Willow Creek utilizes creative efforts in Sunday worship

Thursday, June 3, 2004

Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., is perhaps the biggest phenomenon to hit American Christianity since the Brownsville Revival in Florida, but its roots go back to the Jesus Movement of the 1970s.

The interdenominational movement includes many denominational churches, including Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Assembly of God, Mennonite, Salvation Army and other congregations. In Arkansas, 49 churches are currently affiliated with the Willow Creek Association, and there are 164 in Missouri.

The phenomenal growth in churches affiliating with Willow Creek has accelerated in the last couple of years, with affiliates having many of the resources of the Barrington center, from study materials and seminars, and drama scripts and videos, to worship CDs, music charts, and arrangements for contemporary rhythm sections, orchestra and choir, including original compositions and writing..

While Willow Creek is known for relaxed intimacy between believers with a strong sense of community, its trademark is quality production of both visual and performing arts.

Author Nancy Beach has been with the Willow Creek ministry for more than 30 years, with her fair share of crashed-and-burned creative efforts. In that time, she has seen the fellowship blossom, and has played a significant role in bringing times of wonder, quieting of the soul, sparking of deep emotion, and prompting of turning points with eternal significance to thousands of people.

An Hour on Sunday is Beach's synopsis of what she has learned, and how to get comparable results, regardless of church size.

She recalls the beginnings of her early attempts of producing music, drama and visual presentations. "Whenever it worked ---- when I saw God move ---- I could hardly sleep when my head hit the pillow. One night my biology lab partner gave her life to Christ, along with many others. From those days on, I knew God made me to somehow combine the arts and biblical teaching to create experiences through which the Spirit could touch lives. What an amazing gift, to discover at the age of 15 why God put me on this planet ---- to know the unspeakable joy of being used to make a difference."

Today, she continued, "I have the profound privilege of building a community of artists who together unleash the arts in our church. Our goal has always been to prepare for the possibility for God to anoint our work, resulting in what we call transcendent moments."

Beach recognizes well that society is becoming increasingly postmodern with changes in our basic worldview, and that church ministries must adjust strategies accordingly.

With those changes also come more connectedness with society as a whole, via internet, cell phone, DVDs, BlackBerry handhelds, call-waiting, pagers, video games, voice mail and the like. Persons with much time truly to themselves are few and far between, and younger people seemingly can't imagine not being connected 24-hours-a-day.

All the more reason for church experiences to be something transcendent and memorable.

This book is not a nitty-gritty how-to guide with scripts and stage directions. Rather, Beach seeks to aid the reader in defining three things: the church's mission; a strategy for weekly services; and the primary audience.

In the performing arts, regardless of how anointed a person may be, Beach calls for persons to: appear and sound normal for the local culture, avoiding changing of voices and "churchy" or unnaturally religious lingo, and not appearing unduly formal; genuinely seek to live out the truths they espouse; and be prepared.

Being prepared calls for planning, but not to the point that spontaneity is eliminated. Says Beach, "I truly believe our heavenly Father expects us to discipline ourselves, listening for his voice all along the way ---- from early brainstorming to the actual ministries of the Sunday services. Many service ideas conceived in advance are clearly anointed and touch the congregation with true spiritual power."

Beach also has an understanding of artistic temperments, and how to lead them, from the guitarist who gets depressed because he believes his performance will never meet his own expectations, to the soloist who still struggles over being abandoned in childhood by her parents, to the writer desperate to communicate with a mind filled with anxiety, doom, judgement, guilt, or hypochondria.

She also advises those in artistic ministries to "hold our gifts loosely," and be open to evaluation without fear or defensiveness.

Gratefully, the author does not call for technical expertise at the expense of a transcendent moment, nor at the expense of good taste and truth. Sometimes, she writes, excruciating decisions about scripts, video segments and dance choreography requires the counsel of church leaders.

Beach's church, holds multiple Sunday morning worship services, a comparative rarity in Carroll County. Still, music ministers, praise teams, instrumentalists, and youth ministers ---- not to mention senior pastors ---- could well benefit from Beach's ideas and philosophy.

As one minister told Beach, "As the weekend services go, so goes the church."

An Hour on Sunday: Creating Moments of Transformation and Wonder; Nancy Beach; 286 pages, illustrated with photographs, end notes and ruled blank pages; hardbound; non-fiction; $24.99; Zondervan.

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