Two Strange Gifts That Working at a Mega Church Gave Me

For one strange reason or another, my first full-time ministry job (or part-time ministry job, for that matter) was at Willow Creek Community Church, at the time one of the largest churches in North America. At the time Willow was (and still is, in many ways) the flagship of the Evangelical, mega-church world. The statistics are probably old, but I do remember doing 12 Easter services over two days; we had a “conference season” during which we hosted a Small Groups Conference, Student Ministries Conference, Arts Conference, the Church Leadership Conference and, eventually, the Global Leadership Conference.

It was crazy, and tremendously exciting.

Looking back now, I’m struck with how that time at Willow (I worked for their “Axis” ministry, one of the first GenX/post-modern/post-college gatherings in North America) shaped me. I definitely internalized “The Willow Way” in regards to excellence and leadership, but I also received a couple of very different gifts that have significantly impacted my approach to ministry since.

Platform

Before I had 2 years of leading a worship ministry under my belt, I was teaching at Willow’s Arts Conference; before I really knew what post-modern worship was (do I know now?), I was conducting seminars and trying to help other pastors “figure it out.” Though practically all of us at Axis were wet behind the ears and learning to do ministry on the run, hundreds and hundreds of leaders from around the world sought us as experts. Though we were very vocal with our ignorance, and very up front with the idea that we were also just trying to figure things out, we also didn’t shy away from the attention.

In addition, I personally fielded invitations to come and lead worship at a variety of different camps, conferences and other churches. Again, I was honest enough to be somewhat humbled at the invitations given my inexperience, but I still accepted what I could and was privileged to lead in these different environments.

In short, Willow’s reputation within the evangelical world (again, well-deserved in almost all respects) was such that we were perceived as insightful experts on ministry. People listened to what we had to say; they paid attention the questions we were asking (because a good post-modern only asks the questions; never answers them).

In short, we were given a platform, and a pretty big one at that.

For the years that I taught and led around the Willow circle, it was amazing. But over time, I realized that it’s very easy to mistake having a platform for being a pastor. Platform and ministry can get so dangerously intertwined that when one diminishes, you start to question your effectiveness in the other. If you’re not careful, you start to believe that doing ministry equals having a platform, or somehow entitles you to be an expert. What’s more, in my case at least those invitations and opportunities began to feed an unhealthy ego, and I began to believe that I was entitled to have a voice. Rather than seeking an opportunity to serve my local community, I was raging with the thought that I was “too special” to be contained in only one church: I deserved to be traveling, to be playing at conferences and festivals.

This was about as far from Jesus as you can get.

Eventually, the platform went away. As “Willow Creek” moved lower and lower on my resume, the invitations came less and less frequently, and it was actually pretty depressing, until I came to realize what most people know already:

That practically every pastor in the world simply does his or her work, week in and week out, with no expectation of a platform:

  • no speaking engagements
  • no article writing
  • no leading seminars
  • no perception of being “an expert”

… and this is okay. 

I’m pretty embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. Being a pastor does not mean you are an “expert” in ministry. It means that you’re a shepherd, trying to help people navigate their life in an effective, gospel-shaped and meaningful way.

Downward Mobility

The first strange gift from being on staff at Willow—or rather its loss—would have been difficult to navigate had it not been for the second gift.

In the process of becoming a member at Willow, Shana and I received a workbook to fill out that contained many of the values and principles that Willow sought to embody.

In its pages had a statement that we were charged with embracing and embodying as Willow Creek members:

“I will embrace the idea downward mobility as a way of life.” 

(Or something very similar to that.)

Wrap your heads around that for just a moment.

This mega church in the affluent Northwest suburbs of Chicago was asserting that the normal way of life for a follower of Christ was to embrace, not affluence and “prosperity”, but generosity and even poverty.

I have never, ever seen this statement in any other church membership material. Ever. 

For all of its reputation of “easy spirituality” and “cheap grace,” Willow was advocating a much more radical discipleship, and that statement has haunted me ever since I read it. It’s a simple assumption that every new ministry opportunity should be bigger, or more prestigious, than the last, but that short little sentence and concept reminds me that this was not the model of Jesus’ ministry. 

His ministry ended up with him being deserted by all of his followers and dying alone.

True downward mobility.

(Note that I am not saying all “up-and-to-the-right” ministry paths are bad; I’m just saying that you can’t evaluate success or failure this way.)

Obviously, this second gift made putting the first gift into context a bit easier. It was still difficult, but over time it made more and more sense. These days, I feel like I’m still doing “recovery work” from the first gift, and doing the difficult and challenging work of staying engaged with a community over the long haul. I’ve been blessed to do a couple of things here and there outside my church, but I can no longer pretend to be an expert on anything, and that’s really okay. Frankly, my spirit is much healthier when there are none.

Lastly, let me say that there were other gifts that I got from Willow as well: a baptism, a mentor, a vision for ministry, amazing friends and colleagues, the opportunity to be a part of a truly great team, to work under an amazing leader (and to see other amazing leaders work as well), and many, many others.

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10 thoughts on “Two Strange Gifts That Working at a Mega Church Gave Me

  1. This concept of “Downward Mobility” is not only helpful to pastors but the lay leaders in a church and other Christ Followers. I wish I had known this concept as a child; instead I was taught a “rosy” type concept, that everything was going to be alright if I followed Christ. I probably would not have turned away from God as a “Tween” if I had known this concept; thank God, He never left me even when I left Him. Please elaborate more on this, Eric.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kim. “Downward mobility”, as I understood it, was simply the though that we should never assume that every job or season (whether in ministry or not) should always be better, bigger, more profitable, or more prestigious. We should always think about where God wants us to go, and there are plenty of examples in Scriptures where God leads people into places that are actually really difficult and challenging.

  2. I guess I’m a bit confused as to the “Downward Mobility” metaphor in comparison to Jesus’ life as to the fact that He rose from the dead; it did not end downward. It makes sense in context to the first should be last and the last shall be first, “seek the seat at the lowest point of the table so you may be exalted and brought to the higher seat.” The definition of a great leader is one who serves and be-littles themselves so others may grow and lead. If it ends in a downward direction where is the restoration and renewal of the self and others? it can take the dangerous step of self-harm if we do not remind ourselves why we are seeking low positions instead of a higher positions. Being perfectly honest I believe this can only be done in the heart and mind, and in small actions that may be left for a “volunteer”. Example: Unless you physically see a “lead” pastor in a mega-church stepping down from their stage “platform” or position “platform; I feel like there is a clear distinction between the two. For a “lead” pastor to step down from their stage “platform” means to literally drop out of their roll as a “pastor” without forcing themselves out by falling out to the temptations of money, sex, or power. For a “lead” pastor to step down from their position “platform” would be for them to take up actions that would be left for a “volunteer” such as being a greeter or being a bulletin fridge fold maker every week. Overall I believe there is a strong need for more Christians to step into the life of a shepherd/encourager in their communities vs. a “church” institution ordaining and labeling certain individuals as them. Creates a spiritual gap that I don’t fully believe God desires for us although it is clear certain individuals in scripture “shine” more than others. This has more to do with faithfulness than position. There are far too many people who have a weak understanding of their renewal in Christ Jesus. They believe the shepherding job is for the pastor and not for them. I do want to mention that I still believe there is a roll and need for “labeled” pastors, some more than others need to push themselves off of their pedestals metaphorically speaking of course.

    • Great thoughts Eric … “Downward Mobility”, as I understood it, was simply to not fall into the trap that we should always seek the bigger, more comfortable life. Whether in ministry or not, it’s easy to always assume that next job or season that we embrace will be bigger, better, more prestigious. I just don’t think that’s ALWAYS the case.

      And yes, Jesus did rise from the dead, but his teaching also clearly advocated “taking up your cross”, which in that culture meant taking up a symbol of being an outcast, a criminal. In a way, it was the ultimate “downward mobility.” Also, it can be understood in the sense of the “kenosis”, or “emptying” of God (as referenced in Philippians 2:5-8), where God has to voluntarily “empty” himself or set aside his glory in order to participate in our life. It’s amazing to fathom.

      Finally in regards to people needing to understand renewal, if I understand you correctly I completely agree with you. People need to take ownership of their journey of transformation and growth.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. This is encouraging to read given my present situation. I’ve begun pondering what life will be like post the mega-church world. I’ve learned so much from this place and it is very much helping me discover the kind of culture I want to cultivate wherever I go, but I start to get nervous when I think about the expectation that can be assumed upon students who come from this place. We don’t spend two or three years behind a magic curtain and come out “experts” at anything. We spend two to three years in spiritual open heart surgery and come out with a (hopefully) healthy approach to how to love and care for the bride of Christ. “It means that you’re a shepherd, trying to help people navigate their life in an effective, gospel-shaped and meaningful way.” <–This is very true. It's encouraging to see the things you instilled in me at E3 being echoed here on the other side of the world. You're doing good, brother E 🙂

    • Thanks Syd! Appreciate your comments, and so glad you’re experiencing amazing things in Australia. Can’t wait to see you again sometime. 🙂

  4. Thank you, Eric, for a fantastic article. Kyle Dillard pointed me to this, and I’m thankful he did.

    I encountered the ugly side of the “platform” when I was asked to speak at the last Arts Conference in 2009 that Willow hosted. The “ugly” side has nothing to with Willow, its leadership, or the the team that put it on – the “ugly” side came from interactions with other speakers.

    When I sat down to talk with a number of other speakers for the conference, several of them learned it was my first time to do so, and they were trying to coach me on how to get “in” to this. They used words like “expanding your ministry” and “stretching the stage” of what I did to a more national level – and they used these words as if this was the measuring stick of success in the Kingdom.

    I’ve also been deeply touched by the the second “gift” in your article. I’ve come across very few churches who are as bold in their generosity as Willow.

    Thanks for the reminder that our expertise is unimportant compared to our willingness to smell like sheep.

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