Reminiscing On Willowcreekitis


by Don Chapman

As I listened to David Santisteven’s interview with (ex) Willow Creek’s Nancy Beech I reminisced about my own Willow Creek experience and developed hives as I heard her wax nostalgic about the old days as she mourned the loss of alternate expressions of worship – like drama. I have the utmost respect for Nancy Beech – she’s a legend and genuinely seems to be a very cool person – but I have quite a different recollection of those times.

Back in the day when the Willow Creek philosophy ruled the contemporary church, worship leaders would probably have to squeeze a “skit” into their service order each week. It seemed like everybody was trying to do drama. There were entire conferences and companies producing worship drama materials. I was thinking recently how interesting it is that no church I know of today has a drama ministry! What happened? I’ll explore that a bit later, but for now – some background.

In the early 00’s when we were all trying to figure out this contemporary worship thing we had a plethora of worship conferences we could attend (one worship guru who taught at such conferences told me he’d teach at one every single week of the year!) and Willow Creek was the granddaddy of them all.

The small church where I started my music director career had what I’ve termed “Willowcreekitis.” All they could talk about was Willow Creek and they tried to model their services after them as best they could. As soon as I was hired I was promptly shipped up to the Willow Creek conference with the praise team to learn the tricks of the trade.

The Willowcreekitis cult-leader at my church was the former lay worship leader who literally was obsessed with the place and expected me to be as well. After months of constant frustration with me for not being “Willow Creek enough” he tried his best to get me fired and then left in a huff taking half his small group with him.

Soon after this nightmare I attended another worship conference where I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next me and we got on the topic of Willow Creek. I told him the story I just told you and he gasped “Did that guy move to Columbia (a town about an hour from me) – the exact same thing happened at my ministry and he split the church in half over his Willow Creek obsession!”

No, this fanatic didn’t move to Columbia, but evidently Willowcreekitis was extremely contagious and was caught by churches all across the country. Here’s how it happened: worship teams made the Willow conference pilgrimage, got excited, came back and tried to turn their ministry into Willow Creek. Of course this not only didn’t work but it caused church splits. Over the years I’ve heard many such stories – they didn’t call it the drama ministry for nothing!

Churches built from the ground-up in the Willow philosophy quickly boomed and worked for a while, but as reality set in they tried to make the switch to worship. Bill Hybels famously, back in 2007, admitted they “made a mistake.

A pastor of one of these Willow-cloned megachurches told me around the same time he realized his church simply did not worship or even knew how. The music director of this church eventually quit over being urged to… start leading worship. He once told me the church “did not worship” – their music consisted of current top 40 hits performed by a paid band and the area’s best singers. I guess you would call this the “reverse worship war” – secularized, performance-based megachurches lost members because they began switching to a worship format!

These Willow-clones loved to kick off their services with – I can’t remember their exact term – a “focus” song or something like that. This was a pop or country song that thematically matched that week’s “sermon.” No actual praise sets, of course, since they needed time for the weekly skit. So maybe they’d do two or three pop songs a week – an opener, offertory and closing song. I can’t believe how crazy this sounds as I’m recalling and writing it LOL!

Hybels’ admission of making a mistake plus the current collapse of Willow now, ten years later, gives one pause – this odd, brief tangent out of hundreds of years of church worship seems to have had quite a derailing effect on today’s church and our collective spiritual temperature. Is it because of Willow Creek that the watering-down of evangelical Christianity is now in full swing? Let’s pray we can correct course (and many churches have) by having deep Biblical truths presented in a contemporary setting.

Bottom Line: Nancy is correct – contemporary worship is getting in a rut and needs something more than just music (find her thoughts on this around 20:28 in the podcast.) But please, no more skits 🙂 Thanks to David and Nancy for the great discussion – it stirred up a lot of memories for me as you can see.

P.S. Why Skits Fizzled Out

The Willow philosophy, of course, encompassed much more than just skits in your service order – but that’s one of the things that seemed to negatively impact me the most (I’m also not a fan of doing secular songs in worship.)

Let’s face it – church music is in the Bible, skits aren’t. Drama simply was too hard for the average (100ish member) church to pull off and without a clear Biblical mandate it quickly fell by the wayside. I have a degree in church music, not drama. I’m not an actor, have no interest in acting and don’t know anything about it. Rare would be the person who had skills in both areas, yet this is the type of person a Willow-clone was looking for.

Only the megachurches with talent and budgets had the energy and resources to maintain the weekly skit and a drama director. The smaller church worship leader, mostly volunteer and occasionally part-time-paid, absolutely could not maintain both a praise team and a drama team. My own church realized this as I myself was part-time, so the leadership fished for drama volunteers. The enormous time spent finding/writing scripts, training and rehearsing actors made this impossible for a non-paid position.


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