|894: Willow Creek, South Barrington, Illinois, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
The church: Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois, USA.
Denomination: It's an interdenominational church.
Comment: We have received a comment about this report.
The building: This is a mega-church of recent construction. Nothing predates the late 1970s in South Barrington. Most of their campus has been built in the last 10 years. If you didn't read the word 'Church' in the sign when turning in, you would think Willow Creek might be a large community college or a shopping mall.
The church: For those who haven't visited a mega-church, the Mall of America is to Harrod's as Willow Creek Church is to Westminster Abbey. It has the same generic function, but a completely different presentation.
The neighbourhood: Chicago dwellers used to refer to this as "The land beyond O'Hare," but now it's more like "The land beyond IKEA". South Barrington is an example of super-sprawl as developed by those who really wanted nothing to do with the grittier aspects of the city and could afford to move very far out. The area is white and rich (not to put too fine a point on it). In lieu of neighborhood, there are landscape berms, access roads and storm water detention ponds. You would have to have a strong constitution to walk here even from an adjacent property. I have no idea how a pedestrian could even cross a street out here.
The cast: The preacher was Mike Breaux, and the band leader was Kirk Whalum with John Stoddart and four others in the group. Bill Hybels, senior pastor and founder, was on vacation.
What was the name of the service?
Weekend Service, Sunday 11.15am. There are also Saturday evening and Wednesday evening services.
How full was the building?
By about 15 minutes into the service it was very nearly at capacity of about 3,000. Now realize this church is only a month away from occupying their new auditorium (across the entry concourse) that will seat almost 8,000. I guess the present hall will then constitute a chapel?
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A greeter was stationed by the inner doors, chanting "Good morning," but I've been better welcomed at Home Depot. Given the stampede, she couldn't possibly even make eye contact with everyone entering. I arrived a safe 15 minutes early. I was handed a one page newsletter. The most notable item on it was that with the impending expansion, they are planning a remote parking lot with shuttle service.
Was your pew comfortable?
Stadium (movie multiplex) seating minus the cupholders.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Families were talking to each other, no prayer was happening. I could hear recorded lite-jazz playing in the background until the live lite-jazz took over.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
After the applause for the band's opening number, a man said: "You are listening to station WYCC, smooth jazz." It was a joke. By this time it was definitely live smooth jazz.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books! Big projections screens at either side of the stage here.
What musical instruments were played?
Kirk Whalum on the alto sax was joined by his brother on vocals, another percussionist, guitar, bass, and a vocalist/keyboardist with four electronic instruments around him, including a Hammond B-3 on which, unfortunately, he only played a couple of chords. They were very tight and could have gone right on to the Grant Park Jazz Festival, which maybe they will. I expected some hot gospel music with the sax, drums and B3, but got smooth jazz instead.
Did anything distract you?
The stage decor consisted of a third screen for projecting computer-like wallpaper behind the band or preacher, along with some filmy drapery setting off six IKEA hanging lamps. I found myself wondering if I should have bought one of these lamps for my living room. I also couldn't help noticing an LED sign which flashed things like "Parents with tag number 346RE." I guess parents check their small children into a nursery somewhere on the campus. I hope that kid #346RE was okay.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Not stiff, but not happy either; and clappy only when the band finished a number, and again after the sermon. I would call it more "detached observation interspersed with good applause," rather than worship. We (the audience) never sang, we never spoke, we never prayed. I'm not kidding.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 I expected the preacher to be good (3,000 full seats), and he was very warm, connecting well through his very personal observations. That said, the preaching wasn't all that emotionally moving or intellectually challenging. More a tone of reassurance.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was a sermon in a series entitled "Surf's Up, Riding the Waves of Change." The gist is that we are all in uncharted waters and that Jesus has given us navigational tools. The Bible is the first one, and he cited some scripture verses as examples (the passages appeared on the video screens below his enlarged image). I'm not sure what the second tool was, but the third was receiving the advice of wise, trusted friends. He said he had a live hook-up to the senior pastor who was on a sailboat to confirm this message. The video cut away to, not the pastor, but a clip of a Chris Farley movie! This got a good laugh, but I don't doubt they have the technology for a live video hook-up to anywhere.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The live smooth jazz was really top quality, if you like this sort of thing. Okay, maybe the percussionist, using those wind-chimey bell glissando effects every eight bars got old, but they were very polished. I don't think these guys are the regular music for worship services, so the next visitor might find something very different, musically speaking.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I am not used to being so passive and detached. I like things pretty liturgical and high church, but I would have been glad for happy-clappy or something. These folks came to a show. As I said, we didn't sing, we didn't confess or profess anything, no prayer, no interaction, nada. Before you point out to me that something must be good about Willow Creek since their services are so well attended, I admit I don't understand what the vast numbers are getting out of all this.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As soon as the sermon was over, and the band started up again, some people started leaving (presumably to avoid the traffic jams, although there was a goodly army of helpful parking attendants when I drove in). I stayed until the band finished and joined in the final standing ovation / stampede into the atrium. With good signage, I found the Harvest coffee kiosk and got in line for a fair trade coffee (latte grande $3.00 tax included). People appeared to have trays of food, so I probably didn't see the whole food court, but it was very bustling and went on into the distance. Tours are available at certain times of the almost- finished 8,000 seat auditorium, but not after this service. On an upper level surrounding the food court there was a bookstore (I think Barnes & Noble). So I went up. Many CDs of the band were displayed, in good retail cabinetry, and they were signing copies in yet another concourse-like area. I looked over the book titles and subjects. It seems, according to the books for sale, everyone is happily married (or soon will be), not addicted, not gay, not a minority, not a feminist... you get my drift. I was hoping someone official would speak to me, as I was sure their first question would be, "Is your wife with you?" That would have given me the opening to point out that I can legally marry only in Massachussetts and only as of rather recently. Alas, I didn't get the opportunity to shake anyone up. In retrospect, I am a little sad not to have connected with anyone there. I should also say that when the service started, I thought there were more dark faces in the band (three out of the six) than in the seats (3,000); but after the service I saw another dozen or so African Americans, so they made up maybe 1 per cent of the congregation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As good as any Starbucks you could find and fair trade. The cups had lids and corrugated holders just like any other $3 latte, but printed with an attractive "Harvest" design.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 If it was televised (and for all I know it is), one could TiVo the service and have just as much a sense of fellowship as if you were really there, and not have to deal with the drive. Again, it apparently appeals to a lot of people who think differently.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I'm glad to be a Christian in spite of services like this one, so no. I was glad to be so close to IKEA, so taking my latte "traveler," I headed out to shop.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The electric shades partially descending over the windows (which looked out onto the man-made creek and willow trees) to signal the start of the service. All those projection screens can't have too much daylight on them. Technology and crowd control are real strengths of this place.