In Part 1 this week, we introduced two emerging authors who are breaking down Christian boundaries—not to discard Christian traditions but to clear the way for men and women to find the true riches that often are hidden in that worldwide community. Later this week, we will publish an interview with David Frenette on centering prayer. Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Chris Haw in …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CHRIS HAW ON HIS BOOK
FROM WILLOW CREEK TO SACRED HEART
DAVID: In 200 pages, you take us with you on your odyssey from Willow Creek—a famous evangelical megachurch—to the poor neighborhood where you now live and worship as a Catholic. It’s an inspiring and challenging personal story. You admit at the end of your book, “Writing this book has changed me.” So, the opening question is: How did you wind up at Willow Creek in the first place?
CHRIS: I was born in Dayton, Ohio. Mother was Catholic and Dad was of the Protestant variety of people who kind of vanished from the church. He didn’t really attend at all. So, by default, I was baptized Catholic and ended up going to Mass. When I hit my teens, my mother said the youth group at our Catholic church was virtually nothing. She said, “I want my child to have some youthful interaction with the faith.” She started looking around.
DAVID: So, you’re not a born-and-raised Protestant becoming a Catholic. You were raised by an actively Catholic mother and now you’re returning to that faith, right?
CHRIS: Yes, my mother was active in the church. She taught CCD classes for the young kids at our Catholic church, but ultimate she saw the Catholic programs for youth as flat. By the time I was a teenager, we had moved to the Chicago area and she saw that Willow Creek was the exact opposite of what she had seen. In contrast to the chronic problems with young people not showing up for things at a Catholic church, Willow Creek was almost over hyped, over excited and the problem was too many people showing up for things. So my parents initially took me to Willow Creek.
DAVID: Was it an immediate success from your point of view?
CHRIS: No, it took a while for the experience to grow on me. I was more interested in playing in a punk rock band as a teenager. It took me a while to warm up to Willow Creek. My interest in playing guitar in a punk band turned to playing music in worship services. I got very active in Willow Creek’s music; I was active in leading small groups. I got involved in stuff like taking sandwiches and blankets to people who needed them. I got very involved in serving the church and serving the community.
CHRIS HAW: That Kind of Emotion Wasn’t Traditional
DAVID: I would say that you almost bend over backwards in this book to praise Willow Creek for the good ways it shaped your life. But you’ve also got a very strong critique of that church, which is one of the best-known of the big seeker churches in this country. One of those strong criticisms is that Willow Creek puts too much emphasis on getting people emotionally excited.
CHRIS: One of the deeper things I began to question about the general form of worship at Willow Creek is that it puts a big emphasis on personal sincerity. You’re supposed to have Jesus as your personal savior in an emotional way. They want you to have this breakthrough Christian moment of emotion and sincere connection with Jesus. All of that hand raising and closing of eyes that I did as a worship leader at Willow Creek—I realize that isn’t valued at all in traditional Christian liturgy.
DAVID: Today, you’ve come to realize that the ocean of Christianity is a whole lot bigger than you once thought. What’s more, you describe in the book how you’ve come to realize that Willow Creek isn’t as neutral as it may seem.
CHRIS: I’m now encouraging people to learn more about Christian history and traditions. When we do, we question that Willow Creek could be “nondenominational.” I have come to realize there is no such thing as nondenominationalism, no matter what Willow Creek and others may claim. Willow Creek reaches out to people who are sick of the traditions and hierarchies that they have seen around them. But it’s a mistake to think that we can escape into some sort of neutral Christian philosophy. Willow Creek claims that’s what they’re giving people: a nondenominational Christianity. But it’s really evangelical Protestant Christianity posing as neutrality.
DAVID: A fascinating middle portion of your book revolves around the big differences in these religious traditions. For example, as you write about the Catholic Church, you push readers toward new kinds of urban reflections on the Mass. You see it as a sacrament of hope in tragically violent corners of the world—and some of your meditations on the Mass, in this book, are pretty edgy and inspiring. So, there’s a lot to spark individual thinking in this book—and spirited discussion in small groups, too.
But let’s continue talking about this question of emotion in worship—one distinctive part of your story.
CHRIS HAW: Relaxing and letting liturgy shape us
CHRIS: Comparing worship at Willow Creek with the Mass, it’s almost like the emotion flows in entirely opposite directions in the two experiences. In the Mass, it doesn’t come from inside us and flow outward. It comes from outward and flows inward. It was a breath of fresh air to feel that I didn’t need to express this outward emotional experience in worship every week. As a Catholic, worship now becomes more about relaxing and letting the liturgy shape me.
DAVID: That’s an insight most Americans never get, because most of us remain in our religious camps. We don’t tend to cross the Protestant-Catholic barrier in huge numbers. So, talk more about that.
CHRIS: Take the practice of rebaptizing people—as if it didn’t work the first time you were baptized somewhere else, so you’d better get baptized again. This gets to be ridiculous. People think they are taking charge of their own faith, so they start to think that they should get baptized about every five minutes. The idea behind that is that we’re trying to follow Jesus and trying to take charge of our faith. But, this winds up putting people in an antagonistic relationship with older folks and older traditions and the older church. It’s like we’re thinking of those things as crusty old traditions. What I want to do now is find the best in the traditions and become part of the ongoing refurbishing and renewing of those traditions.
CHRIS HAW: Finding hope even in a dysfunctional church
DAVID: I won’t ask you about individual issues in the Catholic church that give you pause, right now. You write about some in your book. But we should be clear that you’re certainly not saying the Catholic Church is the best church on the planet, right?
CHRIS: When I say that I’m a Catholic now, I don’t know how that could ever mean that I’m choosing the “best” church. The Catholic church is really a terribly dysfunctional church and there are crappy things about it, but it is a broad and numerous community around the world. Catholics have a lot of opportunities to express themselves personally while also being Catholic. For example, if I wanted to be more Pentecostal in my worship, the Catholic Church is not opposed to that. If I want to have prayer nights or Bible studies or other forms of worship, I can find them in the Catholic Church. But also, on Sundays, I join to the larger body through the Eucharist. We are joined through the sacraments as Catholics, but that doesn’t cut off a lot of different emphases and expressions of the faith we can explore, as well.
CHRIS HAW: Coming to the Catholic Church is like Yellowstone
DAVID: That’s an insight I’ve heard from Catholics around the world over many years. I remember visiting Singapore a few years ago and, even though Singapore is infamous as a strict police state, the religious life was vibrant. The liveliest place I found was a huge Catholic community of young people. I’m a veteran religion writer and I was surprised to see that!
CHRIS: I often think of a national park when I think of Catholicism. It’s enormous and wide. This church isn’t just one river or one mountain or one sacred place. It takes you a long time to even imagine the lay of the land in the church around the world. Coming into the Catholic Church is like coming into Yellowstone. It’s that huge and diverse. It’s not one thing; it’s many things around the world tied together by a certain mode of connection in the sacraments.
CHRIS HAW: Turning away form the Protestant-Catholic feud
DAVID: Beyond finding connections among Catholics, you really want to tear down the barriers between Protestants and Catholics. Am I understanding that correctly?
CHRIS: When we identify ourselves as Protestants, we’re identifying with this movement that historically said: We are protesting what the Catholics are doing until they change X, Y or Z. Of course, I never thought much about that history—until I began to spend time with Catholics. Then, I realized that I actually carried a lot of this anti-ness within me. Finally, I came to realize: I don’t believe in this Protestant-Catholic feud anymore.
DAVID: I always ask prophetic writers to close with a glimpse of the future. If what you’re writing makes sense, then what does your personal odyssey say about the horizon for Christianity?
CHRIS: I think we are going to see more people wanting a much deeper path of engagement. I don’t know whether everybody is going to follow suit with me—but in this book I’m telling the story of the path I followed. It’s what I needed. I’ve told the story honestly. Others may follow.
Care to jump back and read Part 1? It’s a story that introduces Chris Haw and David Frenette as barrier breakers in Christianity. Or go on to Part 3, our interview with David Frenette.
Want the book? You can order a copy of From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism from Amazon.
Care to learn more about the Jesus for President tour and the related book-video set that’s great for groups? Here’s our earlier interview with Shane Claiborne.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.