Only Idols Fall
It was a hot August when I first set foot on the Willow Creek Community Church campus in South Barrington, Illinois 18 years ago. I was an erratically passionate, Jesus-obsessed young leader who had heard of the infamous growth and success of a group of upstarts-turned-celebrities in the far outskirts of suburban Chicago. At that time, no one gave much thought to the line between ministry favor of a spiritual kind and what we eventually came to call Christian celebrity. They were one in the same with no necessity to be torn asunder.
The sprawling parking lots, the humble (in those days) front entrance, the wings of the campus disappearing across her low-slung shoulders to the south and the northwest. This was, I felt in my inner being, where God MUST be really doing something. Nothing called church of this size and scale could exist without God’s blessing. I am of a generation that grew up in a world of corporate mergers, megastores upending small town main streets, and school districts combining over and over to meet the ceaseless demand for more programs, more options, more growth, more, more, and more.
From the vantage point of my cultural heritage, big and more were their own unmitigated blessing. It should come to no surprise then, that at 21-years-old, I fell in love with Willow. I would eventually come to work there for three years, stand on their stages, rub shoulders with their best and brightest, and revel in the seemingly unstoppable force that was this ministry machine. I loved speaking at the conferences, walking through the atrium with my Willow name tag and having random strangers want to know what I thought about their church, their programs, their Easter services, their small group outreach campaigns.
I reveled at the annual chance to go out to South Haven, Michigan and ride on Sr. Pastor Bill Hybel’s boat, to ask him a question, to wait for his reply. Like most “Creekers” of my generation, we also enjoyed taking our private-conversation shots at senior leaders, playing it both ways, worshipping their success while poking at their weaknesses, burgeoning the hubris to believe that we could do it better if given the chance.
To complete the circle of the story and to betray its complexity, the most intensely fruitful spiritual growth of my life happened in my years at Willow. I was invested in as a leader, I received incredibly transformative shepherding, and I began in earnest the decades-long process of facing my own inner demons. The umbrella of Willow spread far and wide, and in its shade lived a vast ecosystem of brokenness and beauty. As the institution of Willow Creek faces its most difficult season and most heart-wrenching headlines, a worldwide audience will feel the weight of its glory and shame. But for those of us who called it home for any period of time, its extremities will feel all the weightier because we lived them up close.
In the end, though, what I wish to say to you is not about Willow in specific. I do not wish to join the chorus of those who want to define the rightness or wrongness of an exposed founding pastor, and I will not lay claim to a version of truth of what did or didn’t happen, nor (even worse) what should or shouldn’t.
The journey of Willow’s current leadership team, its elders, pastors and committed volunteers belong to them, and the chorus of us from the outside trying to nudge them in a certain direction in the hopes of reassembling our fallen Babelic tower are unnecessary. The same is true for Bill himself, a man like any other, broken like any other, but with his fascinations and flaws projected large by the cult of celebrity and the brute power of institutional Christianity. My only hope is that he, his family, and those nearest to him get to return to his humanity. A humanity like yours and mine full of diverse colors and shades, and full of stories we wouldn’t want plastered on the cover of the New York Times. For it is only in our deepest and most vulnerable humanity that we can meet the restorative and gracious presence of God.
The story of this moment at Willow Creek has become emblematic of bigger questions. Have we gone too far in conflating church growth with divine approval? Has size and scale become a replacement for depth and meaning? Have we abandoned the essential wildness of the work of the Spirit for a formulaic faith and are now reaping the consequences? These are difficult questions and should not be answered by any one voice. They are best answered in communities, around coffee tables, and with much prayer and reflection. The assumptions of the church growth movement beg for reconsideration, and the church practices of the last 40 years, now a religion unto themselves, may have dire undercurrents and consequences.
While these questions interest me, both because of my story of complicity with them and because I want for a healthier and humbler American church for all our futures, they too are not the heart of my thoughts today. I have been slow to react to the fallout in South Barrington, for three reasons (1) because I didn’t want to unnecessarily pile on to this volatile topic, (2) because I sensed something bigger than Willow was shifting in the sand and wasn’t sure what it was, and (3) I felt that my own heart was not ready to speak with transparency about these troubled things.
As I have settled into this over the past several weeks, one theme has sprung to the top. Much of the conversation has centered around what to do about the “fallen” pastors of megachurches and other Christian movements. As the list grows of these men (to my knowledge they are all men) and as the chorus of concern to avoid future “fallen” leaders rises, a second parallel conversation emerges: how to protect other massive institutions from “falling” into such dire straits. Protectionism and the need to image-manage are intermingled with a genuine desire to avoid unnecessary suffering for congregants and loyalists. This I very much understand. I know people who have been away from Willow for years, who are having to spend real time grieving, processing and parsing the beauty from the brokenness of this institution’s place in their story. Old wounds are being ripped open by public headlines, and—I sadly suspect—that it is possible even my writing this may contribute to such a rending. While written words are often easily divorced from intent, I can say this: I write this because I believe that beauty and brokenness are intertwined, and the story of a church in South Barrington, can help us enter in to the critical entanglement of our own hearts.
When crises like these arise, the obvious first response is—what do we do to make sure this never happens again? Or at least, never happens to us again? (Whomever the selected “us” may be.)
Some have decided that the best way for this not to happen to them again is to leave the institutional church all together. To search for the love and grace of God in various unlabeled and unbranded communities, circles and coffee shops. And I can say without hesitation that I don’t blame them. For those who’ve been directly victimized or closely associated with direct victims of the darker trends of Christendom, it is only logical that separation is a critical part of healing.
Some have decided to armor up, to defend the American Evangelical Church against her detractors. They reject the notion of #churchtoo as a being no more than a few bad apples in an overall tasty barrel of spiritual goodness. They list off and remind us of all the good that has happened these last 40 years because of the large institutional evangelical churches that proverbially “couldn’t have happened otherwise.” I empathize with this response as well. There are many, arguably millions, for whom the institutional evangelical church is “working.” It is helping them find relationships, parent their children, express some degree of spiritual longing, and engage with easily-accessed snapshots of the God of the Bible. To have the baby thrown out with the bathwater because of a spate of nasty headlines feels like a bridge too far.
And while both extremes (and all shades of gray in between) make sense as ways of dealing with the question of what to do about the institutional church today, I have come to realize that for me, the question of what to do with big church misses the point. I believe the overwhelming majority of us long for a deeper and wider transformation within the halls of faith in America. And it is to that longing that we should attend. We know from Scripture that transformation of any worth does not come from addressing the external but the internal, not trying to change the system, but attending to the hearts of those in the system.
In this vein, my story comes full circle. I see the heart of that young man who first walked into Willow Creek. Yes, he loved Jesus. Yes, he had an overflowing passion for ministry. Yes, he woke up nearly every day wanting to make a difference in the world. AND yes, he was hungry for someone and something to worship. And I don’t think he was alone. We as humans have so much trouble wrestling with the invisible God. To find God’s heart for us and to be at peace with it alone costs us a journey into our most hidden and feared places, and that trip is not for the faint of heart. In lieu of such a journey, we are offered avatars and simulations.
Avatars and Simulations
Avatars in the form of captivating leaders, polished and pristine with that perfectly sublime hint of self-deprecation. They ooze strength and charisma, while knowing when to show weakness in order to give the grace of a God byline in their personal bios. We know they aren’t God, but they get God the kind of headlines we are hoping for. They make Him sound easier, more fascinating, and more accessible. They have an ability to keep him heavy on the application and light on the introspection so that our religion can seamlessly tie into our self-improvement campaigns. And we love them for it. We read their books, memorize their biographies, chat about their professional progress, magnetize to their weekend venues. Most of them are likely no more broken than you and me, just more skilled at crafting that brokenness into an irresistible blend of influence and affability.
These avatars rise above us in celebrity and assumed spiritual veracity. Quickly, the single-level Kingdom of God where all are embodied with the Spirit in equal measure, becomes the multi-level marketing organization where groups of groups of groups of groups are merged into an institutional head which attracts all our unfortunate instincts at idol worship. When these Icarus-like heads of state fly too close to the sun, we call them fallen leaders. But, if we are honest, they could have never climbed to such heights without the towers of idolatry we all built for them. People don’t fall, idols do.
The brokenness in a leader’s heart didn’t suddenly arrive. It was there all along. The heart cannot climb to heights and fall. It can only die and be born from above. It is only the idolized shell we build around men that falls, and usually when we are exposed to just how human and frail they (we) were all along.
All of this happens inside a Kingdom simulation. A manufactured world with slogans and T-shirts and campaigns and expansive near-virtual reality multimedia. The causes of the institution become synonymous with the Kingdom’s cause. And the favor of the institution, doled out in prominent roles and atta-boys and promotions and public praise, becomes the stand-in for Fatherly love. We build and build and build. Not just buildings and campuses, those are the least of our worries, but infrastructure and systems and programs and rules and formulas. Ways to trim away the immense personal complexities of communal living and spiritual wholeness so that our aching spiritual centers can remain festering and slumbering, un-stirred by the systems we build to work around them. We become better people along the way: friendlier, slower to snap at our kids, quicker to volunteer for the bake sale, and more engaged when the music starts playing. But we have little-to-no tools for the silence, the quaking hungering dark where the Spirit of God waits for us to unplug from our self-made machines.
As I Am; As You Are
I do not have a formula for what the future of the church in America should be, nor do a believe that one ought to be made. I believe that church at its very core inherits its genetic identity from Israel, meaning “one who wrestles with God.” As our idols and our towers fall, as the places and people that we had hoped would be reasonable stand-ins for the divine word we so desperately long for prove unworthy of our praise, I find in it all a wash of grace. Institutions—no matter their good intent or surface shine—are terrible stand ins for an unboundaried Kingdom of God which is seeping in to every moment, every life, every conversation, every place, every heart. These places of worship with their brand names and slogans can provide God-given shelter and resources for our journey into Kingdom living, but membership in their campaigns is no stand-in for Kingdom freedom. We are not citizens of a country or a community or a church, but citizens of the liberated body of Jesus.
And men, with all their charisma, confidence, winsome ability and charm, even the ones who are not hiding nefarious secrets, are no stand-in for Jesus. The human leaders who rise to prominence (and there will be more, whether they seek it or not) will always be less than our broken hearts want them to be. They will be more insecure, frailer, more confused than we want them to be. They will be—in some part—hidden by the mask of ego which we all hide behind. As I am; as you are. While it is hidden sexual sin that will always make the headlines, our leaders will always be fighting off their own capacity for hatred, egoism, self-delusion, judgment and fear. And when we see it, we should be reminded of how much like us they really are.
I refuse to enter the fray of the sin meter of whose sins were worse and which ones worthier of condemnation. This instinct is the ego at work trying to justify ourselves. As we, the people of faith, face the possibility and probability that the future of the church will be necessarily different than its recent past, I hope for myself and for all of us that we begin by recognizing our complicity. We, the people, have made idols out of men and towers out of churches. We have feared the depths of our own hearts and instead sought out the heights of success and measurable glory, and we have venerated and then villainized the men who have led us along the way. Idols are only made worthy by the worshippers who adore them, and towers are only made high by the workers who build them. While we all want so badly for the woes of “fallen” megachurch pastors and leaders to be someone else’s problem, it is all our problem, and we, corporately—to wildly varying degrees—are complicit.
We are the story, not just a part of the story. All that we build that is not God will fall, and we can be eternally thankful for that. We are the story most when our faith practice pulls us from the draw of measurable success and into the ephemeral successes of faith, hope, love, joy, and long-suffering. We are the story when we abandon the formulas for ministry and the formulas for faith while recognizing our very life in the face of Jesus. The face of a man who undermined the religious formulas of his day, feigned every opportunity to rise to the top of a great hierarchy, a treated every person He met as a unique vessel of Spirit of God. To go into the journey with God is to go into the world where there is no map, and no man can define the path for all the others.
Well, no man of our time. Instead, a man at the center of time itself. A man for all seasons. A man for all suffering. The “success” of our faith practice is not found in the image of men who we make into gods, but in the image of God who looks like a man, battered and bruised, a suffering servant who no one would dare make CEO of anything. A man without formulas, without guarantees, and without restraint for his unapologetic love.
A cross man: a man whose kingship in this world was only recognizable in His willingness to lay down his life for those willing to take it from Him. How will this look lived among people of faith in the years and decades that face us? This is a trustworthy question. One that cannot be and should not be answered in rhetoric, but answered in lives. The millions-strong faithful who define the Jesus Way in our time, and who will, no doubt, make its future.