Saturday, February 16, 2013

The program trap

It's been a bit more than five years now since Willow Creek Community Church, the seminal megachurch in the Chicago suburbs, released a report of its own investigation of the success (or not) of its church model in filling the church regularly and bringing those who came to the church as "seekers" towards a fuller life of discipleship.  The church leadership was a bit floored by the results.  WCCC could put butts in the seats regularly, no problem there.  What was a problem was that the occupants of those seats were often not satisfied with the church when it came to growing in discipleship.  While the church could shuffle its participants into one of any number of well-tailored programs for activity and for developing a sense of belonging and community, those programs were not fulfilling the task of leading folks towards discipleship.  (Googling "Willow Creek Reveal" or some similar combination will turn up oodles of essays or articles or blogs on the subject.)

Some shoved off for another megachurch more stimulating or satisfying.  Some remained at WCCC, but grew increasingly frustrated.  Some simply dropped out altogether.  (Hearsay has it that a brave few, deciding they needed something that would point them towards a deeper experience of faith, turned to -- shudder -- mainline churches.  Horrors!).

I come neither to praise Willow Creek nor to bury it.  It is commendable that they have the nerve to take such an unflinching look at the lack of fruits of their labor and to be so publicly accountable about it (you can buy the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other such outlets).  Whether they have the resources within them to go the distance that may be necessary to transform their model into one that actually fosters spiritual growth I don't know.  What I am struck by here is that, for all the trappings of newness and "contemporary" style and the perceived willingness to "rethink everything" and transform completely the experience of church in pursuit of those precious seekers, in this respect at least Willow Creek turned out to be anything but contemporary; it was in this one way a very traditional church.

This next paragraph is directed primarily at folks who grew up as a consistent and regular participant in some kind of "traditional" church (i.e. not a contemporary program).  Evangelical, mainline, in between or past either extreme; I'm curious how many of you (and you might have to be of a particular age like for this to hold) had an experience similar to mine, growing up in a sizable downtown church in a prominent evangelical denomination (some of you will recognize which one when I begin to describe the programs).

The nursery is available as soon as one is born of course, but it doesn't take too many years to be channeled into an age-appropriate Sunday School class.  These would be present at every age and stage of development right into one's senior years if one should remain in the church one's entire lifetime.  Since Sunday mornings weren't enough backintheday, one could precede the Sunday evening service with a program called "Church Training."  (I admit I was never completely clear on what the difference was between the two, and this might have been true for the hundreds of others who made it to one but not the other.)  This primary Christian education model, again, was largely made available for every age group found in the church.

If all day Sunday wasn't enough, there were programs to draw one back on Wednesday nights as well.  Frequently a church-wide supper was the principal inducement (it was called "Family Night Supper" back then at this church).  Afterwards a passel of age-appropriate activities might be available.  Adults could be shepherded into a more in-depth Bible study; youth might engage in a kind of mission activity (taking those dinners to the church shut-ins who couldn't come, for example) or possibly a recreation time; children were generally off to their appropriate graded choir.  This, like the Christian education programs, existed all the way up the ladder, from the earliest age children could reasonably be said to "sing" together to a senior adult choir, though not all ages met at the same time.  Adult choir rehearsal finished the evening.  Youth choir typically met on Sunday nights.

Other nights of the week might include more lighthearted fellowship events for adults, a Boy Scouts-lite program called "Royal Ambassadors" (girls had the similar knockoff "Girls in Action") replete with badges and levels of achievement (I still have a bookshelf I built in RA's one year), and possibly specialized events at different times of the year.  Was I a middle-schooler with a competitive streak?  Hey, try "Bible drill" (an exercise in competitive searching for and learning Bible books and passages -- second place in the state of Georgia in 1980, baby -- by just one point!).  When you outgrew that you could try the speaker's tournament, in which one was encouraged to develop and deliver an original essay on some religious subject.  I always presumed this was supposed to be some means of identifying future preachers, but I never did get into it -- I think I was burned out after Bible drill.

In the face of so many demands on a person's time outside the church, I don't know how many churches successfully maintain such an intensive program model today.  For me, the time tension only became particularly difficult in high school, as I began to participate in activities like band or drama club that made their own schedule demands.

So yes, I was the product of a pretty thorough program of church activities by the time I headed off to college.  And when I did...I completely foundered.  I had no idea what I was doing.  What I had developed was acres and acres wide, but perhaps a half-inch deep.  I knew a lot of Bible verses and could remember a lot of Bible stories, but getting from that memorized knowledge into something that animated a more profound and vital faith was quite beyond me.  In fact, thanks to a few youth retreats spread out across my junior-high and high-school years, if anything I had the idea that a "real" faith involved some sort of highly emotionalized experience of undefined religious passion, something I could not generate on my own and that subsequent experiences of which were progressively less satisfying or edifying.

I wonder how many others had experiences like mine.  Or how many others had a different experience; one in which they were conditioned to be perfectly receptive vessels for whatever instruction or direction or, dare I say, propaganda the pastor might decide to impart at a given time.  Persons who could follow the program to a "t" but had not a whit of intellectual or spiritual initiative or even capacity for original insight.  Mind you, some churches or denominations thrive on this kind of member, but on the whole I'm not sure it benefits the church as a whole merely to spit out cogs for the ever-growing and ever-grinding machine.  Or maybe others you might be able to describe.  And I'm sure there there are many who came out of such program-oriented churches with something like a mature and working faith.

Programs are not inherently bad.  If a particular program can be a means to induce a newbie to move beyond initial enthusiasms and into a process of study, prayer, and service that leads to actual spiritual growth and maturing, and surrounds that person with fellow pilgrims for support and nurture, it can be quite possibly be a good thing.  A program is not, by itself, enough, no matter if you're at First Ultra-Traditional Church or Happy Happy Rock-n-Roll Church.

So what, then?  A church that points to the world that Christ demands we serve; that worships God in a way that engages our profound need to worship what is far greater and deeper than any comfy box we can devise for it; that confronts its members with the whole church, in all its glory and tarnish, rather than pretending to be a new and separate thing; and that prods each person towards a life engulfed in prayer, meditation upon the Word, listening intently to silence, letting mystery be mystery, and holding each other accountable for that terrifying and exhilarating pilgrimage.

Good luck finding a program for that.

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