Thinking Out Loud

April 7, 2022

Lessons (Hopefully) Learned from Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel

Living in what the people of Chicagoland call “the northwest suburbs” theologian Scot McKnight and his daughter, teacher Laura Barringer had a front row seat when things began unraveling at Harvest Bible Chapel and Willow Creek Community Church, and furthermore were acquainted with many of the people who became a part of our daily Twitter and blog feeds about both stories.

For this writer, the allegations about James MacDonald were hardly surprising, but I was more deeply invested in Bill Hybels, so there I found the greatest shock and disappointment. That the actions of these leaders were both shielded from the parishioners and the general public, and/or softened for public consumption meant that other leaders were culpable as the accusations intensified.

As I pointed out in this article, by the end of 2020, the damage done to the lives and legacies of various church leaders — not just pastors — was devastating and in no way limited to Harvest and Willow. So in writing A Church Called TOV: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Tyndale House, 2020) McKnight and Barringer were not afraid to name names.

This serves as an example of the truth and transparency that they see as just one of the seven marks of what they call “the circle of TOV,” which ought to be a mantra for every church wishing to have a healthy internal governance culture. Before getting there however, the first 80-or-so pages define the problem, and only then do they embark on what I consider the redemptive properties of the book, though they do not, by any means leave the naming of names behind, but continue to address situations that are relevant to each of the seven healthy characteristics they are defining.

It is at that point that some more positive anecdotal content is presented, including some very moving accounts from the late Calvin Miller. And the scriptures. In some chapters, especially the scriptures. (I ran a very brief excerpt from the book at Christianity 201 a few days ago as an example.)

If you get a copy, you need to copy and print an enlargement of their “circle of TOV” and hang it in whatever room your church board/elders meets. It should guide every aspect of the decision-making processes.

So why review a 2020 book now? In publishing marketing and publicity, this isn’t done, but reading Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed here) and The Making of Biblical Womanhood (briefly reviewed here), I simply had to include this one in my personal reading, especially knowing how much it has impacted many church leaders since its release.

(Unfortunately, Tyndale House doesn’t have representation in Canada, so I had to use a borrowed copy, but by mentioning the book here and now for my U.S. readers, I am trying to practice in this situation my own culture of grace and goodness.)

The book also begs the question, ‘Should megachurches even exist?’ Or to say it differently, ‘Was the modern megachurch ever part of God’s plan?” If you’re reading this, and in the middle of a search for a church home (a new church, or you’re looking for the first time) I would strongly suggest looking at churches with 200-500 in attendance (or 100-300 in Canada) as your best options.

With the passage of time since the book’s release, our emphasis now, rather than focusing on what went wrong, should be to look to the future with a vision of local church communities which promote the good, just as God, when he saw all that he had made, said that it was very good.

 

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