I spent this past Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning at the small groups conference at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Like most conferences, there is too much information presented to be able to write about the conference as a whole. It was informative, definitely worth the trip and the time invested, and a valuable experience. I’d just like to make a few observations about a few things.
It was somewhat refreshing, no, it was very refreshing, to be at a conference where there were more people from Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota than from the South. It may come as a surprise to people from Texas and from the South in general to know that there are conservative, evangelical Christians in other denominations who have ideas, practical experience, a spiritual call to ministry service, and viable congregations with spiritual vitality that exist outside of the eleven states of the old Confederacy.
We Baptists make a great fuss about Baptist unity. But when you come to an event like this, with people from non-denominational churches, and from two dozen different denominational backgrounds, you find that there really is a lot of unity in the body of Christ, and a lot of interest in getting beyond the human reasoning and wisdom that divides, to the spiritual depth that unifies. God works in and through people who don’t attend Baptist churches. When you are in a room full of people from everywhere, and the one thing you have in common is being Christ’s people, and you are desiring to be on mission, those little denominational “distinctions” that we find to be so all consuming and so important dissolve like sugar in a cup of coffee. I ran into Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, non-denominationals of all types and varieties who all had the Spirit of Christ in common and a desire to invest in the lives of lost people. In light of how big the task is, it would seem that the exclusive games that Baptists love to play around power and control are petty and silly. Thankfully, there are some Baptists who see the pettiness in separating themselves from brothers and sisters who have Christ as their savior in common and the missional purpose of the church as a priority. They came to this conference.
A Willow Creek conference doesn’t look Baptist. When Baptists get together in large numbers, they are recognizeable. They are usually overdressed, conservatively coiffed and for the most part over 60. Looking around the room at Willow Creek, jeans were the most common form of dress, with tshirts, polos and a few mock-t’s (well, it was kind of chilly), a number of people wore shorts, and tennis shoes and sandals were the most common form of footwear. There were some over-60’s in the group, but I’d bet that 80% of the gathering was 40-something, with a good representation of 30’s and 20’s scattered around.
There was no need to elect officers, determine the level of importance of people in the room, or have any other kind of social separation system. This group of people, in table conversations and in seminar groups, was focused on how to make a small groups ministry missionally effective and relationally successful in their church for the purpose of discipleship and evangelism. Period. I didn’t recognize the name of a single conference leader, those who led seminars or general sessions were people who have worked behind the scenes for years in small groups ministry. They were chosen as teachers because of their success in the field, not their fame. Even those who had published works in the field were far more concerned with getting their ideas into your hands than they were with marketing and selling their books and materials.
Granted, this was a conference, not a convention. The people here are leaders of small group ministries in their churches, and that is their focus. They came to learn, to listen, to improve their leadership ability and to get inspired about continuing to lead when they return. They were not disappointed.
It appears that God is, in some places at least, moving his church together in spirit, and walls are coming down. If Christians from different backgrounds and different places can come together in such unity, perhaps Baptists are wasting their time trying to achieve some kind of unity within their own context, and should focust those efforts instead on getting along with other Christians, to achieve some sort of Christian unity.