As usual, the first day of the Willow Creek Association’s Group Life conference was excellent. After a great time of praise and worship, John Burke, pastor of Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas spoke mainly of personal experiences in his pastorate in addressing the issue of why community is an essential part of the church. He used the Biblical examples of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches, and several passages from Paul to point out the demonstrate why humans seek community, why there is a need for it in the church, and how the church is to build it. One of Burke’s recent books, No Perfect People Allowed, is on my books to buy list. The church he pastors is particularly focused on reaching people whose background and past personal history has led them away from the church and the gospel. The small group environment at Gateway involves leadership that is trained to help people become grafted into the church, and make connections with people who will help each other stay connected to Christ and as a result, see real fruit produced. The emphasis is placed on Christ’s words, “apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and his discipleship pastor Heather Zemple, did a tag team presentation related to both their successes and failures in developing a small groups ministry. NCC is known as the “movie theater church” because it was started in the movie theater in Union Station, and continues to meet there, as well as at three other theaters in Washington, all located just steps away from the subway stops. I found their innovative approaches to ministry to be extremely interesting, including their willingness to share some of their “experiments” that were considered failures. They were a great example of the fact that you can stay anchored to the truth of scripture, yet utilize different methods to reach people and disciple them. Batterson essentially said that they train their small group leaders and then “turn them loose to make disciples and build community,” without dictating to them what methods they must use, or enforcing some kind of conformity with regard to their curriculum, as long as it is Biblically sound. They also emphasized the need for innovation and creativity.
One of my favorite lines from this session was Batterson’s statement that “there are ways of doing church that people haven’t even thought of yet.”
There are several things that I really like about Willow Creek Association’s conferences. One is the fact that the conference leaders are all people who have gained a lot of expertise in their field, and much of it has been learned through trial and error. They are not afraid to talk about their failures, in some cases, many failures, before they found something that worked. And there is no attempt at gaining some kind of celebrity status as a result of their success. I’ve never heard anyone at one of these conferences say anything except how grateful they were that God used them to bring something about. The speakers are not there because they have friends in the association’s leadership who are doing them a favor by getting them an engagement to get a nice honorarium, or because they have been around long enough to press enough flesh to become “prominent.” They are people who have committed themselves and their ministry to the Lord, and have come to a point where their desire is to see His desire done.
The conference leaders have also gotten past their fear of trying new things and meeting resistance. Mark Batterson noted today that you will always have people in the church who are against trying anything new. His way around that was to say that what is being tried is “experimental,” and if it works, then consider that God’s blessing of it. If it doesn’t, well, you won’t continue to use it then. There is obviously a freedom to be innovative and creative that exists in a church without a long history, or without the strings of denominational affiliation.