Righting America

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The Willow Creek Lie | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger

Photo of Willow Creek Community Church filled with people watching a choir on the stage with multiple TVs behind the choir.
An expansive view of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church

In the summer of 1979, just before I began attending Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois, I was convinced by my best friend to start going with her to Son City, a popular youth program run by what was then the less than four-year-old Willow Creek Community Church. In those days, the youth program  met at the YMCA in Palatine and those Thursday night gatherings were intense, especially for a teen growing up in the exurbs of the “Greater Chicagoland Area.”

Hundreds of young people would show up and quickly join their particular color-coded team. I was on the Navy Team. And, weather permitting, we would gather outside for some competitive game. Often the games had some kind of athletic component, but even if you weren’t an athlete (I sure wasn’t), you could participate and imagine you were half decent. Teams would earn points depending on how well they did in those competitions.

After that, we would head into the gym at the YMCA where rows and rows of folding chairs had been set up along with a temporary stage. We would find our seats with the other members of our team and stand and clap and sway as the praise band and vocalists (its members were like rock stars to us) on stage led us in singing what I came to know as “contemporary Christian music.” 

After a few songs, a cartoon appeared on a screen that offered up some biblical lesson, then a few members of the youth ministry team would perform a dramatization of another biblical lesson, then the lights would be dimmed and the room would go quiet. And it was time for “the message.” This is when the youth pastor preached.  But we didn’t think of it as preaching because it was very warm and accepting and encouraging. And hip.

By the fall of my freshman year, I was part of the “Core” of my team. That meant that I attended additional weekly gatherings at the home of the Navy Team Core leader. Among other things, we memorized Bible verses. That was another way to rack up points for your team. Winning teams were recognized at the Thursday night gatherings. And, of course, it was a thrill to win! 

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was attending weekly Core meetings, Son City gatherings on Thursday nights, and church at the Willow Creek movie theater on Sunday mornings. I even joined the massive choir that sang at various special worship services. I was, to put it simply, all in.

Then one summer evening, I showed up at Son City. We did the usual sporty-competitive thing to start and then gathered to sing contemporary Christian songs. We gazed upon and thought about the cartoon. We contemplated the drama. We thought about the message that the youth pastor had brought to us. And then . . .  something unexpected happened.

As the youth pastor’s message came to a close, he issued what I learned years later was an altar call. He had the lights turned off so that we were sitting in the dark. And he asked us two questions: Had Jesus come to us? And if Jesus had come to us, were we ready to commit our lives to Him? 

At this point, I am all of 16 years. And while I had prayed nightly and read the Bible (not really knowing how to make heads or tails of it) I knew for sure that Jesus had not come to me. If he had, I was certain that I would have remembered it. You don’t blank on a visit from Jesus. 

The odd thing about the altar call was that, unlike typical altar calls, if you could say yes to both questions you got to leave the gym. If you couldn’t, then you had to stay and sit in the dark on your little plastic folding chair. So, I sat. 

And I sat. And then I thought—this is ridiculous. Obviously, despite my years at Son City and Willow Creek, Jesus had not seen fit to show up and ask me to follow Him. He’d had at least two years. That would seem like plenty of time. So, I deduced, I was not worth the effort. I clearly did not pass the Jesus test. I walked out of the Palatine YMCA, past all of the ecstatic, weeping chosen for whom other weeping chosen were praying. And I never went back.

Clearly forsaken by Jesus, I did not cross the threshold of a church for something like a decade. And when I finally did, it was only with enormous trepidation. I didn’t need to learn a second time that Jesus couldn’t be bothered with the likes of me.

This is the thing with so-called seekers churches. Their pastors look hip (their haircuts are amazing!), they give a super cool vibe, they love you, Jesus loves you, God loves you. 

And then at some point the hammer comes down. And that’s when you find out that a few are in. And most are out. And those who are out are going to burn in hell for eternity. 

That is the failure of the megachurch model. It’s built on a lie. You are ushered into the megachurch on the promise that God loves you. And then, at some point, you have to confront the counterpoint. If you deviate at all from their expectations for your religious conversion, your sexuality, your relationship to the state, your thoughts on free-market capitalism, your feelings about patriarchy . . . you are out. 

As one who seeks to serve the Messiah who died for us even when we were sinners, this seems not only duplicitous. 

It seems a lie.