Willow Creek: Blessings and Blindspots

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

I have never hidden some of my concerns about certain aspects of the strategy employed by Willow Creek Community Church. In short, I believe Willow is strong on evangelism and cultural exegesis but weak on expressing the biblical, historical and theological concerns expressed by a robust confessional and spirit-filled Christianity. To be perfectly fair Willow Creek’s weaknesses are not that different from those encountered in mainstream American evangelicalism in general.

More recently I have tried to give Willow its due whenever I have the opportunity to do so. Such an opportunity struck me today as I went through my mail. I received an invitation from the Willow Creek Association to attend a huge A2 event to be staged at Willow Creek Church, October 25-27. You can check this out at www.willowcreek.com/A2

A2 is a new format and brand name for Willow Creek’s attempt to engage a wider group of progressive and innovative outreach leaders from across a broad evangelical spectrum, both generationally and ethnically. The whole program strikes me as Willow’s newest attempt (there have been others) to engage the emergent church question. This new event is presented as a “conversation,” not as a “conference,” at least in the older sense. Questions related to how we can connect with people who have multi-religious beliefs, how we can help churches meet the needs of a diverse community, how we can stage multi-site church settings, and how planting new style churches are all to be addressed. Speakers include some of the usual names that appear at a Willow Creek program but some names appear who would not have been part of past Willow conferences. The whole event is one that I would love to attend to be truthful. I am sure I could engage some wonderful people in the vital subject of missional church life.

After reading this material I was struck again at the creativity and innovative nature of this approach. It is valuable and, as I said before, I am quite certain that it will be helpful. But I am also struck, as I have always been, by the complete absence of the kind of biblical and theological concern that we find in Acts 2. Reading this material one might conclude that Acts 2 is fundamentally about how the early church understood culture and community and then adapted its evangelistic mission to its own unique context. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth of Acts 2.

I no longer find attacking Willow Creek to be genuinely profitable, though I once did this in a prideful way. I am amazed, however, that such bright and insightful leaders do not see how removed this kind of program really is from what we actually see in this text of Scripture. But then I am not surprised by Willow’s blindspots since I see very little concern in mainstream evangelicalism for these same biblical realities. Anyway, a conference that actually focused people’s minds and hearts on the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit would probably not draw that many people these days. E. M. Bounds was surely right he wrote over a hundred years ago: “Men seek for better methods but God still seeks for better men.”