Greetings Scandal Seekers:
The slow cascade of revelations regarding Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Church and Association, fits an all too familiar pattern: rumor and accusation, denial, demonstration of support and counter-accusation, erosion of support, damning accusation, confession and resignations. These may be the seven stages of lost reputation usually associated with star-personality leaders whose empire rests on the integrity of their reputation. Building a church with over 20,000 attendees and an international association that includes over 11,000 congregations, Hybels created a vast network dedicated to a welcome of the unchurched. Relying on a ‘seeker friendly’ atmosphere, Willow Creek championed contemporary music, the removal of hymnals and offering plates, arena-style sanctuaries and welcome spaces designed to look like hotel lobbies. The main church in South Barrington boasted a food court that seats hundreds of diners between services, and in the 1990’s, Harvard Business School added Willow Creek to their massive library of corporate case studies.
Since their first worship service in 1975 at the Willow Creek Theater in Plainfield, Hybels created a phenomenon transforming the practice of American Christianity. Like it or hate it, every congregation in the country had to contend with Willow Creek’s redefinition of how to “do church”.
From the beginning, I looked on Willow Creek with suspicion. I had several conversations with Gilbert Bilezikian, New Testament professor and Hybels’ spiritual mentor, about authenticity and expedience. Bilezikian contended that the power of the New Testament church was its ability to convey Christ’s message using the tools of contemporary culture. He suggested Hybels’ heavy reliance on focus groups was akin to Paul’s Areopogus sermon using the Athenian Temple to the Unknown God as a starting point (Acts 17). The major difference was that Paul’s message brought no converts; Hybels cultivated thousands.
My own distaste for the genre was its preferential option for the new. Traditional architectural and liturgical elements were jettisoned as off-putting, even offensive, to the unchurched. Crosses, baptismal fonts, pews, pulpits and even Bibles were cleared from view. But in the cleansing of the temple, what was also lost was any evidence of mortality or decay. For me, a primary message of the Gospel is how we grow irrelevant, age and die. The cluttered detritus of Christians gone by reminds us of the very mortality, the very sin from which we are saved. Willow Creek saw these reminders of the past as the church’s biggest problem; I perceive them as helpful guideposts to our process. God’s grace not only redeems our present selves; it also incorporates and forgives our imperfect past.
So now the bold visionaries of the next-generation church are grappling with the age-old consequences of a leader’s indiscretion. I have no prediction regarding the viability of the Willow Creek institution. If their reliance was overly dependent on the creativity, character and charisma of their founder, then I presume their future is bleak (imagine the future of Tesla if some tragedy were to befall Elon Musk). If, however, their institutional stability is rooted in a broader sense of mission and accountability, Willow Creek may retain identity and strength into the next generation. I only hope that as events unfold, people discover how the reality of God’s grace radically transcends our fascination with technique and trend.
Seeking stability beyond scandal, I remain,
Dear Faithful Viewers:
Turning off the TV used to be magical. I don’t mean in a sociological sense, where shutting off the television was followed by a command to play outside; I mean in the technical electronic sense. With the old cathode-ray tube there was that haunting glow of a white dot in the center of the old Philco that lingered for several minutes after the set was disempowered. The focusing magnetic coil was still active even after the power was cut, so that a small beam of rays was still striking the phosphor-coated screen; as a child I remember thinking that was as interesting as the show that had just ended.
I thought about that white dot the other day when I received word that my friend Bruce Pangborn had
I’ve been somewhat amused over the past several years as stores have told their employees they should not say "Merry Christmas," but instead greet customers with "Happy Holidays." This, of course, ignores the fact that the derivation of "holiday" is a linguistic mash-up of "Holy Days"; but because the name of Christ is in "Christmas Tree," for a brief while some stores called them "Holiday Trees," as if shifting the name will maximize sales among Christ haters while not jeopardizing robust receipts from traditional Christians. Perhaps we are all generically Holians?
Last week I had a little extra time between clients at the Evergreen Park Care and Counseling Center and our satellite office at Calvary Reformed Church in Orland Park. 159th Street west of La Grange Road has been under construction for the past year or so, making a left turn onto 104th Avenue impossible, so I drive south to 167th and turn back north on 104th. I provide these directions because, if you’re in the area, there is an unintended tri-faith experience stretching from 165th to 159th on 104th Avenue created by the alignment of a domed Islamic mosque, a Roman Catholic cemetery and Calvary Reformed Church, all constructed in the past 15 years. I’ll leave it for you to determine who wins the architectural prize.
…As lepers, nine of the ten were outcasts. They had lost all community except for the fellowship of other lepers. They were the team of the unclean, forced into communal relationship by a shared curse; they were comrades in quarantine. I say nine because the tenth, a Samaritan, was an outcast before the dread bacterial infection ravaged the protein sheath surrounding his nerves with granulomas that scar the skin and eyes and deaden nerves, leaving one’s body without sensation. Unable to feel pain,…
Sunday is Pledge Commitment Sunday, a moment when we solemnly pray over slips of paper torn from our stewardship brochures, a custom that has me musing over the plight of pledging. There are organizations that research the impact of financial pledging; they are nearly evenly split regarding the usefulness of the practice. Research pointing against pledging claims there is a poor relationship between the annual pledge and actual giving. Fluctuations in household income and expenses work against a flat prediction of contribution capacity; few of us know in November of 2018 that the transmission in the van will fail in August of 2019, or that our company will be bought out in September, forcing a move to Columbus
Dear Civil Citizens:
Well, tomorrow it happens! Election Day! Finally!
Still, I am going to miss all the campaign ads. They really helped me focus on the issues and understand the complexity of governing in these days; they also clarified the depth of experience and the qualities of leadership in each of the highly deserving candidates…said no one, ever!
I mused a few weeks back that there’s something amiss in the relationship between politics and faith, not in the suggestion that our faith should draw us to one candidate or another or how individual politicians may or may not be committed Christians (although I suppose we might see one or two in heaven someday); the problem is how politics commandeers the power of anxiety.
Dear Holy Hosts and Hostesses:
It was the early 1970s, and my big brother was getting married in August in Houston, TX. To save on lodging, my father suggested we rent a big RV and make the drive from Omaha in a single vehicle; according to the pamphlet, the Winnebago Chieftain comfortably slept six. There were indeed six places in the land-behemoth to be horizontal, but they lied about comfortably sleeping.
This year I asked our Session and committee moderators to prepare their budgets before we moved forward with our stewardship campaign. In previous years we’ve asked for your pledges first and then struggled to fit a budget into that amount. Some of you remember the days when Session returned to the congregation asking for a second round of pledges because they were not comfortable trimming expenditures to match projected giving; records indicate that a few generous souls met the challenge, and the year moved forward. For 2019, I was thinking we could use the budget to inspire our pledging; but after 30 years, I must confess, I’ve no idea what works.
Dear Nattering Nabobs and other News Neighbors:
The other day I saw a meme using a photograph of Walter Cronkite. The text pined the days when anchormen read the news and the nation tuned in and trusted. The comments that followed implied a moral decline among those overseeing broadcast journalism; we were just better people when there were only four networks (I include PBS’ MacNeil/Lehrer news report even though it was a latecomer in 1975). But the death of trustworthy reporting comes with a history.
Ethel “Betty” Bettin Bruechart was an amazing woman, at one point serving as senior editor for The King’s Business, the nation’s largest Christian magazine. She was also the executive administrative assistant for Dr. Lewis Talbot, president of Biola University and founder of Talbot School of Theology in Los Angeles, California.
Born in 1903, Aunt Betty’s talent as a speaker, writer and editor was eclipsed by the powerful men in her life. Her diary is filled with the names of her colleagues, a who’s who of mid-twentieth century American Fundamentalist evangelism. She had corrected the grammar and punctuation of the likes of T.C. Horton, Lyman Stewart, Donald Barnhouse, R.A. Torrey and Charles Fuller, names not recognizable today, but in the evangelism circles before Billy Graham they were household words. Honored
At stake is the nature and power of office. Does the holder of official authority have, by that authority, the right to undermine the very institutional structures and traditions perceived to uphold the power granted to the individual by their office? Additionally, is it possible to maintain respect for the office without a corresponding respect for the individual who has taken the position through means consistent with pre-defined mechanisms and procedures? At what point does an attempt to rein in the behavior and abuse of power require restricting the holder of office in ways detrimental to accepted, even canonical structures? And at what point do the attitudes and decisions of the official become so contrarian and unpalatable that it becomes reasonable to ignore, even subvert, the official’s authority?
In 1712, Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, published an open letter to government official Robert Harley begging him to establish a panel of experts who, with the force of law, could protect the English language from the deteriorating influence of barbaric misuse (or shoulde that be mifuse?).
Swift’s major complaint was the drift of the past tense, abbreviating the language in ways he felt rewarded laziness. Verbs like kiss-ed and pass-ed (dash added to provide emphasis on the second syllable) were drifting so that uneducated pronunciations like “kissed” and “past” were becoming commonplace and destroying the richness of refinement. It’s difficult to argue with such a learn-ed scholar and satirist as Swift, or is that learned?
Dear Social Construction Workers:
The research of two scholars converged in my head this past week and now occupies much of my musing. The first is religious sociologist Azim Shariff, whose studies posit that religion evolved as human social groups became too large for relational scrutiny. The second is historian Jeffrey Mullins, who studies the scientific method used by revivalists in 19th century America, in particular the tent revivals of Charles Finney.
Shariff proposes that religion significantly evolved about 12,000 years ago when human groups, once tribes no larger than 50 people, became villages and cities where individuals could no longer directly observe the honesty, compassion or trustworthiness of their fellow citizens. People needed a way to identify commonly held values and virtues, and mutual dedication to a judging deity created a shortcut to discerning those who could be trusted.
Yesterday was Labor Day. I’m sorry for those who had outdoor plans; today we’re back to work, and the weather is great.
For those of you a little rusty on your labor history, the history of Labor Day has dark roots in a Chicago police shooting just as controversial as any modern story.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously voted to support an eight-hour work day to be implemented no later than May 1, 1886. The cry, “eight-hour day with no change in pay!” was chanted by nearly a half-million workers nationally who went out on general strike on that day, 40,000 of them in Chicago, the center of the movement.
Today Dani and I celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary, which takes my mind musing back to that very humid day, August 20, 2011.
We had decided to have a small backyard wedding at Dani’s house. A few years before, we had hosted Ashley and Frank’s wedding reception (the same Ashley and Frank who will celebrate their daughter Ariella’s baptism at FPCLG on September 2). They married at my church in Peotone, and we came back to the house for a wonderful evening of dancing, food and champagne. Our friend, chef Mario Palaggi,
The slow cascade of revelations regarding Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Church and Association, fits an all too familiar pattern: rumor and accusation, denial, demonstration of support and counter-accusation, erosion of support, damning accusation, confession and resignations. These may be the seven stages of lost reputation usually associated with star-personality leaders whose empire rests on the integrity of their reputation. Building a church with over 20,000 attendees and an international association that includes over 11,000 congregations, Hybels created a vast network dedicated to
Last week I received an announcement of my 40th high school reunion. These notices from people who are significantly older than my memory’s picture create equally distorted memories of my actual high school experience. While music took a majority of my time—I arranged my schedule so that my senior year consisted of three AP classes and seven music courses, my memory space is more occupied by interscholastic forensic speaking tournaments.
Four hundred years before the birth of Christ, Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from Nepal, lived in a palace built by his father and designed to keep him from encountering mortality and suffering. At the age of 29 he snuck out of the palace to see his kingdom. On his ride he encountered an elderly man and a corpse. His chariot driver explained how all people grow old and eventually die.
If all has gone well, you’re now in Colorado Springs starting your first day of real work with Next Step Ministries, and while you’re likely busy trying to figure out where you’ll fit in or why everybody else seems to know what they’re doing, I thought I would write you a letter. I realize the last thing you need is a mission trip missive from your pastor, but I’ve got to write something for the Monday e-mail blast, so I figured the rest of the congregation could read my letter to you. This way I avoid having to write two letters; sometimes you can leverage laziness to your advantage.
Over the decades, many individuals have guided my ministry—mentoring pastors, professors, thoughtful laypersons and fellow staff; but among those who have had the most significant impact on my ministry, few are as dear to me as Walter
When children, or adults, line up, follow instructions, focus on the same task and sit quietly on command, there’s very little a leader needs to do. If conformity becomes the highest priority, those unwilling or unable to participate in a task are seen as problems, enemies of uniformity. A mental circle is drawn around those who equally meet expectations; they’re the good kids. Those outside of that circle quickly discern themselves to be somehow defective. The defective either work to hide their differences (why are you crying?) or double-down on individuality (stop dancing during Bible story!).
I grew up thinking the third commandment was about forbidden vocabulary words. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (King James Version, Exodus 20.7 & Deuteronomy 5.11). The pivot of interpretation was the meaning of ‘taking’ something ‘in vain.’ It was conveyed to me as carelessness in speech, allowing one’s rage or decorum to become unhinged, resulting in the impulsive use of God’s name or its variants.
I had gone to the store with my father. I was about six. My brothers stayed home playing basketball. The concrete in front of my parents’ two-car garage was level and nearly large enough to play a half-court. They had chalked out the key, lane and free-throw line; this was before the days of the three-point shot.
I kept the article because of this quote by Dr. Olson:
“There is a trend toward what I call ‘generic Christianity’ that is very feeling-centered and pragmatic and somewhat anti-intellectual. As denominational particularities are ignored or hidden, what’s often left is a ‘lowest common denominator’ spirituality that is often little more than ‘worship’ and ‘discipleship’ devoid of cognitive content. The result is often folk religion rather than historic, classic, biblical Christianity.”
The thought caught my eye because it dovetailed with so many conversations I’ve had with individuals regarding their faith. They define themselves as spiritual without being religious.
Yesterday, Memorial Day, I spent my time expressing my patriotic duty by working on the house. The fascia board on the garage had rotted to where attempting to paint it again seemed pointless. So off I went to Menards for two 12’ pine 1 x 6's. It took a few hours, but now it looks great. I was relieved to find a still usable can of exterior trim paint in the garage, so I had the unusual experience of completing a project with only one trip to the hardware store. That was disappointing.
Rakesh Sarin is UCLA’s Anderson Paine Chair in Management and has created some controversy by claiming that happiness can be described mathematically.
The simple equation: Happiness = Reality – Expectations.
(Part of me delights in the new discipline of behavioral economics, championed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. My delight arises from an argument I used to have with my high school and undergraduate friend, Charlie Fishkin. He was an economics major, and I was in sociology. He used to claim econ’s superiority to soc because of its reliance on mathematical modeling, thus making it more scientific. I would argue back with an equation of my own:
Over the years, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has sent resolutions to individual Sessions for their consideration. In the late 1980’s the U.S. covertly funded Contras in Nicaragua. (This was when most of us first learned Oliver North’s name.) Overthrowing the left-wing government of Daniel Ortega, the U.S. supported the election of Violeta Chamorro, who immediately began to undo the land re-distribution undertaken by Ortega, but Chamorro’s party, the UNO, was accused of using torture in their round-up of Contra forces.
I grew up in a house of paperboys. My two older brothers and I all had routes, although because they were 8 and 10 years older than I, we didn’t carry at the same time. Thanks to their stellar reputations as carriers, paperboy manager Roy Carlson permitted me to start a route at the age of 11, a full six months ahead of my 12th birthday, the published minimum age required to deliver the Omaha World-Herald.
A few years back there was a subtle change in the tagline for infomercials. I think it may have been Ron Popeil’s last major contribution to the genre, although a quick check of Wiki Obits let me know he was still alive. (Wiki Obits is an online database service that permits understaffed journalism outlets to pretend they’ve maintained a research department in the event of a newsworthy death… Hacking that site could be fun.) In any case, the tag shift was transforming
Years ago, before Google Maps and MapQuest, we had these things called…maps. They were complexly folded, massive pieces of paper kept in the glove compartment of the car. (Since we no longer needed heavy work gloves to operate the crank-starter of the car, we put maps where the gloves used to be.) A common road trip instruction was, “Get out the map and figure out where we are.”