Thinking Out Loud

April 17, 2017

Willow Creek Continues to Rewrite the Playbook for Weekend Services

Two weeks ago Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs had an “Authors Weekend.” Teaching pastor Steve Carter interviewed Anne Lamott and then went into an another exchange with Lee Strobel, the latter having been a former Willow staff member. (Later in the week Josh McDowell visited on Wednesday night.) You can watch those interviews at this link.

Doing an interview in a church service can be a hit or miss proposition. Especially if it is replacing a traditional teaching segment aka sermon. Furthermore, the reaction to any particular guest is going to be subjective. Just a week or two earlier, Willow hosted Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas. That one didn’t resonate with me so much.

But watching Carter talk with Lamott and later Strobel, I realized what they are doing has some broader implications.

First, I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

Second, I have for a long time advocated teaching modules rather than a single focus half hour. A few of us are old enough to remember when NBC introduced the show Real People. Hailed as the first magazine format program — though I’m not sure it predated 60 Minutes — this variety-meets-information type of programming is now widely used. I always thought that the ideal solution in church would be to break up the 30 minutes into three 10 minute segments, separated by music, announcements, or scripture readings. One module might be topical. One might be exegetical. Or if you prefer, one might be light while one might go deeper. One might deal with family life. One might delve into an obscure Old Testament character. (If that last one sounds boring, remember, we’re talking ten minutes here. You don’t have time to lose people!)

What Willow and Carter did that Sunday met these objectives in the ways that follow, but I also want to add one extra point.

The interview was a nice alternative to a sermon. Key here was the fact that the two authors really had something to say. The aforementioned sports star was a good testimony, and she’s probably a role model for a lot of young girls — and they did have a sermon that week as well — but Strobel and Lamott brought a lot of substance to the table. There was also spontaneity, including an opportunity to text in questions. (I wasn’t there in person, but watching the Saturday night service live, I could have easily participated in this.)

The interviews would appeal to different people. Strobel’s was also a testimony, but also tied into an upcoming movie. A number key points in Christian apologetics were covered. Another aspect to this story is what happens in a marriage when one partner has crossed the line of faith and the other is hostile toward Christianity. I hadn’t read anything by Lamott but her personal, unaffected demeanor probably connected with people early in their Christian journey, with seniors, and also with women. In other words, a wide swath demographically.

The interviewer had done his homework. This was the thing that really impressed me. Steve Carter wasn’t just ‘winging it.’ He had spent some time studying both the literature and the biographies of his two guests. Willow had a point to all this, they were doing it for well considered reasons; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it at all. But if they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. (Their commitment to excellence shone through their Good Friday and Easter services this past weekend, also available online.)

Finally, a confession.

I’m a sermon guy. Yes, I just said it’s a dying art form, but I enjoy them. So it would be quite easy for me to feel disappointed I wasn’t going to get one from Willow that week. Truth is, I tuned in especially to see what Strobel would say, and because his connection as a former Willow Creek staffer made it especially interesting. Plus I’ve seen Carter and Bill Hybels do this sort of thing many times before and they aren’t exactly novices.

Can your church snag top name guests? You probably don’t have the budget, nor do they have a lot of availability. But there are probably some stories that Christian people in your community can tell better on a two-chair set than can be related from behind a podium. There are probably topics that can be presented with two members of the pastoral staff taking a tag team approach. There is probably preaching content that can be modified to suit a Q & A format, even if it’s not as spontaneous as you would like it to be. Finally, there’s possibly someone in your church who might, on a one-off Sunday, have something vital to share but would need the help of a more seasoned speaker to rein them in when they go off topic or off focus, or to simply keep the message moving.

I’m not advocating this for everyone; I’m just saying it deserves consideration.




  1. Intriguing! I wonder if some of the earlier services in church were just that – testimonies

    I like sermons too but the formula sometimes just gets a little old.

    Comment by David @ Red Letter Believers — April 17, 2017 @ 7:31 am

  2. Lee Strobel? Being interviewed just to hawk his movie? Willow Creek, quit trying to be trendy. If you can’t rely on the Gospel Word then shut your doors.

    Comment by The Purging Lutheran — April 17, 2017 @ 8:52 am

    • That was a bit over-the-top, don’t you think? This was as much a homecoming for Lee and Leslie as anything else. Furthermore, the whole point of the article is that Willow is not trendy, they set the trends.

      Here’s a radical question: Did you happen to watch the interview? I felt it was powerful. I felt what they did was worth celebrating. The interview and movie point so clearly that the gospel hinges entirely on the resurrection. What a great thing to share just days before Easter! That is the good news!

      You also need to see this in the context of the dozens upon dozens of people baptized at Willow just weeks before. We really have to ask ourselves, “How many new commitments to Christ has our church experienced so far this year?” Or, “How many new believers have we baptized?”

      I know you’re a regular reader, but your comment had a troll-like tone to it and simply didn’t apply here.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — April 17, 2017 @ 9:05 am

      • These are just interviews, one with the woman talking about her bees and the gentleman telling the same story he has for years. One has a book, the other a movie. They have stories full of grace and they can be done between services, but they aren’t called and ordained servants of The Lord. What willow Creek did was just put on a show. What happens when they go back to plain old sermons? The new people are going to want their MTV, what happened to what brought me here? It’s a bait and switch for them. What happened to the interviews I saw during Easter week?
        Some members of our church visited Willow Creek some years ago and raved about the service WC put on with a great praise band. So we did the same thing, junior league version. So what happens? The effort goes into outdoing what they did the week before. It’s impossible to do. Right, it’s our fault for trying to copy them.
        OK, WC isn’t trendy but are instead the trendsetters. Fine. What happens at WC? How much effort goes into trying to determine what the next ‘new thing’ WC thinks will influence or shape the state of worship? My opinion? This kind of inward-looking pride leads to destruction. Regarding this, there’s nothing worse than groupthink.
        A troll?

        Comment by The Purging Lutheran — April 17, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

      • I guess what we have here is a case of two people looking at exactly the same thing and seeing something completely different.

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — April 17, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

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