The Community Church Movement
The January 15, 2001 issue of U.S. News and World Report contained an article titled, "In a Time of Division, an Urge to Merge." The article takes a current look at how the ecumenical movement in America is progressing. The material especially focuses on the "full communion agreement" between the 5. 2 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church and the 2. 5 million member Episcopal Church that occurred in January of 2001. The two religions have agreed to "share clergy and pool other resources." This "merger" was the result of "decades of dialogue, prayer, and politicking" states the foregoing mentioned article. According to many historians, the Ecumenical Movement has been a fiasco. In the case of the just mentioned Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, each religion will retain their own creeds and structures. Hence, the unity is unity in diversity.
Perhaps the greatest success story unfolding in America today relative to unity in diversity and religious merger is the Community Church Movement. The Community Church concept claims to be the answer for all the shameful numerous and divergent extant denominations. Indeed, divergent religion is in direct conflict with the prayer Jesus prayed regarding his followers all being one (Jn. 17: 20, 21). According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the number of denominations throughout the world have surpassed 33, 800, with an average of 10 new ones organized each week.
The numerical success of the Community Church Movement. There is no question as to the numerical success of the Community Church concept. In fact, some are calling the movement a phenomenon. Newsweek featured the Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona that has a "success story" of 6, 000 members in this age of declining membership (August 9, 1993). Many historians consider the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago to be the inception and very impetus of the Community Church Movement. Willow Creek has so phenomenally increased in numbers that I understand the Harvard Business School has prepared a case study on this congregation. Peter Drucker cited Willow Creek in the Harvard Business Review as an example of "what business can learn from non-profits." I am told that over 1, 000 church leaders from all across America travel to Willow Creek each year to learn how to duplicate the Willow Creek Community Church in their cities.
The Willow Creek Community Church. Willow Creek Community Church began in 1975 as an "independent Christian church." They began to meet in a rented theater in the western suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. In 1995, they had mushroomed into a congregation of 21, 000 members. Since Willow Creek is viewed by many as the progenitor of the Community Church Movement, what were the circumstances of their beginning success and what methods did they use?
The plea and methods of Willow Creek, the example church today for many. The members of Willow Creek went into the surrounding neighborhoods and asked people, "Why do you not attend church?" The response they received was fivefold: "(1) Churches are always asking for money, (2) church services were boring and lifeless, (3) church services were predictable, (4) sermons were irrelevant to daily life in the real world, (5) and the preacher made people feel guilty or ignorant, so they leave church feeling worse than when they entered the doors."
Based on the results of their surveys, Willow Creek redesigned the typical American church service. The result was an innovative approach to worship that involved "drama, contemporary music, and sermons designed to make people feel good about themselves. They also began to play down any solicitation or obligation on the part of the people attending to financially contribute. They boast about introducing a "new church" to America. Outreach, a church marketing magazine that is often used by Community Churches to increase their attendance, appeals thus to people in their impact cards (notice the "new church" appeal and the social gospel presentation):
"A new kind of church! If hard pews, boring sermons and rusty hymns have zapped your interest in church, then you've been waiting (your church's name supplied). You'll find electric music, sizzling drama, powerful messages and high-voltage programs for everyone. A new kind of church - shocking, isn't it?"
"Its party time! Join us at North Park Church ., we are hosting a free BBQ and community carnival and, for the adults, a special concert. We'll close the day with a short celebration service featuring a message from an NFL Pro linebacker and a special puppet show for the kids. Please join us for this fun and exciting day ." (To read more about about the appeals used in Outreach, click on "The Concept some have of Church.")
Willow Creek also felt a need to depart from the usual church building architecture. Many of the Community Church buildings now resemble a college campus, with a food court located inside. They typically stress the formation of groups within the church. In these various groups, social matters such as financial counseling, plumbing, and car repair are offered. Hence, the concept of "community church." (To read an exchange pertaining to some of these concepts, click on, "An Exchange on Traditional and Contemporary Worship Services."
The strong appeal, other than the social or community, of the Community church Movement is the emphasizing of inter-denomination or multi-denomination structure. They believe that in them is the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer, "that they all may be one in us" (Jn. 17: 21). However, just as in the "full communion agreement" of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, each member is basically allowed to retain their own particular religious beliefs, just as long as they do not bind them on others.
Some Churches of Christ are now being influenced in addition to traditional denominations. Many of the colleges associated with Churches of Christ are promoting the Community Church Movement in principle as they stress the idea of doctrinal laxity or unity in diversity. Among non-institutional churches of Christ, Florida College has now become a major source of influence as they defend and promote divergence of doctrine and, yet, no severance of fellowship.
Ferrell Jenkins who served as the head of the Bible Department at Florida College for years recently commented on the days of Genesis one controversy (the false position that each day of Genesis one represents a vast period of time), appealing to unity in diversity or doctrine laxity. Hear him:
"Must we decide? There are some respected scholars who have rejected these long ages. I wonder, do we have to decide on this? I mean is it an issue that we really have to say absolutely, we know absolutely that 'I know that this is the correct answer' out of these that are given here? Must we decide?" Ferrell continues by saying, "There are people like that (respected scholars those who use biblically based arguments,'' dm) who have cautioned against dogmatism. They reject the long ages but they simply say that we can't be sure about this" (Speech given by Ferrell Jenkins in the Puckett Auditorium, Florida College Lectures, February 8, 2000). (To read more, click on "The 'Days' of Genesis 1" - a Review.)
Concerned reader, may I suggest that the Community Church Movement is not the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer for unity. Rather, it is another example of a religion that attempts to appeal to the selfishness of the "me generation." It is tailored made for people instead of expecting people to change to please God. May I say politely but candidly, the Community Church Movement cheapens religion by bringing religion down to the level and condition of the worldly; thus, it is of no real benefit to mankind, other than to socially placate and satisfy man's carnal desires. Moreover, the Community Church Movement has politics and doctrinal compromise as its chief and primary premise and cohesive.
Please consider the type of unity taught in the New Testament as expressed by the inspired apostle Paul:
"10: Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (I Cor. 1). Again, "3: Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4: There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5: One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6: One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4). (To read more about biblical unity, click on, "Paul's Platform for Religious Unity.")
When people submit to the authority of God's word, they can and will be truly united (Jn. 17: 8-21;Gal. 1: 6-10; Rev. 22: 18, 19). Until man denies himself and does acquiescence to God, religions such as the Community Church that are designed to appeal to the baser desires of man and yet make him feel religious will continue to flourish. (To read an exchange between a Community Church of Christ preacher and me, click on "Community Church Discussion.")