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.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

3 responses

  1. JMatthews says:

    Several years ago, I became a part of a new church plant that came from a home fellowship group setting. Most of the people in the church are from varied denominational backgrounds, but that doesn’t matter. I think we have a better sense of who we are in terms of missional thinking, because we are not hindered by the traditions or distinctives that are held by denominations. Too often, those turn out to be roadblocks to direct progress.

  2. David Lowrie says:

    Lee,

    I resonate with your observations. I served in Wisconsin for “four” winters, and I found a remarkable sense of community among believers from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds.

    The Promise Keepers movement also gave a platform for this kind of unity.

    One common thread in these gatherings are the “common purpose” or vision. Those gathered at Willow Creek were seeking to impact the Kingdom through more effective small group ministries. There were no budgets to approve, no programs to implement, no staff to hire etc… Therefore, there were no positions of “authority” or “power”. I believe too often our steps toward unity are undermined by “power trips”. It happened among the disciples of Jesus, when they began to debate among themselves whom was the greatest.

    I may sound redundant but I believe our Kingdom vision needs to be big enough for “both/and” not “either/or”. I believe there is much we can learn from Willowcreek. For too long we thought wrongly as Baptists that we were the biggest and the best. We may have gotten to big for our own good.

    I realize conventions are messy, and complicated, but they also have the amazing ability to implement massive movements of good when we “do more together” as the saying goes.

    Thank you for helping us to take a good hard look at ourselves and who we can be.

    David Lowrie

  3. Lee says:

    One of the great things about this conference was the schedule. I went up early, on Wednesday morning, just to have a day to relax, enjoy being in Chicago, and to meet some friends over in Indiana for dinner. Thursday and Friday afternoon, the conference ended early enough to enjoy doing some things. On Friday, I drove the 30 miles or so from South Barrington up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for dinner, then I came back across Hyw. 50 to Kenosha, and back down into Chicago on I-94. Wisconsin is an absolutely beautiful place, and the people I’ve met from there are friendly and down to earth. In a friendly sort of way, I envy you your four winters and the time you lived there. Perhaps, some day, God will bless me by allowing me to serve and work in Wisconsin or Michigan and experience some winters. Call me crazy, but I like the idea.

    I soaked in every minute of the conference. But the hook was the worship. The focus was on meeting God, and instead of being the social hour prior to the services, there was a sense of expectation for what God was about to do. The worship teams at Willow Creek have managed, somehow, to shift the focus from their presentation to leading people into a genuine worship experience, and it happened. God showed up. It was powerful.

    During lunch both days, I wound up sitting with Lutherans. On Thursday it was three church staff members from a congregation in Minneapolis, on Friday, it was a staff member and a couple of laypeople from a church in Dallas. You might have already gathered that denominational differences mean little to me. The sense of breaking bread with brothers and sisters came to both tables quickly, and I now have some new friends with whom I can share ideas and even have some good conversation via email or the phone. They were as committed to Christlikeness and missional thinking as any Baptists I’ve met, and seemed much more open to the idea of dropping the barriers created by the labels. In terms of their theology, I think you would be hard pressed to find anything they believe that God would either not be pleased with or which would characterize them as heretics. I know there are a couple of Lutheran churches out there now that I would like to visit.

    I think we deny ourselves some real blessings of the Kingdom by being so denominationally oriented.