Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
We huddle along our row as the band plays. The balcony affords an excellent view of the auditorium: not full, but certainly not sparsely populated either. This is Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Chicago and averages 24,000 attendees over a weekend, according to Wikipedia, making it America’s third largest church. And Ellen has kindly driven me, Randi and Kannan to have a look.
After the half hour concert is over, the ‘Director of Section Communities’ runs through some administrative items and monetary collections. Those watching online are encouraged to donate through the website, and everyone is shown a glossy video of the international projects the church is involved in. But soon we move on to Steve Carter, teaching pastor, whose talk this week will be on ‘the reality of heaven’. (The whole thing is archived on their website.)
I quite like Steve. I’m frequently frustrated when religious leaders fail to discuss the actual implications of ideas like ‘the afterlife’ outside of ritual or absurdly generalised metaphor. Steve certainly can’t be accused of that – he even draws a diagram, so you know exactly where everything sits.
Of course, the downside of not using absurdly generalised metaphor is being absurdly specific and literal. Taking our cues from CS Lewis, we envisage heaven through the Bible’s imagery of dinner parties, weddings, cities and concerts. “It doesn’t seem boring to me”, Steve declares, but it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to wonder how many performances of Jesus Paid It All you’d be able to take. Alas, when it comes to hell he reverts to the now ubiquitous “separation from God” soundbite, quickly drawing a veil over eternal damnation. He also tells a story about discovering that his long-lost biological father had died, but not before coming to the faith, and thereby raising the prospect of joyful reunion in heaven. Which is all very well, but who asks the obvious question: what if he hadn’t?
After the sermon, Randi and I queue up to ask questions. She wants to know if Jews get into heaven (it’s unclear), and as ever I’m curious if his God would grant my dying wish to opt-out of any afterlife altogether. Steve doesn’t pretend to have concrete answers, but can’t understand why anyone would want that. “In my experience, people who say that are really motivated by a fear, deep down, that they wouldn’t get in.” And here we stand smiling at each other, stranded on opposite banks of comprehension. Can it really be true that he doesn’t understand the torture of immortality? I almost want to start going to their Alpha courses to try and bring him round. But I think church conversions are only supposed to happen in one direction.
On the drive back, Randi is unimpressed with the lax demands placed on the congregation. The most we ever heard from the Bible at this big, non-denomination gathering was short quotes appearing as captions on giant screens – a long way from multi-hour Torah readings. In a competitive marketplace of religion, the distinction between worshipper and customer is not always clear. Even the song lyrics are full of monetary metaphor: Jesus paid, we are ransomed.
I’m sure those who run Willow Creek would say that church ought to be a joyful, celebratory experience. It certainly seemed so for its parishioners – a more diverse crowd than you often see acting together in Chicago, it’s fair to say. There’s even a sign language translation for the deaf. But in the end, I’m not much moved whether a church is dour or rich. It’s the ideas which are more interesting, and no matter how catchy the song, sin’s ‘crimson stain’ still invites a question: are we really born broken? Do we need to be ‘saved’? And who wants to live forever?
In Part 2, we’ll visit the Church of Scientology for some ‘free personality tests’.
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