Worship at Willow Creek: Lessons from a megachurch

Crowd Sourcing: Sunday service at the 7,000-seat Willow Creek Community in South Barrington, Ill.

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.

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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.

Rethinking Participation

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.”

Everyday Music

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.

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Mike Evans
4 years 8 months ago
Too many of our Catholic celebrations are strictly constipated and overly restricted to 'what the red ritual says.' If one attends one of these evangelical celebrations, one cannot help but be impressed and inspired and moved. We should not throw stones at what we do not understand. And couldn't we find room for these non-eucharistic assemblies in our own cathedrals and parishes? Maybe it is time to found an 'order of charismatics'.
Ronald Foust
4 years 8 months ago
Here is the www site for one Catholic parish that has adopted many characteristics of an evangelical church. http://churchnativity.tv They continue to grow and incorporate the active participation of the parishioners. They have had to move their Christmas service to the Maryland fairgrounds. The 2013 Christmas worship had 8,000 participants. At the same time they have not abandoned the most important elements of the Catholic liturgy.
Mike Van Vranken
4 years 8 months ago
Thank you for being open and sharing your experience Laurie. Please continue to spread your message. There is certainly a place for engaging our worshipping community in the ways you have described. Praise God!
George Trejos
4 years 8 months ago
You will find that many Catholic Churches are already embracing this style of worship. Sadly it is not typically found in the Northeast or other northern climate places. When we travel to southern places, many churches there incorporate those positive aspects that you speak of. The reference provided earlier by another contributor tells of the experience of a parish near Baltimore that purposefully adopted practices from our evangelical brethren and is thriving. The book about their experience is called 'REBUILT'. It is well worth the read.
Andrew Di Liddo
4 years 8 months ago
I have been to Willow Creek when I was a fallen away Catholic living in Chicago. I went there once, on an Easter Sunday. When I came home to the Catholic Church after a strong conversion, I worked at learning our liturgy and re-catechized myself because as John Paul II wrote, for many adults, their catechesis as children was ineffective or incomplete. In an area of Ohio where I now live there are some Willow Creek type wannabe churches. I have attended with Protestant friends at these churches and observe the pentecostal type of worship is seeping into nearby/proximal parishes. When attending Mass at parishes in proximity to these churches, I notice more vibrant singing and much more vibrant participation. For some of us, it takes us time to learn how to praise boldly and worship boldly. If we learn it from our Protestant friends instead of from Catholics, so be it, let it be.
ed lucie
4 years 8 months ago
Music is much more powerful and important than most realize. The narrow, traditional role of music in the Mass has driven many, many from the Church. The organ, the old hymns, the mundane music in the parts of the Mass are not being sung by the people. This is not news, and the control that a handful of people hold over music in the Church prevents any change, progress or variations.
Andrew Di Liddo
4 years 8 months ago
My Protestant friends who come to Mass at times often ask me why is it that Catholics cannot sing?
Paul Ferris
4 years 8 months ago
A great article. I think if all the Christian churches found a way to appreciate diversity within unity, a lot of these issues of worshiping at various churches would be alleviated. As noted in the comments, there are some Catholic Churches who have begun to worship with the help of a "praise band." I was amazed at how everyone at Our Lady of the Fields in Gambrills MD worshiped on Sunday at 6PM liturgy using this style of worship. Everyone even young kids were participating enthusiastically in the music. I watched the altar boys and altar girls singing as the processed and recessed out of liturgy. I received communion from high school students who served as Eucharistic ministers. Ironically after attending the liturgy for a few weeks, I went back and appreciated more the standard liturgy in another parish. I cannot help adding that the recent changes in verbiage in responses such as, " and with your spirit" instead of "and with you", "consubstantial with the Father: instead of "of one being with the Father" and "not worthy to enter under your roof" instead of "not worthy to receive You" etc. etc. seem trivial to me as a believing worshiper. Not the kind of changes in liturgy to inspire greater participation in the "font and summit" of the Eucharistic worship.
john andrechak
4 years 8 months ago
Paul, I agree with you regarding the recent changes in verbiage, though I find them more troublesome then trivial; "consubstantial"? please
Bruce Snowden
4 years 8 months ago
I like the enfleshed, not just theoretical communality of evangelical worship, a kind of "people count" mentality, which I've noticed in practice at Catholic Masses in South Carolina and Georgia all liturgically correct. At the First Mass in the Upper Room the Gospels tell us that Jesus and his Apostles "reclined" at table. The word "recline" means, "to assume a recumbent position," or to "lie or lay down or back." Despite the looming horror soon to happen, that First Mass must have been a very relaxed liturgy with singing as the Gospels say with the principal celebrant and the eleven co celebrants and faithful throughout that "church" probably resting on the elbows. The pattern set was not recognized and we know the results, some good, some bad.
J Cosgrove
4 years 8 months ago
As far as I know there is nothing comparable in terms of size in the US for Catholics. I have participated a few times at large outdoor Masses, a couple times in sports stadiums, but nothing that is like this every week. However, I have been to Mass a couple times in recent years where the church held close to a thousand people or more and have to say it was a very positive experience. There was good music and song as well full pews. These were large parishes that had combined surrounding parishes to establish sort of a super parish. There seemed to be more vibrancy than in neighboring parishes around where I live and the activity level in the parish was much higher. There is an attempt to combine parishes in the New York archdiocese and it is something that should have been done years ago. A lot of schools could have remained open instead each parish fought for their personal fiefdom and the result is most ended up closed. Going to Mass with a thousand people in the pews has been an uplifting experience the couple times I have participated but I believe going to Mass every weekend with 7-10 thousand might not be. Also with the reduced number of priests the large participation Masses would help solve that problem. Gone for now are the days when priests needed side altars and chapels just to say Mass once a day.
Paul Ferris
4 years 8 months ago
Evangelism churches often claim they are non denominational which appeals to people who are from churches like Catholicism, Lutherans, and Anglicans. They do deemphasize doctrines. They also are very anti gays and actively preach against it unlike what I call mainline churches. It seems to me that they are so similar in their approach I see them as a denomination. I cannot speak for Willow Creek because I have never attended their services. Sometimes Catholic liturgy is boring but a lot of that has to do with the lack of appreciation for doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation or the doctrinal history of the church, especially the Early Church. After Judaism, Catholicism is the oldest tradition in the West,. We need not apologize for it. A better understanding of church can come from reading the late Avery Dulles' classic, Models of the Church. Finally we all have the problem of carrying over what we say we believe on Sunday to the rest of the week.
DONALD CRAWFORD
4 years 8 months ago
It is unfortunate that Laurie has not had the chance to attend a Life Teen parish. St. Timothy Catholic Community in Mesa, AZ, was the home of Life Teen and from about the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, she would have experienced this sort of worship. Some people liked it and some did not. Worship was full, active and conscious participation. We had some of the best music ministers in the world - lead by Tim and Julie Smith, but with Tom Booth and Matt Maher, supported by Ike Ndolo, Dave Burba, Carl Hergesel, and many times visiting musicians like Rich Mullins, Kathy Troccoli and the like. It was a vibrant parish with 5,000 to 5,500 families; 17,000 to 25,000 parishioners. While it was not a wealthy parish, though some thought it was, it was a giving parish. The weekend collection was usually $100,000. Not many parishes see that. It was the first parish and only parish in the diocese to break $500,000 for the Bishop's Charity and Development Appeal and then it did over $700,000 the next year. Yet, you wouldn't find a more Catholic parish. Every weekend we had people visiting from all over the world... and from next door. Parishioners came from all over the greater Phoenix area and some outlying communities to participate in the vibrant worship. St. Timothy was an example of what CAN be done in Catholic worship. More about Life Teen here: http://lifeteen.com/

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