Traditionalist Continuing Anglicans have always known better than to buy into the trendy fads created by re-inventors of the wheel. Therefore, the "Seeker sensitive" movement that came from the Willow Creek "Church" in Illinois has always appeared to us as nothing but another dangerous cult, another false version of Christianity. My friends at the Touchstone website posted a link to a column at Townhall in Mere Comments that tells about the new "shocking confession" by Willow Creek leaders that they have been wrong all along. We could have told them that. The problem is, it seems they still have not learned their lesson. They plan to re-invent their re-invention of the wheel, which is no solution. One of their leaders, Craig Hawkins, came up with this "remedy" to their problem, and all it is is another example of banality:
"Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet."
Everyone from plumbers, to doctors, to generals, knows that to "rethink all of our old assumptions" is to choose the path of unlearning, to un-educate and "dumb down" your own mind. It is to throw away the wealth of knowledge gathered over many years that is essential to doing the job. In Christianity, to "rethink all of our old assumptions" is to create heresy, and to treat the revelation of God in Christ as fraught with errors. The only assumption these "leaders" need to rethink is that they have nothing to learn from those who passed on the Word of God from the apostles until now. Instead of a "clean sheet of paper," these arrogant fools should seek to learn from the many things already written.
They're Protestants. What more can you expect? This re-invention is the cross they must carry until they return Home. The Hindus would say it is their karma.
Pray that as the leaders of Willow Creek consider their future path, they will discover the way Home. By His grace!
Amen, Fr Hart!
But before we chortle too much at the Willow Creekians, it might profit us to look a bit at what they did well, that is, bringing in people. The argument the small group movement uses (or used) is that people today are looking for relationships with other people, our disconnected society leaving most with no human relationships that don't have a keyboard and screen in between. This assumption may still be a valid one. Some Barna polls suggest that's so. So if it is true that there are 30-somethings (for example) out there who are unchurched and for whom the church can provide not only that ultimate relationship with the Almighty but some lesser relationships with those of the household of Faith, well...oughtn't we do what we can to make that connection happen?
Small groups may very well be the way to do that, the way to lure the unchurched in so that they discover their desire for a connection to people is accompanied by a need for a connection to the Holy One.
Small groups do work. Alas, many ministry sites in the continuum are themselves not much more than a small group. Still, wouldn't it profit us to employ what works in the service of what we know is the divinely ordered plan of Christ's One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church? Sure, it's more fun to sit on the sideline and sneer at those who are trying to play, but how about taking the parts of their playbook that work and put them to use?
From the account of the witnesses I know who have seen the Willow Creek "church" in action, it was like a very impersonal shopping mall; no formal worship, a bit of entertainment, a food court where people could buy coffee and pastry while watching "church" on a TV screen, etc.
But, small groups, as Fr. Sutter points out, certainly do work very well. People who may be afraid to come to a service on Sunday will come to social gatherings. The issue becomes one of serious intention to make disciples in the traditional pattern of the Catholic Faith, rather than the "seeker sensitive" fluff. However, Anglicans have had their own version of fluff, such as the trend that took hold of the Episcopal Church long ago to go light on catechesis, to welcome joiners rather than instructing new members.
The problem with the Willow Creek model is that the whole empnasis is 0on sales. In religion, as in consumer products, such an emphasis may indeed result in volume, but often at a loss of attention to the product itself. Note how successuful WalMart has been at selling huge voulmes of products that now need to be recalled. For sales to have any meaning at all, there must be a product worth selling. When the core of the operation is a mostly content-free "seeker-friendly" entertainment program directed at the hearers, rather than a genuine act of worship directed toward God, and when what content there is, even in small-group 'believers meetings', has been subjected to 'rethinking' and dumbing down, then, regardless of the effectiveness of the sales program, there is no worthwhile product to sell.
Yes, there is value in the use of small groups in some places, and for some circumstances, but they simply do not replace the God-ordained structure of a Church whose center is the Sunday Eucharist. The Protestant church I was with for several years attempted several versions of the small group structure over a decade 0or more, with no more than limited success. Why? Sunday's performance (which was better and more informed by some traditional patterns than one usually finds, but still primarily performance) provided what the people thought they wanted, and failed to motivate many of them to look for more.
My gut reaction is that techniques developed by those who feel a need to 'rethink' theology have a high likelihood of having little more value than the theology they produce.
Yes, the Willow Creekians brought people in and built enormous empires. Let's look closer, though -- what kind of Christians have they built?
Both Fr Hart and Ed have added interesting information but neither has really addressed my suggestion: that we Anglican Catholics ought to employ small group methods in service of the Church's mission.
Not that I've taken my own advice. But it is a direction I have a vision to follow: an assortment of small groups meeting with differing frequencies in different places for different ostensible purposes, but all providing venues for the family of God to relate, study, relax, and maybe even grow (although "growth" is not the primary purpose). All the while the Sunday morning Mass is the plenary gathering for the people of God--not for entertainment (shudder) but for the Holy Sacrifice.
Is there a flaw in this? I don't see it, but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Take the words "Willow Creek" out of your mind for a minute and look at it objectively.
I'm not convinced that the construction of small groups for the sake of having small groups does anything measurable to strengthen a church. I've seen it tried too often with results far below the effort it took to make the try. Most people are simply unwilling to participate. Sometimes even there is an unintended divisiveness introduced in this way.
However, encouraging the growth of less intentional small gatherings at various places and times for those who do have a desire for them can help develop a more committed core group and thus a catalyst for the whole church.
My feeling is that a wise pastor watches to see what is really going on, prods a little to encourage the healthy things he sees, and then works to integrate such things into the life of the church, keeping a close eye meanwhile on any tendencies toward cliquishness
I'm very favorable to the existence of small groups within the church, but I tend to be very distrustful, becuase of what I've actually seen, of anything of the sort that is planned enough to be called a small group 'method'.
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