Ah, Christmas dramas. I’d almost forgotten they existed, until I heard about Willow Creek’s 2007 production: Imagine Christmas.
From a quick search on the internet, I can tell you one thing: You’ve never seen anything like this. And somehow you’ve seen everything like this. It’s a smorgasborg of modern Christmas grandiosity, chock full of American Christmas touchstones familiar to anyone who has ever watched television between Thanksgiving and December 25. Cute kids in snow hats quote Linus’ best lines of scripture from the Charlie Brown special. The stage is bathed in a wintry blue and covered in swirling snowflakes. Attempts to hint at the current market for C.S. Lewis fantasy material are thrown in: Shots of a Big Ben-ish clock tower tolling Christmas morning, and scriptures projected on-screen in a typeface that matches the one used in the recent film version of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Dancers descend from the ceiling on ropes of billowing cloth a la Cirque de Soleil, angels trade pithy remarks, and dance teams backflip across the stage. Those looking for something more traditionally small-church American get a Gospel number of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” And then there’s that guy playing Trans-Siberian Orchestra-style violin backed by squealing electric guitars. This is not your local church’s Christmas drama, but it probably takes a stab at representing it.
Actually, maybe it is your local church’s Christmas drama. The Willow Creek Association’s website–which sells Willow’s ministry materials to other churches–lists Imagine Christmas and its associated promotion DVD as the third and fourth top-selling items in their store (see here). And a quick search on Youtube shows a bunch of our brothers and sisters in Christ are spending a lot of time trying to pull this thing off.
Church leaders are encouraged to purchase and produce Willow’s production, though the advice on method varies from “complete rip-off” to “do your own thing.” On this page, Willow declares that “Your Biggest Programming Decision of the Year Just Got Easier.” The package contains “everything your church needs to create an imaginative and highly-visual program or outreach event for the upcoming Christmas season,” and the site suggests that you may just want to “show it entirely on video.” On the same page, however, they encourage church leaders to “make a Christmas program that’s uniquely yours.” Willow leaders interviewed for the promotional trailer admonish purchasers to do something that fits the particulars of their community (and the size of their stage).
(As an aside, I have to chuckle at the thought of my own church performing Imagine: The altar guild ladies being lowered from the ceiling amid carol swells played by the hand-bell choir, the elderly couple with the hearing aids cringing to the wail of the guitar…)
The psychology behind the entire production is a plain example of consumer-driven church thinking. Bill Kinnon’s excellent post on Imagine quotes from the Chicago Tribune, which interviewed Willow’s PR rep, Susan Delay:
“In today’s world, the church must compete with movies and even restaurants for audiences. Everybody wants to be entertained. People who might not go to church might come to see a Christmas pageant, and if we can share Christ through this, then yeah!”
(I’ll leave any comments on church PR reps who end sentences in “then yeah!” for another time.)
I sound like a broken record for saying so, but the real shame here is that Willow Creek has assumed that the decline of American Christianity is a problem of attention span; that the solution is upping the ante with spectacles comparable or even larger than those the secular world offers. But this approach accepts without criticism the entire framework of marketing and American consumerism; that what we desire should be our foremost concern, that what we do with our time should satisfy our desires, and that we ought not feel guilty for any of it. Of course in all of this Willow is making an effort to communicate Gospel of Christ, but more now than ever before the medium is the message. What are the implications of communicating the Gospel in a way that is so much like the world’s anti-Gospel?
Please understand that my goal here is not to point out how so-and-so has done it better, or somehow say that Willow Creek is something other than part of the church. Certainly, the Holy Spirit uses even Imagine Christmas to give life. In the post I linked to above, Kinnon helpfully responded to a reader offended by his post, and it’s worth echoing the following:
I’m not sure who has said Willow is “bad for everyone.” The critique is primarily of the Consumer Church and how Willow is very much a part of that “style.”
It is pure pragmatism to suggest that because you became a Christian at Willow’s Imagine, and three family members prayed the prayer, that the spectacle of Imagine is beyond sincere criticism.
I became a Christian twenty-five years ago after watching a two person, one-act play based on Revelation 3:20. Someone I know became a Christian listening to Jesus Christ Superstar. On Christmas Eve, whilst we attended service in an Anglican Cathedral, my eldest son told me of a friend of his who became a Christian simply visiting such a place. In each situation, our Father drew us to himself. There are millions of stories of Christians coming to Christ in the oddest of ways. Because He worked in those situations does not mean that they are somehow anointed. (I listened to Jesus Christ Superstar hundreds of times as a teenager with little or no impact on my spiritual life.)
And as one commenter followed up:
Can we discuss the methods without invalidating the genuine things that God has done?
After all, this side of the resurrection, the church should be absolutely concerned about message and medium. God has promised to rescue his people, and I have no doubt he will do so even if Willow Creek merges with Starbucks, Joel Osteen becomes the next pope, and McDonald’s starts including N.T. Wright action figures in their Happy Meals. But the church is called to be a foretaste of a soon-coming kingdom, not of this world. Let’s spend some serious time talking, thinking, and praying about what recipe gives His people the truest flavor; all the fragrance, nuance and intensity of the supper of the marriage feast of the Lamb.