I started the conversation yesterday talking about my family; today I want to talk about a place.
Just like I can’t tell you about my growing-up years without telling you about my siblings and my parents, I can’t tell the story without telling you about Willow Creek. It is a big, wonderful place that has drawn a lot of coverage from media, both good and bad. And it is full of good and bad, just like any other church in any other part of the world, no matter how big or small. The good folks of Willow have gotten things wrong and have done things imperfectly, to be sure. But they have also done so much right, so much good, and so much that shaped my mind to think critically and honestly about God. So, that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
My strongest memories at Willow were during high school. Our youth group was called Student Impact because all youth groups have to have cool names about influence or otherworldliness; mostly we all called it “Impact.” This time of life is when I met some of the people who have been most significant to my spiritual growth–Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Shauna Niequist, and others. Shane, who had worked on computers at Willow for a bit before going to found The Simple Way in Philadelphia, came to speak in Axis, the ministry for 20-somethings. He stayed long after the services were over to talk to a group of high school students, and we were all of us shoeless because of his response to a question at the end about what The Simple Way needed. They needed shoes, he said, and if you wanted to, you were welcomed to leave your shoes at the back of the gym. There were rhinestone-studded cowboy boots next to flip flops and tennis shoes and I don’t think one person left that day with shoes on. Now, I want to acknowledge the nuance here–giving shoes one time will not solve systemic problems of injustice or poverty. But it is something, and we got to do it together, and that is powerful.
Impact met on Sunday nights in the auditorium. The band appropriated ’90s pop music and wrote their own worship songs and some students stood up and reached their hands toward God and some stayed in their seats and prayed and some (me) stood there and looked around and read the words on the screen. There wasn’t much pressure to be a certain kind of Christian there, especially the way I’ve heard so many evangelicals talk about their youths, about the need to do and say the right things and never give voice to their doubts and keep their sexuality so locked up that they lived in a constant state of shame. (More on that in a minute.) We met in small groups divided up by the high school we went to–there were a bunch of schools represented by the thousand or so students who attended Impact–and I talked so often with my friends in different groups about it that I think it’s fair to say we almost all had the experience of being given a lot of space to ask questions about faith, to wrestle and doubt and share our fears.
On the flip side, there are some memories that make me cringe. There was a camp in the summer at Wheaton College called SEMP that students could attend, a boot camp of sorts for young Christians, the culmination of which was a form of street preaching in downtown Chicago and other places. (This wasn’t the youth group’s summer camp, but it was an option and staff members attended.) There was a song at Sandblast–this was our summer camp, in Wisconsin–called “The Four M’s.” It was hilariously done by Bob Sportsmonsfrager, a referee-gone-wrong who put lyrics to all kinds of odd themes. (Another day, I will tell you all about the STD song that was sung both during a series on sex and, later, at Parent’s Night.) The Four M’s were Meals, Meetings, Modesty and Macking. The first two were required, the latter mostly frowned upon, but modesty was pretty fuzzy. In reality, I think it just meant that girls were supposed to wear one-piece bathing suits. It wasn’t a shaming message and it is not worth any outrage, but it was definitely a gendered message and had no implications, as I remember, for any of the boys at camp.
There are a number of writers whose books on evangelicalism I would recommend at this point. Wade Clark Roof’s Spiritual Marketplace is a great look at choice in popular religion; George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism is about both the founding of Fuller Seminary and of a new evangelicalism in America at the time Billy Graham was becoming known; Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God is fascinating on a number of levels. These books all do their part to identify the cracks in the movement, the people who were out for power rather than transformation, the rigid enforcement of orthodoxy that has led to an embarrassing number of schisms and Synods in the last few decades. I will leave it to more able voices than my own to explain evangelicalism’s pitfalls, of which there are many. But I want to continue to talk about what evangelicalism–which cannot be separated from the people and institutions I knew and know–has done right. I owe a great debt to these people and institutions, after all, and I confess to being a bit tired of the stories of evangelicalism being tried and found wanting.
Willow Creek was squarely in the center of the evangelical movement in America. Still is, really. And one of my absolute favorite things about it is, from the time we moved to Chicago in 1994, I never saw a job being done anywhere in the church that a woman could not do or was not already doing. Board of elders, teaching pastor, ministry leader, food service, sports ministry, you name it–I even worked on the church maintenance team for a summer, and you can bet your ass no chivalrous guy tried to stop me from lifting heavy objects because it wasn’t a feminine activity. It was at Willow that I learned what it means to be a woman, which is exactly the same thing as what it means to be a human being. I was vaguely aware that there were other churches with stained-glass ceilings (though Willow, seeker-friendly as it was, had no stained glass of which to speak). It wasn’t perfect. There were always more men than women on stage, more men teaching and leading worship and heading up ministries. But there were amazing women, incredibly gifted leaders (not least of whom was my own mother), who were doing remarkable things in the church–and the men on the stages learned from and celebrated the women, and vice versa. (Several years after my family left, the church’s senior pastor read Divided by Faith and committed the church to a new vision of racial reconciliation, something that has been neat to see.)
When I was fifteen, I gave a talk at a weekend service about being a young woman and a Christian. I talked about the Galatians passage in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus,” and even though we messed it up sometimes, I really grew up feeling like we were all one. Church unity remains one of the fires burning deepest in my heart, and that has everything to do with my evangelical upbringing.
The group of friends I made in high school–and I’ll talk more about them next week–have as much to do with my being a Christian as anyone. Because we were encouraged to think deeply about our faith and our world, we spent endless hours talking and arguing about the best interpretations of Scripture. We doubted and believed and didn’t believe, we took communion in basements with grape juice and sliced bread, we went on mission trips and drank our mom’s cooking wine in an attempt to be cool.
Evangelicals have long been painted with a broad brush: moralistic, right-wing, uneducated and reckless when it comes to appreciating the earth or beauty, fearful, and not a little bit strange. There are grains of truth here, to be sure, but they are just that–grains. That picture is not accurate or full, besides which I don’t know many people or movements that would stand up to it when all their worst characteristics were laid bare. Seeing past stereotypes takes work, but it is work that is worth doing.
Next week, I’ll talk more about two of the things that have driven evangelicals away from the church that were, in my experience, incredible strengths of the church: The role of women in the church and the importance of vulnerability in faith.