Many of you probably don't know this…that's why I'm going to share it. And frankly, I do so boldly and joyously. I subscribe to Shawna Niequist's blog. You wouldn't recognize the name unless you knew her "maiden" name, Hybels. More on her blog in a moment. Permit me to get some things off my chest.
For most people that I know, the mega-church world is something to be envied, demeaned, and denagrated. I've read so many articles written by what I initially thought were well-meaning people but who, in the end, were simply bitter, misguided or ignorant. People have accused Willow of being shallow, theologically heretical, and driven by satanic forces. Many of the innovations (mostly inspired by the Spirit, I believe) that Willow brought to the 20th and 21st century Body of Christ have been negatively labeled and then marginalized. Many people that I know believe that Willow stands for what is wrong with American expression of "Church"…big, individualistic, narcissistic, ego and celebrity driven, superficial, entertainment focused, etc. Because Willow has been around for so many years, the numbers of insults have piled up for decades. Everytime I read them or talk to somebody about Willow, all I can do is reflect back on my own expereince and say to myself, "no, you don't understand."
I was an attendee at the 2nd Church Leadership Conference that Willow held. I can't remembe the year but I can't remember much beyond yesterday most days. The church was in the original building at that point doing what God has laid on their heart…doing missional work in a different manner, mind you, but still building relationships and discipling people. It was called, "Seeker driven" by some which soon spawned a series of labels of churches who were categorized as everything short of ecclesiastical faithfulness. But my experience was profound and life changing. It was at that conference where I was inspired to see beyond the "Church" that I had grown up in…that yes, there were other followers of Jesus taking God's Word seriously and willing to take whatever risks necessary to do Kingdom work and be Kingdom people. That first conference led me to many more. I took other pastors that I knew to future CLC's. I attended Music, Arts, Children's Ministry and Leadership Conferences at Willow through the decades. I grew to love Chicago, went to some Cubs games, ate some great pizza and hotdogs, and had great conversations with Willow staff members and formative leaders. Many of the books that Bill, Ortberg, Belzekian, and others have written are still on my bookshelf. Even now, when Bill or one of the many other teachers that were part of the Willow journey write a book, I'm still one of the first to order and read them. I watch and listen to many of the podcasts and still carry a soft spot in my heart that, if I were in Chicago again for whatever reason, Willow would be one of the places where I would visit.
Friends, Bill Hybels was kind to me when I was a younger pastor struggling with churchworld in a rapidly changing society. We exchanged notes of encouragement for a year or so. I was even invited one year to give a seminar prior to a conference on what became the foundation of my doctoral dissertation. Some of my friends throughout the years cut their "teeth" in Willow's ministry. But believe me friends, as you will read in Shauna's blog post, no one is overtly blind about Willow's shortcomings. One of my friends, Troy Murphy (now pastor of Green Bay Community Church and chaplain to the Green Bay Packers) has a lifelong appreciation for what God did in HIS life during his Willow years. He, and others, are not blind to Willow's "issues." As Shauna says in her blog, EVERY institutional church has issues…home churches have issues…missional communities have issues…denominational churches have issues…the bottom line is that if you are human even though inhabited by the Spirit of God, issues come with the territory. So, as I say to myself sometimes, "deal with it." Thank God we don't have to do that alone!
I am forever grateful for what I learned in Willow's ministry. The songs I learned to sing, the staff of Willow and their openness and friendship, the teaching I received from Bill and others, the people of that congregation who served me and 1000's of others selflessly…I could go on and on and still I would have more thanks to share for what God has done in my life through that faith community over the years. My posture is this – anyone taking shots at Willow doesn't understand Willow. There is a depth in that community that transcends the outer shell that appears, in many people's eyes, to be a cultural sell out. But believe me, just like you know when someone is lip synching in music vs. hearing the real thing, Willow is the "real thing." Bill Hybels is the "real deal." The staff and people of Willow love God and want to make a Kingdom difference. That's the bottom line. Whatever you think of Willow is essentially irrelevant unless you can answer the question, "what are YOU doing to make a difference in this world to God's glory?" If you can't answer that question without first taking shots at somebody else, than it is time to not say anything more. What Willow is about is God-honoring to the core. So, with all that said, why don't you read Shauna's blog post and get a unique take on one woman's experience:
SHE’S NOT A MEGACHURCH. SHE’S MY SISTER. By Shauna Niequist
When I was three, we lived so close we could walk to the church my parents started. When the first building was being built, we’d walk over every evening to watch the construction. We had little hard hats, my brother and I, and we’d check every day what had been done, what new beams or walls, what new electrical or plumbing.
I know that my church’s name is shorthand for all manner of things—seeker movement, megachurch, modern evangelicalism, whatever. But those words don’t tell you who she is.
She’s my sister. She’s less than a year older than me. Here in Chicago, we call that Irish twins. She was my playground, my safest place, my home more than the house I grew up in. I’ve worked there, cried there, stood in weddings there, witnessed funerals there. I fell in love there, working alongside the man who became my husband.
People ask what it’s like to be a pastor’s kid. I don’t know the difference. What’s it like to be anyone else’s kid?
What I know is that the church is my family every bit as much as my aunts and uncles are. What I know is that the very best parts of who I am today were nurtured along by that incredible community—by Sunday school teachers and junior high small group leaders and mentors and friends who walk with me still.
I know it’s a thing. I know people write about it, rage against it, have strong opinions about it. But I’m not talking about all that. I’m talking about who she is.
If I could reach through the computer and take you by the hand, I’d walk you through the hallways and tell you stories of confession and redemption. I’d show you where I learned to read God’s word, where I learned to listen for his Spirit, where I gave my life to him and to his purposes here on earth.
I’d show you where I got a concussion in junior high, and where I was standing when a boy reached to hold my hand for the first time. I’d show you where I was baptized, where I was when I watched the Twin Towers fall on September 11th, where I sat trembling just before I preached there for the first time, scared out of my mind.
I’d introduce you to Casey, who I met in 6th grade, who is one of my dearest friends to this day. I’d sit you down to talk with Dr Bilezekian, my Dad’s mentor, a man who’s been like a grandfather to me. I’d introduce you to men and women who’ve been volunteering there for more than thirty years, holding babies or packing up groceries in the care center or sweeping up, long after the services are over.
My church isn’t perfect. Sisters, of course, know each other’s faults better than anyone else. But being a sister also means you get a front row seat to the good, the beautiful, the fiercely loving and thoroughly grace-soaked best parts of it all. The view from here is breathtaking.
For a long time, I didn’t write much about my church. I needed, for a long time, to talk and write about other things, to make a way and a voice for myself that wasn’t only defined by the pastor’s daughter part of my life.
But this church of mine, this sister: it’s not only the church of my childhood. It’s the place where I pray, sing, confess, take communion now. It’s the community that shapes me, walks with me, instructs me, holds me now.
I’m not little anymore, and neither is she. But she’s still my sister.
You learn all sorts of things growing up the way I did. And one of them is this: the labels never suffice. The articles and blogs and books and outside opinions never will capture the real thing. They’ll reduce it to policy, numbers, data.
They fail to capture what a church actually is: real live actual humans, showing up day after day, year after year, building something durable and lovely over time, together, with prayer and forgiveness and love.
They forget that it isn’t an institution. It’s a family. She’s my sister.