New Kinds of Christians? (pt. 2)

Old religious factions are volcanoes burned out; on the lava and ashes and squalid scoriæ of old eruptions grow the peaceful olive, the cheering vine, and the sustaining corn. — Edmund Burke

In part one of this consideration of Christianity in post-Christian culture, we looked at a couple of new Christian movements (Calvary Chapel and Vineyard) that grew out of the “Jesus Movement” of the late 60s counter-culture.  Next we’ll look at the late 20th-century emergence of influential “non-denominational” churches.  Before we go there, a brief review of the idea of “denominations” seems in order . . . .

Ever since the Reformation, Protestantism has been partly defined by denominational divisions.  First there were the various Protestant “traditions” (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptists) with their particular theological, doctrinal, and national distinctions.  Then there were the next-generation denominational identities which grew out even more specifically defined differences in doctrine, polity, even ethnicity (Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Mennonites, Methodists; and ultimately multiple “flavors” of each!).  Then a series of revivals–the Great Awakening, Cane Ridge, Azusa Street--and the unpenetrable racial divide created further sectarian distinctions within the existing denominations (particularly in America) and spawned even more sub-groups (such as Holiness and Pentecostal denominations)

As a result, the “most churched” country in the world was also the most “fractured” in appearance.  Nearly every American community has the classic “church on every corner” are near downtown where the classic steeples of the old mainline denominations still stand tall (while the congregations inside age and dwindle).  Yes, the 20th C. did bring about ecumenical efforts toward institutional unity:  Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans in particular gradually brought together many disparate groups withing their denominational ranks into single organizations.  The United Church of Christ even brought unrelated groups such as Congregational, German Reformed, and independent Christian churches (and worked to build broader alliances with other mainline groups).  But Baptists and Pentecostals remained divided by geography and race, and even the newer “Third Wave” fellowships such as Calvary Chapel and Vineyard were unable to resolve some of their theological differences and went their own ways.

The “Non-Denominational” Shift

Enter another “new kind of Christian” development:  the intentionally non-denominational church.  While this phenomenon is generally seen as a recent development, and often associated with the “seeker-sensitive” approach of places like Willow Creek in the Chicago suburbs, it, too, has historic roots.  During America’s Early National Period, something of an “American Reformation” took place as congregations began leaving Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist denominations to become known simply as Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, or Disciples of Christ.  Some of these “non-denominational” churches (the Disciples in particular) later developed very denominational-like institutional structures, but congregations generally retained a high degree of independence.  And even Willow Creek, which we’ll turn to next, was not as much of a new phenomenon in American religion as it might seem (read this article at Christianity today to learn more

As the church struggles to find relevance in a post-Christian culture, how far is it willing to go? Or is the answer not to try to “adapt” at all?  In the mid-90s, as the real-life Church was wrestling with these issues, Gary Trudeau’s popular Doonesbury strip ran an on-going series featuring “Rev. Scott Sloane” (a regular over the years), who has turned the old house where all the main characters lived during college into “The Little Church of Walden” (Walden was the name of their college).  Here’s a sampling . . .

WaldenChurch1 WaldenChurch2 WaldenChurch3


“When I left [the] classroom that day, I went out to my car, put my head on the steering wheel, and cried. The dream of being part of such a church had taken root in my soul.” — Bill Hybels

In 1972, 20-year-old Bill Hybels (quoted above) was a student at Trinity College.  The class he refers to in the quote, taught by professor Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, was looking at the Church in the context of Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18 (“I will build my Church”) and the description of the New Testament Church in Acts chapter 2.  This kind of Church, Hybels decides, was exactly what the world needed today.

By the 1970s, more people than ever in modern history (including me!) were completely disconnected from the Church.  Hybels and others, rather than seeing this as an obstacle, considered it an opportunity.  This generation of maturing baby-boomers could play a part in creating a new kind of Church, one that played the same role in their lives as the NT Church had played in the lives of early believers.  It would not be encumbered by the denominational baggage and formal traditions of the institutions they’d left behind in childhood.  It would be a real community of believers; one that would be relevant to the real lives and the real needs of its congregants.  Here’s how the online Encyclopedia of Chicago describes what happened (R. Jonathan Moore,

In 1975 leaders of Son City, a successful youth program at Park Ridge’s South Park Church, decided to create a new ministry for unchurched adults. A door-to-door survey of the local community taught them why people stayed away from church. Incorporating contemporary music, drama, and multimedia technology, the new congregation first met on October 12, 1975, in Palatine’s Willow Creek Theater. Within two years worship services grew from 125 to 2,000 people. In 1981 the evangelical church moved to its current location in South Barrington and continued to increase in numbers and size on its sprawling campus. By 2000, it drew 15,000 for weekly services.

Led by Pastor Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church became famous as the prototypical “megachurch,” widely imitated—and criticized—for its entertaining worship style and use of modern marketing strategies. “Seeker services” deliberately target the curious and the unchurched, while members worship at believer-oriented New Community services. To connect people to the church, Willow Creek has hundreds of small groups, devoted to everything from Bible study to singles’ fellowship to car repair. The affiliated Willow Creek Association publishes curriculum materials, runs leadership seminars, and encourages thousands of affiliated churches, extending its influence nationwide.

The Willow Creek phenomenon was indeed “widely imitated–and criticized.”  Notice how it was using the most influential elements of popular culture–contemporary music, drama, media, technology–to create “entertaining worship styles” (as did churches in the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements, countless other “non-denominational fellowships.” and eventually almost any church which desired to remain “relevant” to contemporary culture.”  It became known as the start of the “seeker-sensitive” approach to church, with services specifically aimed at “the curious and the unchurched” and separate meeting for believers (also “widely imitated–and criticized”!.  By the mid-90s, the phenomenon was culturally significant enough to warrant continued scrutiny in Doonesbury:

WaldenChurch5 WaldenChurch6 WaldenChurch7

Next:  From “Seekers” to “Emergents” . . . .

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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