Special Report: Reinventing Synagogue
May 23, 2008
Willow Creek’s Young Voices
GenerationNext struggles with new ways to forge a spiritual identity.Alan H. Feiler
Final installment of a three-part series on the Chicago area’s Willow Creek Community Church
South Barrington, Ill.
In a coffee shop called Dr. B’s in the shopping mall-like atrium of Willow Creek Community Church, five young men — ranging in age from 18 to their late 20s — sat in plush lounge chairs shortly before services and chatted about their personal journeys to God.
But the men, who looked more like members of a grunge rock band than parishioners at a suburban mega-church, peppered their conversations with jokes, laughter, camaraderie and pledges of devotion to Willow Creek’s philosophy.
“This is my church, even if I don’t agree with everything here,” said Russell Reimer, 27. “I feel like I’m part of a team here.”
While Willow Creek is nationally known as a successful business model — and for its contemporary music and low-key, high-tech approach to worship — the young men admitted, for their tastes, the 33-year-old, non-denominational evangelical church is a bit too oriented toward the “Baby Boom” generation than their own. They are all members of Axis, Willow Creek’s outreach ministry for congregants between 18 and 30.
“The music is good here,” said Andrew Cholewa, 20, “but I like the old hymns.” Added Rob Gorman, 18: “We can get [rock music] anytime and anywhere in the world. But the hymns are fresh. You don’t hear them on the radio. The older people are trying to fit into the modern world, but they’re not really fitting in.”
Mr. Reimer agreed. “We’re in a huge mid-shift in generations,” he said. “The younger generation wants some return to the roots in religion. That’s why I love meeting in a house on Tuesdays [for Bible study and worship] more than coming here on the weekends [for services]. It’s more organic and less show business, like the early Christians, not a corporate structure. That’s a turnoff to a lot of younger people.
“Churches, as a whole, are trying to bring young people in without knowing what we want,” Mr. Reimer said. “But then, at the same time, you can’t pamper us.”
That kind of contradiction and sense of confusion about what they truly desire from a religious institution is not uncommon among members of “GenerationNext,” according to Axis director Jon Peacock.
“We are seeing that this generation and the one coming up are the hardest-to-reach generations,” he said. “God is abstract to them, and there are a lot of misconceptions about church in general.”
Mr. Peacock, 28, largely attributed the generation’s lack of “reachability” to the pervasiveness of divorce in recent decades. “Family life in this country has declined,” he said. “So our generation is skeptical of authority because our authorities — our parents — messed up.”
Mr. Peacock said Axis attempts to attract young people by identifying their interests and hobbies, “and then we bring an eternal value to it. We bring God into it, in a loving way and not heavy-handed. People often come here because they are seeking God and asking questions. But when people are not, you have to rethink things. So Axis is trying to rethink and re-imagine all of this.”
Part of that re-imagining might mean shaking up the works at places like Willow Creek, despite its success in attracting more than 25,000 worshippers to services every weekend.
“What needs to happen is that for this generation, the weekends [at church] have to be different than what’s on YouTube or on your iPod,” Mr. Peacock said. “They don’t necessarily want [contemporary rock band] Cold Play in church. Our generation isn’t going to be impressed by that. Sometimes, it might mean something liturgical. But they want a connection, to be part of something.”
And they want that connection in a small, intimate and authentic manner while enjoying the accouterments, resources and benefits of a large, corporate structure, say Mr. Peacock and the Axis members.
Despite being situated on a large campus in a facility easily mistaken for a corporate headquarters, Willow Creek tries to provide intimacy and fellowship by constantly creating home meeting opportunities, hobby and special interest “affinity groups,” and other off-site spiritual, social justice and non-sectarian alternatives.
“You don’t have to go through life in the classic [church] way,” said Mr. Cholewa. “You can come here and start a mountain bike or rock-climbing group, and be together. [Willow Creek is] organic in that way.”
For the Axis members interviewed for this article, Willow Creek is a good fit for their spiritual and communal needs, although they envision a time when a return to some aspects of “old school” Christianity might creep in.
“It just has to be real,” said Mr. Gorman. “You have to see people living what they truly believe.”
Said Mr. Cholewa: “We grew up with the Internet, and that exposed us to a lot of sickness in our world. So when we find out what’s true, we have a stronger devotion to it, because we’ve struggled with it.”
Terry Mattingly, a Linthicum-based religion writer and academic who focuses on contemporary Christianity, compared today’s generational shift in religion to the Reform movement’s embrace of tradition in recent years.
“With Orthodoxy, they say the faith should change you, not that you change the faith,” said Mr. Mattingly. “Now, you even have Reform Jews talking about [tradition and rituals]. So everybody’s struggling with this, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.”