This is a multimedia post. Please take the time to listen to the pieces as you read along.
This is a thing about which I have not written much. It’s a thing of shame, of hot regret. Lord have mercy.
Fifteen years ago, I was employed by a burgeoning mega-evangelical monster in the heart of the midwest. It was a conservative denominational church, one which touted its full orchestra and hymn-driven worship services. We were put together with buttons and ties, and the lot of us considered ourselves the guardians of the Old Old Story. We were not welcoming to those seeking God, or being drawn by God, or coming to God one way or another. (Soteriological semantics aside.) This is the kindest way I know to describe us.
It was the turn of the millennium, and the American church was progressing past the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition—oh, the politics of the faith—and was transitioning into a sort of widening. The seeker-sensitive Bible churches were on the move, and the people were flocking to hear those pastors who donned jeans and sported less rigid hairdos. They were hip churches, churches with cool bands, and good lighting. They were adding hundreds, sometimes thousands in very short spans of time, and we lamented this in the office of the Old Old Story. The church was going the way progress, of liberalism.
Nothing brings a family together like a common ideology to oppose, and this new seeker-sensitive church movement became ours. The chief offenders were two. One will go nameless. The other was the booming mega-church of Illinois, Willow Creek Community Church. The common attack went something like this—the folks at Willow Creek were too loose, too permissive, too culturally sensitive, and they were willy nilly in their steering of the broader church.
Thank God we were not like them.
The truth is, we were a church in the middle of a building campaign, and I wonder how much this had to do with our criticism of Willow Creek. After all, if seeker sensitive services became the modern mode of the church, if it became the primary expression, it might lead to a loss of congregants, to the exodus of those who’d signed pledge cards. This might sound crass, or counter-judgmental, but I was there. I know who we were.
It’s interesting how we clung to all those judgments born from so much fear. It was the fear that drove our judgment, our pride, the assumption that we were the put-together ones. There was no room for confession, or imagination, or humility. There was no room to celebrate the work of our brothers and sisters in the modern movement of the church, especially the work of the folks at Willow Creek.
It's been years since I was on staff at that conservative mega-monstoer, and I left all that self-indulgent fear behind some time ago. I hung up my certainty in certainty, pastured the non-essential points of theology, or doctrine, or dogma. Amber and I walked in a different direction, and for a season I hated the stewards of all that conservative fear. Sometimes, I the old hate still crops up. It’s part of my own human condition.
Can’t we all admit together we’re not fine?
The story behind the story can wait for another day, but let me be clear in saying it this way: I’m still actively repenting from my participation in the power matrix of fear.
Active confession, active repentance: aren't these the foundational stones of the true and ancient faith? Isn’t this the way of The Way?
It’s ironic, really. All those years ago we lambasted a church in Illinois that we’d never attended. We had no connection with its staff. We had no interaction with their congregants or the products of their theological outworking. And last night, nearly fifteen years later, I sat at my office desk and listened to music created and produced by one of Willow Creek’s musicians. It’s called a "A New Liturgy" (the music attached to this post), and it pointed me to the ancient way.
What is the ancient way? Recognition, confession, repentance, belief in the abiding presence of Christ in our daily lives—these are ancient. The church has been celebrating these since the tongues of fire at Pentecost.
The music pushed me deeper into that ancient story, and if this is the fruit of Willow Creek’s ministry, I’d say it like this: it’s good. And if you asked me to put it another way, I might say it like this: this is the clearest proclamation of the Gospel I’ve heard in music.
I'm not saying that Willow Creek has it all together, or that the conservative church of my way-back-when had it all wrong. Neither is the be-all-end-all. Life rarely works in these sorts of all-or-nothing dichotomies, see. But here's what I can say. For so long, I clung to systems all white-knuckled until those systems turned to ash in my hands. Open handed, the ash blew away on the wind of the Spirit and I was left with nothing except an open hand. Maybe that’s the point.
Now, I see the beauty in the Gospel story as presented by some of my mega-bible church brothers and sisters. I see it in the beauty of the liturgy of my Anglican brothers and sisters. I see it in the orchestral performance of "The Old Rugged Cross." It's not all or nothing. It's not us versus them. It's only the Gospel, wherever I find it.
In time, and in humility, grace changes things. It covers a multitude of sins—pride and dogma included. It opens our eyes to see how many of us are trying to live and share the Gospel message the best we know how. The best we know how is all we have.
Oh to grace! It cuts the crap and leads us in the way everlasting. Doesn't it?
This is a small story, a story about how I've found myself out of sorts with my earlier systems of belief. Sarah Bessey has written her own book about this very thing. It's titled Out of Sorts, and I do hope you'll FOLLOW THIS GREAT BIG LINK AND PRE-ORDER IT TODAY.
And if you'd like to support the musician who cobble together A New Liturgy, you can find their music here.
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