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.