Worship at Willow Creek: Lessons from a megachurch
My brother is what we used to call a fallen-away Catholic. After years of searching as an adult, he found a church home that is truly life-giving to him. He now belongs to an evangelical megachurch located in the suburbs of Chicago that is home to more than 24,000 worshipers each weekend. The church, Willow Creek, was founded in 1975 and continues to serve as a model and mentor for the evangelical movement today.
For our family, my brother’s denominational choice is not a tragedy comparable to what happened when my grandmother’s sister married a Lutheran in the 1940s. My grandmother and her siblings were not allowed to go to their baby sister’s wedding nor have any contact with her. In the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” the Second Vatican Council opened the door for those outside the Catholic Church. “Many elements of sanctification and of truth,” the council teaches, “are found outside [its] visible confines” (No. 8). I still remember the joy on my grandmother’s face when she spoke of the reunion with her sister almost 40 years after the wedding.
My brother’s embrace of a different tradition, then, is not the challenge it once might have been. The real struggle is that his new home is a church that was an object of scorn and ridicule in our Catholic community for our entire youth. As Willow Creek took root and blossomed, much criticism was leveled by those among the “faithful” in our community for its use of rock bands and entertainment-like worship. It took a while for my brother to become comfortable in this new skin; and to this day, he is almost apologetic when he discusses his faith life with us.
We want to support our brother, so for the past few years our visits with him have included attending Willow Creek (often on Saturday evening, so we can attend Mass on Sunday morning). As I attend these worship services, I make the usual observations of one who has been steeped in Catholic tradition for many years. I note the absence of ritual and sacramentality and identify significant theological differences. Most striking is the place and understanding of community in worship. Ritual does not seem to have a presence at Willow Creek. Unlike the Catholic tradition, there is no shared understanding or consistent practice for when the assembly sits and stands. The structure of worship varies greatly from week to week. While many are gathered in a large auditorium, the prayers and music focus attention on the individual’s relationship with God. As I experience worship at Willow Creek, I cannot help but reflect on the very communal nature of Catholic liturgy.
In spite of these significant differences, I have gained a growing appreciation for the worship practices of megachurches like Willow Creek. Without changing our tradition or theology, Catholics could learn a lot from evangelical churches, especially regarding liturgical practice.
Most liturgically minded Catholics are well aware of the call of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” which insists that “all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (No. 14). Indeed, we are not to be observers, but to participate in worship by virtue of our baptism. As the “summit” and the “font” of the church’s activity, liturgy is the avenue in which “all...come together to praise God” (No. 10). Participation is central to every liturgical celebration.
“Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship,” a document released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007, further explores the nature of participation, insisting that it must be both internal and external. Drawing on the postconciliar“Instruction on Music in the Liturgy,” the bishops write that internal participation involves listening attentively so that all may “unite themselves interiorly” to the actions, proclamations or music that they may reflect on the divine. Internal participation, then, is, effectively, “interior listening” or “meditative quiet.”
What if we were to understand internal participation a little differently? Consider a typical scene at Willow Creek. A large auditorium is filled with thousands of people. Many have their hands in the air and are swaying to music, their body language clearly indicating that they have been moved. Others have their arms around loved ones in a way that indicates this is a powerful, shared moment. Still others are in their seats, eyes closed, lost in prayer. The internal engagement is visible to the naked eye and takes a variety of forms. What if we, as Catholics, were to allow for a diversity of internal participation? How might our assemblies engage in worship differently? At the very least, watching these intense displays of internal participation leads one to ask if our Catholic assemblies are simply going through the motions. How often are we truly being transformed through our participation in such a way that we cannot help moving in response?
We can learn from Willow Creek in the area of external participation as well. Take a traditional hymn. Perhaps the words are very appropriate for the Gospel, and the hymn would be a good choice for a particular Sunday. How shall we best accompany our assembly? Piano? Organ? Brass instruments? Perhaps we should try something different, like a praise band. A praise band uses modern instrumentation like the electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums to lead music for worship.
A traditional hymn interpreted by a praise band can be a powerful moment of prayer. A praise band can preserve the integrity of the hymn but give it a very different sound—one that is fuller and more modern. Successful implementation requires skill and practice, but when done right can truly promote the participation we strive for each week. At Willow Creek, we sang a Protestant hymn (“Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee...”) and were asked to do a verse unaccompanied. In a large auditorium with thousands of voices singing, it certainly sounded like a significant moment of “full, conscious and active participation.”
Modern music is also incorporated into the services at Willow Creek. “How did you do with that Hosanna song?” my brother asked after one service. “It took me a while to get it, but I finally caught on,” I responded. “Yes,” he said, “we all know it because it’s on the radio all the time.”
It took me a while to “get it” because the melody was syncopated, with very few long notes. The melody was a series of shorter notes that jumped around on the off beats. And yet, the community sang with one strong voice. They clearly knew the song, and their strength of participation allowed my family to learn the music and join in.
Our local Catholic assembly still struggles with Steve Angrisano’s “My Soul Is Thirsting,” largely because the melody is too syncopated. The congregation throws off the cantor by singing the refrain “straight” while the cantor tries to honor the original rhythm, and what should be a communal proclamation of the Scripture becomes an awkward and sometimes frustrating moment.
As I recalled these two experiences, some questions came to mind: Do I know any radio stations that play music by David Haas or Marty Haugen? How about Tony Alonso or Lori True? How is the music we use at liturgy truly connected to our daily lives? Do we hear and sing it only on Sundays? How different might our liturgical experience be if our liturgical music were part of our everyday experience?
I wonder if this is the crux of the struggle many parishes and ministries face regarding music. People want to sing music at Mass that is part of their lives beyond Sunday. In my small town, I cannot find Catholic liturgical music on the dial, but can easily locate Christian rock on multiple stations. Some of the older generations lament that our youth do not know the old hymns and that we should make sure they learn them. Yet our young people do not seem to have much interest in doing so. Perhaps Catholics should consider using music that speaks to multiple generations and to all aspects of our lives, inviting deeper participation, both internal and external.
Entertainment or Prayer?
The physical environment of Willow Creek helps facilitate participation in surprising ways. The church consists of a huge auditorium (their word choice, not mine) that seats thousands. Front and center is a large stage set with instruments for a rock band and a podium and other background “scenery,” which is changed periodically to fit the worship service. A 25-foot screen sits in the middle of the stage, flanked by two screens of the same size, reminiscent of the kind seen at a rock concert. Above the main stage, directly in front of the balcony seating, are four smaller screens.
As worshipers are gathering, the screens display a variety of images, alternating between community announcements and quotations, biblical and otherwise (I have seen the words of St. Francis of Assisi many times), immediately focusing the congregation’s attention and drawing worshipers in. As the service begins, so does the live feed, and no matter where one is sitting, worshipers feel like they are in the midst of the action. Facial expressions of the band and speakers are crystal clear. The huge screens serve to draw each individual in and make a very big church feel truly intimate.
The screens also convey information to help worshipers participate. As the live feed of the band is projected, so are the lyrics to the music, enabling all to join in. As the speaker quotes a Bible verse, the citation and the text appear on the screens, allowing one to hear and digest the text. There are no awkward or disruptive announcements about where to find the gathering song. There are no hymnals or worship guides to pick up and thumb through. Everything is right in front of the assembly, and the screens help facilitate a seamless transition from one part of the service to the next.
The sound system also serves to facilitate prayer. The words and music are very clear, but never overwhelming. According to Willow Creek publicity material, the sound system was “designed to reflect the sound of the congregation singing while absorbing other audio from the sound system, allowing for better acoustics and worship experiences.”
At first glance, the megachurch appears to be simply mega-entertainment, but Willow Creek has embraced the benefits and possibilities of modern technology and uses them in the service of prayer. Instead of rejecting technical innovations, Willow Creek employs modern means to facilitate the activity and participation of the gathered community. As I reflect back on our visits, I am struck by how rarely our attention was diverted from the service by logistical interruptions.
The Catholic Church can learn much from the success of the many megachurches in our country today. Any community that is able to draw in 24,000 worshipers in a single weekend is clearly doing something right. Yes, there are significant theological and liturgical differences that cannot and, indeed, should not be overlooked. It is evident, though, that Willow Creek has been successful in engaging their worshiping community. Perhaps Catholics can learn from their success.