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The ladder

20 November 2008

Notes from a Common-place Book: Rudderless Christianity posts an interesting report from the Willow Creek Community Church, which I gather is an evangelical megachurch somewhere in the USA.

The most disturbing and widely publicized finding of “Reveal,” Willow Creek Community Church’s years-long exercise in consultant-directed self-analysis, was that a significant percentage of the members who have profited most from its ministry, have moved forward along its continuum of measurement for spiritual growth (tithing, serving, and evangelizing), are dissatisfied and thinking of leaving.

A more amenable result to the church, of course, would be that the dissatisfied are the less rather than the more mature Christians, but Willow Creek has discovered that the more advanced a person becomes by its own measures of spirituality, the more likely it is he is thinking of going elsewhere.

I found this interesting because it confirmed something I discovered that we first joined the Orthodox Church back in the mid-1980s. It seemed then that some of the best and most effective and enthusiastic people in the Orthodox Church had taken a detour through the Rhema Church, or Christian City, or the (then) Hatfield Baptist Church — all of them Neopentecostal megachurches.

And someone used an image that seemed to fit this situation — that the Orthodox Church was like a ladder with the bottom four rungs missing. It was not very good at teaching the basics of the Christian faith, at least not in the South Africa of the 1980s, and probably not today either. And so many Orthodox Christians, who had been brought up in Orthodox families, went on a detour to the neopentecostal mega churches, which were like a ladder that had the bottom four rungs, but nothing further up. Only after they had been to the neopentecostal churches for the milk did they appreciate the treasures of Orthodoxy and come back for the meat.

climaxAs children they had gone to church and heard services in Greek, led by expatriate priests from Greece or Cyprus or Turkey, who could often speak little English. So they had gone to church and dutifully kissed the ikon of Christ without knowing who he was. And then they had gone to one of the neopentecostal churches and had personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and then things that had been an incomprehensible jumble of impressions began to fall into place. And when they had climbed the bottom four rungs of the ladder maybe three or four times, they felt the need to go higher, and returned to Orthodoxy, and perhaps began to read The Ladder of St John Climacus, and to go “further up and further in” as C.S. Lewis puts it.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristen M permalink
    20 November 2008 7:07 am

    I very much like this analogy. I had always made a similar point by saying that if an evangelical megachurch is like a hamburger, the orthodox church is like a banquet table of innumerable courses. Both get you fed, but one is distinctly *more*.

  2. 20 November 2008 3:13 pm

    Facinating observation. Get’s me thinking in a whole new direction.

  3. 20 November 2008 3:15 pm

    It’s significant that Willow Creek would publish such findings. WC was one of the first of the modern mega-churches and one which many others modeled themselves after. In some sense, with WC essentially admitting failure, it’s a self-judgment of the whole genre. Unfortunately, the response will probably not be to look toward historic Christianity but rather to a refining of the marketeering.

  4. 20 November 2008 5:18 pm

    Fr Andrew,

    Just a guess, but perhaps their ecclesiology might allow them to see themselves as a way-station for people on their way somewhere else?

  5. 20 November 2008 5:19 pm

    This is very interesting. Willow Creek is in a suburb of Chicago and they have started a satellite church downtown. This self-analysis has been going on for some time. Though I hadn’t seen this report before. It fits with what I have long seen in most mega churches. But it makes sense WC and the mega church model are using the “seeker sensitive” model. So the church is at best oriented towards providing milk, or towards getting people started up the ladder.
    Not sure what this means for WC or for mega churches in general, but it is a little gratifying to see there own self study confirm what I have been seeing from the beginning and what has seemed self-evident, this particular attempt at church simply is at best milk of the faith with no meat, at worst no real spiritual nourishment at all.

  6. 20 November 2008 5:29 pm

    One of the automatically generated links to this post did lead to a post that described some of the things that Willow Creek was doing about the report, which you can find here. Those links often change, so I thought I’d make it permanent by adding it to a comment.

  7. 21 November 2008 5:36 am

    Priestly Goth,

    Yes, I can see how some megachurches could be described as “seeker-sensitive”, though perhaps only for certain classes of seeker. One of the things I find a bit difficult about the “emerging conversation” is that people involved in it seem to contast “attractional” and “missional”, and to regard “attractional” and “seeker-sensitive” as being synonymous.

    Orthodoxy tends to be “attractional”, in the sense of saying “come and see”, but decidedly not “seeker sensitive”, especially not in the diaspora variety, which tends to major on nostalgia for the “old country”, and so is exotic, though being exotic appeals to certain classes of seekers too.

  8. 22 November 2008 2:19 am

    Well, if we had a poll, I’d vote for the Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church) to a better job of providing the milk and the meat, rather than the ladder metaphor. Because probably many souls don’t make the transition, and are lost. Lost. You believe it’s possible to be ‘lost,’ don’t you? Or not?

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