Religion, like marketing, has its funnel. And many evangelical megachurches have spent the past quarter-century focusing on the rim, attempting to get spiritual “seekers” just to sample a service — and hoping that they will at some point join the faith. These churches have grown by staying away from hard-core biblical teaching and instead have lured the curious with slick multimedia presentations and skits, sermons with the cultural relevance of “Saturday Night Live,” and maybe an iced cappuccino for the trip home.
But now the leading exponent of this approach, Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, has plunged its Sunday-morning services much deeper into the faith funnel. More music is provided for worship, not just ambience; and more messages target “mature” believers, not just new ones. One recent sermon challenged listeners to publicly show their commitment as Christians, an appeal that would have seemed strange a year ago. For a business owner, that might mean talking about Christ with employees, it was suggested; for a teenager, it might involve risking status with peers.
“We can start at the top of the hour saying, ‘Here’s the deal,’ and get right at it — as opposed to having to demonstrate the fact that we’re conversant with the culture,” explained William Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding and senior pastor.
Also now, Sunday-morning visitors are more likely to be greeted than to be allowed to slouch in anonymity. On Memorial Day weekend, for example, Mr. Hybels invited those who were struggling with some life circumstance to stand up where they were. Then believers nearby placed hands on them while Pastor Hybels prayed.