We traveled to Chicago this weekend to visit colleges for my son, and had the opportunity to make pilgrimage to two icons of evangelicalism, Willow Creek Community Church and Wheaton Bible Church.
On Saturday evening we went to Willow and heard a practical, challenging message about finances from guest speaker Dave Ramsey. I had not been there for many years, and was thoroughly impressed (duh!) with their latest state-of-the-art facilities, production values and presentation. The service was simple but creative, with ample use of music and multimedia to communicate the message that God will take care of his people in hard times.
[Editorial comment:] Actually, it was kind of hard to imagine "hard times" in that setting, but I know that people from the wealthiest to the poorest are affected by the current economic crisis, so it would be silly for me to be critical.
During the service, I witnessed one of the more gracious acts of worship I've seen. An older man a few rows ahead of us put his hands over his ears and grimaced through the loud, intense parts of the music. Nevertheless, he stayed and participated fully in a service that I'm sure did not agree with his ideal style-preferences. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that one sign of grace in a person's life is the ability to worship when singing a hymn he does not like. This gentleman was a contemporary parable to me of that thought.
Dave Ramsey's message was enthusiastic, funny, direct, and at times manic. He is an excellent communicator, and his instruction was solidly based on wisdom teaching from Proverbs. I especially appreciated the distinction he made between "sinful" and "foolish" behavior in Biblical ethics. We were helped by his firm no-nonsense exhortations.
Bill Hybels concluded the service with one of his trademark appeals for folks to make a heartfelt decision to go God's way.
WHEATON BIBLE CHURCH
In the morning we joined Gail's sister for Sunday worship. She attends Wheaton Bible Church, which meets at a new, impressive campus also. The building's appearance is more "church-like" but the ambience inside was pretty much the same as Willow Creek—contemporary, slick, pragmatic.
We went to the earliest service, which is more traditional in style. A lot more suits and ties. A significant number of older people made up the majority of the congregation. Music was mostly hymns, accompanied by organ, piano, orchestra and choir, and directed by a song leader. There was a pastoral prayer, communion, a two-person dramatic skit to introduce the message, and an expository sermon on 1Peter 1.1-2. They used multmedia effectively and with relative unobtrusiveness in a way that (IMHO) enhanced the service rather than being distracting.
As at WC, the emphasis of the service was also on the hard times we are facing, and what a godly response to that entails. Sr. Pastor Rob Bugh's sermon was less "practical" and more theologically-oriented, taken right out of the text itself. He explained how Peter greeted the scattered, suffering exiles in ancient Asia Minor by emphasizing, not their troubles, but God's gracious, eternal salvation plan for their lives. He ended with a moving letter from a congregation member who is truly facing hard times—he's dying with ALS—and how God has used him to advance the gospel in his neighborhood and family in spite of his situation. It was a fine example of solid expositional teaching/preaching.
These two huge evangelical churches represent the "best of the best" of what evangelicalism is all about. There is so much to appreciate in what we experienced this weekend. At the heart of it all is a firm commitment to Scripture joined to a fervent passion for mission and reaching people with the Gospel message. These churches stand at the pinnacle of the evangelical revivalist tradition, and they do much good in the world for God's glory.
From my perspective, they also display the weaknesses of evangelicalism in large format. However, this is not the time to talk about that. We are simply thankful for the experience of being with some of God's people this weekend.