(Dr. Balmer, who writes frequently on religion in America, is associate professor of religion at Barnard College/Columbia University. He is author of "A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies" and "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America.")
SOUTH BARRINGTON, ILL. (RNS)-The traffic will likely be the first thing to capture your attention during a visit to Willow Creek Community Church. The main entrance to the church is a winding, four-lane driveway that, just before any of the three weekend services looks more like the Santa Monica Freeway at five in the afternoon than a church entrance on Sunday morning.
From the perspective of the traffic controller perched atop the church building, the succession of Cadillacs, Toyotas, pickup trucks and Volvo station wagons resembles a military convoy headed for the front or a regiment of ants marching toward a picnic. The traffic maven barks instructions by radio to a bevy of uniformed traffic guards who guide the automobiles into a huge parking lot demarcated into sections-airport style.
Welcome to the weekend worship services-one on Saturday evening and two on Sunday morning-at Willow Creek, an evangelical church in South Barrington, Ill.
Inside the lobby there are information booths and counters offering audiocassettes for sale. Several men in three-piece suits (conspicuous in this casually dressed crowd) roam the lobby with walkie-talkies and earpieces, their eyes scanning the crowd, looking very much like the Secret Service.
The worship service starts on the hour with a crescendo of music from the orchestra. The congregation sings one song. A drama troupe presents a one-act play illustrating the sermon's theme. Someone gives a few announcements, collects an offering and a preacher struts onstage to deliver a 40-minute sermon.
From the beginning to end, the service lasts one hour and 15 minutes, whereupon the congregation files back to the parking lot and heads home.
If all this sounds like the product of meticulous planning and execution, make no mistake about it-it is. Willow Creek has all the trappings of an efficient corporation, from traffic control to a child-care system during the services, complete with photo identification cards.
The church was begun in the mid-1970s by Bill Hybels, a graduate of Trinity College, Deerfield, Ill, who conducted a door-to-door survey in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to find out why people didn't attend church.
He discovered that non-church goers preferred to remain anonymous when they did attend church, that they resented being dunned for money and that they generally found church services boring.
Armed with the results of his public-opinion survey, Hybels proceeded to design his own church to appeal to what he calls the "unchurched Harrys" and "unchurched Marys." Accordingly, Willow Creek spends a great deal of time, money and effort on entertainment. Visitors are never asked to stand and introduce themselves, as they might be in other evangelical churches. The announcements before the offertory explicitly state that visitors need not contribute, that they should consider themselves guests.
If numbers are the criterion for determining success, Willow Creek's formula is overwhelmingly successful. Approximately 12,600 people attend the church's worship services each weekend.
Despite the casual appearance of the congregation-shorts and T-shirts predominate-this is the Gospel dressed in pinstripes. Willow Creek Community Church represents ecclesiastical niche marketing at its best. The "management team" (the term the church uses to refer to its senior pastors and administrators) has carefully crafted a program to appeal to the tastes of suburbanites.
The church building itself resembles a corporate office park, complete with a pond, a fountain, and a flock of geese. But it has no Christian symbols whatsoever-no cross, no icons-so as not to frighten or intimidate visitors. The ministers refer to their overall programs as a "product." The self-help ethic pervades both the sermons and the many support or special-interest groups-singles, new mothers, alcoholics, those with sexual addictions.
Despite its apparent novelty, however, Willow Creek Community Church lies very much within the tradition of American religion. The free market of religion in the United States demands that churches compete with one another for their audiences. Here in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, that entails appropriating the trappings of corporate America, with its ideals of efficiency and its careful attention to "consumer" tastes.
Evangelicals have historically adapted to popular tastes more readily than other religious groups in America. Unconstrained by liturgical rubrics or denominational hierarchies, they have fashioned their message to their audiences, whether it be the Methodist circuit riders on the frontier, the mendicant revivalists around the turn of the century or the televangelists of the 1980s peddling their prosperity gospel to Ronald Reagan's America.
I find the slick, contrived professionalism of Willow Creek discomforting somehow, but that may reflect my uneasiness with corporate culture. For 12,000 upwardly mobile suburbanites, however, the formula works. If success is reckoned in numbers, evangelicals have shown once again that they can package the message to meet the demands of the marketplace.
* This material has been excerpted from the Christian News of July, 1991, which in turn was reprinted from a 7/16/91 Religious News Service piece.