer at what they’ve been doing and calling “church.” At the very grassroots level, we are questioning the very structures of church that the majority of evangelical Christians have built their lives around.

What we are experiencing, I suggest, is a modern-day collapse of evangelical ecclesiology.

“Ecclesiology,” as I use it here, refers to the ways we evangelicals have thought about “church.” This includes the models of church in vogue for the past 50 years, the assumptions that drive how we organize church, the “why’s” of “going to church.” It is as if the fall of Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel has pulled the rug out from under all of our assumptions. Their respective leadership crises have revealed the lacuna at the heart of evangelical ecclesiology continent-wide. We are being forced to reassess. We are in need of a reimagining of church.

It is the beginning of the post-Willow Creek phase of church in North America.

Will churches everywhere take this cultural moment to discern what God is calling us to in the midst of all this? Can we open up Scripture, take a deep look into the motivations that drive us, the mission we pursue?

Or will we simply dismiss this moment by refusing to acknowledge anything is wrong with our ecclesiological models? Will we too easily say it was the leaders themselves who were corrupt, not the ecclesiology?

Can we take these next few years and hold conversations about what kinds of churches we will be, what kinds of leaders these churches will now shape and how shall we engage a watching world?

In these conversations, I suggest we examine the following three things:

1. Let’s Start With Power.

Let us reexamine how we as evangelicals view power and structure our organizations around power.

Our churches have tended to be hierarchical, top-down organizations. We elevate a senior pastor and then staff around him (it’s mostly a “him,” sorry. *wince*). Power accumulates toward the top. Often this man becomes a personality who drives attraction to the church.

The way the pastor functions is as a president, driving all decisions. For sure, there is listening and dialogue between the better male senior pastors and the staff. But as the church grows and the demand on the organization increases and business principles get put into place, these senior leaders become an island unto themselves, sitting on their thrones isolated and powerful. They are enormously prone to being shaped by the hubris and excess self-confidence this power demands. It is, I fear, almost inevitable.

But this is not the way power works in the kingdom. Despite all those apologists for “power” who argue it’s not the power that is the problem, it’s the wrong use of the power, Jesus spoke differently about it:

“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” —Mark 10:42–43

This is not just a proof text but a predominant theme in the way the NT thinks about power. Power in the kingdom is different than in the world. It is the Lord’s power exercised in and through the gifts through mutual submission one to another (Eph. 4:7–13; Rom. 12: 3–8; 1 Cor. 12) that shall flourish the church. As in all areas of life, roles are to be carried out as we submit ourselves one to another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). I call this leadership dynamic: mutual submission. It is the way space is opened for the Spirit to work. It is the kingdom.

In this new era we face, let us take this moment to reexamine how we organize leadership. We know such top-down leadership can be “effective” for long periods of time. Large groups of Christians can organize quickly under such regimes.

But the demise of the large churches leaves us wanting for something more. We long for leadership that discerns mutually for the new cultural challenges of sexuality, racism, pluralism, immigrant peoples and other kingdom engagements for God’s justice in the world. We long for leadership that opens space among us for the Spirit to work among these conflicts. We do not need coercive effective control; we need space for the Spirit to work.

For this to happen, we need two things:

• We need pastoral teams (not hierarchical pastors) that lead out of their gifts in mutual submission to one another in the presence of Christ. These teams will listen to each other, the gathered people as well as our neighborhoods, and open up space to discern and see God work in these places.

• We need women. Let us also fully admit women into this leadership circle as co-leaders with men in all things. (Notice how many of the fallen pastors in evangelicalism were men). Let us see a new day when men and women lead together, hand in hand, blessing the world with a relational engagement of the issues we face.

Let us reshape leadership out of the fallen hierarchies of our day to be circles of leaders, joining hands, submitting one to another, opening space among us for the Spirit to work in the midst of the cultural challenges we face.

2. Let Us Un-Program the Church.

The Willow and Harvest way sees the church as the center of Christian life from which a set of programs are provided to fulfill the spiritual needs of the congregation. Typically, these programs are all located conveniently at one place, the church building. Whether it be Sunday morning service and how it fulfills the needs of the believer for good preaching, good orienting music as worship or the other various services such as counseling, children’s ministry, marriage counseling, divorce recovery, justice ministry, recreational opportunities, financial counseling, missions networks. All were offered conveniently at a central place and were provided with much advertised excellence.

These churches have long been criticized for the way this kind of programming fosters Christians to be consumers of church, even consumers of good preaching. People come to hear a preacher preach, or consume good worship music, or even to volunteer at the campus justice center for three hours a week at a convenient time that fits their schedule. This kind of programming church distances the main pastor from the congregation. The people come and go. They are made passive. And when the pastor, whom they have never really known, turns out to be somebody different than what he or she appears to be on stage, they are shocked. Is it now time, in the wake of the Willow Creek and Harvest tragedies to reevaluate this way of “doing church”?

Acts 2:46 paints a picture of a different church. It says:

“Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

They met at the temple, the center of his presence in Jerusalem, but they also broke bread together, as some manuscripts say, “from house to house” in the neighborhoods. They found “favor” among all the people meaning they spent time with people outside their Christian fellowship. The Christian life was practiced as a whole way of life in all three circles of life. Not just on Sundays (which for them was the Sabbath meeting at the temple), not just in home fellowships but also regular time among people outside the faith. This was their rhythm. It was the way Christians practiced being the church. And “day by day” (not just on Sundays) they impacted their communities, living church among neighborhoods (not just at the temple). People were being saved, and we know how years later they impacted widely the Greco-Roman society and indeed, the whole world.

This to me is a key question for churches in the post-Willow Creek world. Can we recalibrate what it means to be church from the over-programmed church to fostering church as a whole way of life that nurtures our individual lives, our life together and our witness among our neighbors for the kingdom?

3. Let Us Be a Humble Presence.

Lastly, it is (more than) apparent after the fall of leaders at Willow Creek and Harvest, that the leaders did not receive criticism well. It is representative of a churchwide problem in America.

When people criticize leadership in the church, leadership has tended to become defensive. Church leaders have often not been able to discern and learn from even the ones closest to them when they are criticized. As a result, many of our churches have become echo chambers for pastors. And a pastor cannot grow in character in Christ, and a church cannot grow in Christ, apart from hearing from others where we have sinned against someone. Has there been anything more painful than watching our various churches defend ourselves and our leaders against accusations from those abused? Again and again and again. We are sorely in need of a change in posture.

We evangelicals have become defensive as well in our culture at large. Maybe we have been used to being in charge. Maybe we are longing for that day when we thought society was respecting us? When challenged, we too have become defensive both inside and outside the church. We have a posture problem.

When our leaders and churches become defensive, we become isolated. We cannot engage those outside our four walls because we are imploding from our own conflictual dynamic. As a result the church becomes irrelevant to the pains, sorrows, victims of racism, sexual abuse, socio-economic injustice because we ourselves can’t allow God to transform and redeem us from these sins in our own lives.

The church’s life in the world therefore depends ultimately on being a reconciling presence. We must be able to listen to the pain, hurt, criticism and antagonisms going on in our own church life. Here we live repentance, forgiveness, love and faithfulness to the truth in Christ Jesus in our own lives first. This is how we open space for the Spirit of God to make his presence known and work among us. Then, and only then, can we offer this life to the world.

But I fear, without a posture change, none of this is possible. God the Spirit will not barge in. In the midst he waits for us to make space (Isa. 65:1–3). We do this by practicing mutual submission together to the lordship of Christ, at work among us and in the world. This must be worked out in every area of our ecclesiology, starting with the leadership.

LET US BEGIN THIS JOURNEY

And so the events of the past several months beg the question: If indeed we are in the waning days of the Willow Creek and Harvest world, will we do the work of self-examination and discernment as churches whose faith in Willow has been disrupted?

Can we have conversations, conferences, revivalist services that take up questions like these? Or will we let this moment pass? Keep on doing more of the same?

Will we say, “It wasn’t the model that was the problem, it was the corruption of the persons executing the model,” and then double-down on Willow Creek Summit Business Leadership principles promising more efficiency and results if we just stay the course?

There are no doubt things to be learned from American business and politics, as grim as these spheres of enterprise look these days. But perhaps this moment calls for a different response. Can we stop? Can we pray? Listen to people, open Scripture together and ask how the Spirit is moving? Think through a faithful ecclesiology for our times? Then, maybe this moment becomes the birthing place of something new by the Spirit: a work of the Spirit in this post-Willow Creek world that stops the world in its tracks and forces them to ask, What manner of life is this that has been made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

For more: OutreachMagazine.com/David-Fitch

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