Today we welcome author Chris Haw, who is on a blog tour promoting his new book, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, from Ave Maria Press. Would you like to win a copy of this book? Please leave a comment to be entered into a drawing!
Chris is a self-described “carpenter, theologian, author, speaker, and potter.” He lives in Camden, NJ with his wife, Cassie, and his son, Simon. To say that Chris and his family live intentionally, would be an understatement. Chris was born and raised Catholic in his early life, but he moved to another church for many years. What happened to him at that church, Willow Creek, shaped the man that we see today. Talk about a profound journey – he has undertaken many remarkable steps in his young life.
You can read about some of the book right here. Ave Maria Press and Chris Haw have given me permission to print an excerpt from the book here. I chose these paragraphs from early in the book, because they set the stage for the amazing journey that is to follow. Happy reading. And don’t miss my other post today; a review of this book.
Raised Catholic largely by my mother, my early years in the Catholic Church were a mixture of appreciation and boredom. Like many young kids, I often simply did not want to go to Mass. I vividly recall one Sunday morning when I feigned sickness by testing the thermometer-to-the-light-bulb hypothesis. It failed. Arriving at Mass, I would often wiggle among the pews and claim (multiple) bathroom emergencies. And yet I must say that years later, I somehow retained an interest in what I would call, for lack of a better term, the militancy of Catholic ritual—its cleanliness of form, its solemn action, the mindful readings and symbols, the slow and serious relishing in one bite of communion and one small sip from the cup. But back in elementary school, those moments were sporadic and were often marginalized in light of other, more pressing events of youth.
Mom taught CCD courses for us kids; CCD stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. It’s religious education for Catholics who don’t go to Catholic school, but the name did not exactly fit my mother’s teaching style. More artistically than doctrinally inclined, my mother would often play music or display art, asking us youth to interpret them. A lot is made today of the problem of mushy catechesis, but in truth, I remember it fondly, though my mom insists it was more akin to pulling teeth. In addition to getting us to CCD, my mom made sure we made it to Mass faithfully, long enough to have the creeds, incantations, and common songs seared into our memory.
One thing about Catholicism that I enjoyed—then and now— was the culture, which at its best is filled with festivals and parties. I recall, around age five, attending an exciting festival in our church’s parking lot, held over a period of several days. Every time we visited my grandparents on my mother’s side in Cleveland, it seemed there was some occasion for a similar church festival—day- and night-long parties stocked with food and beer, piñatas, volleyball, water balloon (and egg!) tosses. And although no longer fashionable in our society, even among most Catholics, this side of my family tried hard to keep alive a few old folk traditions—for example, an Easter-time breakfast custom of tapping one’s hard-boiled egg against the egg of another at the table. The person whose egg didn’t completely crack up was the winner. We dueled until the dinner table had found a winner who had at least one side of their egg intact, abiding through the violence.
My Catholic childhood began to fade just before entering the stage at which most young Catholics prepare for Confirmation Around this time, my mother heard that the local Protestant kids had some really vibrant youth groups. Our Catholic youth group was, to put it mildly, less than vibrant. Appealing to her CCD supervisor, my mother requested to investigate and perhaps import some practices of these other denominations. She was promptly rebuked and reminded of how such Protestant projects were anathema. With concern for her kids foremost, we began to consider a change of ecclesial scenery.
Church shopping because of dissatisfaction with the youth groups might seem a bit extreme, but anyone who has seriously tried to raise middle schoolers to embrace the Faith knows it is a real challenge. In addition, however much Catholicism was a staple in my mom’s family tradition, the fact was that we had few deep friendships at the local Catholic church. We were a long way from Cleveland, my mom’s Catholic gravitational field. Around this time, our family caught wind of a very different kind of church. It was called Willow Creek Community Church, and many close friends were inviting us there. No stuffy dress clothes, we were told. No statues, no crosses, no stained glass, no priests, no altars, no rituals (or so we thought), and not even a building that looked like what one might typically call a “church.” Gatherings were of an entirely different nature from Catholic liturgy. They supposedly played videos and even clips of popular movies at the services and sang along with songs performed by professional rock musicians. Concert lighting and smoke machines were often employed to enhance the experience. And with legions of staff and volunteers, Willow’s youth branch
of the church, called “Student Impact,” could entertain teens, teach them, summer camp them, mentor them, and exhaust them until they fell over in giddy excitement. Their youth ministry was replete with its own separate services, “relevant” songs, speeches, topics, dramas, videos, games, retreats, and so on. On any given Sunday over one thousand students would pour in. So, we went. And then we kept going.
Upon driving into Willow Creek’s zip-code-sized campus for the first time, we viewed a gargantuan complex, a mall-sized, modern sprawl. The parking lot’s size necessitated memory markers; volunteers suited with reflective vests directed traffic. I walked through the doors and into the auditorium, awestruck at its thousands of seats, mezzanine levels, enormous stage, and humungous, concert-like speakers. (Their updated building, a $73 million or so project, is one of the world’s largest theaters.) The jumbotrons near the stage, listing the song lyrics and showing soothing Christian imagery, would occasionally post announcements mid-service like, “Parents of child #354, please come to the nursery.”
I was enthralled. The sheer volume of people worshipping there spoke to me of its inherent goodness. It was successful, doubtlessly. Its sense of joyful volunteer collaboration was perhaps the most inspiring attribute, from the traffic-controllersto the greeters, from the video technicians to the “hospitality team.” Everybody was contributing to a mission. In fact, other than sharing the word “Jesus” in common, the experience of Willow Creek made me think I had stepped into an entirely different religion.
Willow had already become so successful that it wasn’t hard to catch rumblings around town from suspicious skeptics— “It’s a cult,” some would say. That accusation only served to intrigue me, prompting even closer investigation. Of course, fourteen-year-olds don’t really investigate—not all that analytically, anyway. But if by “cult,” one meant weird, insane, wild-eyed people looking to capture and brainwash me, this group appeared exempt. I could tell that most people there weren’t weird at all. They seemed quite normal by middle-class American standards, in fact, and while they appeared excited about their spiritual lives, they did not seem crazed, pushy, or overly intense.
I should make it clear that while I was undoubtedly impressed, I did not immediately “fall” for Willow Creek. At the beginning, I hung lightly on the fringes. I had jumped from the Catholic to the Protestant world at just the time in life when we develop significant habits, styles, and cliques, according to our own religion or upbringing. I was in between worlds. The pious Protestant pop music, music which virtually all tweens at these churches know and love, was impressive in its professionalism, but it did not do much for me. Too often it seemed to simply ape the music of the secular mainstream—Justin-Bieber-style-but-for-Jesus kind of music. I was not dazzled by the “youth-groupy” culture either, where cultural seclusion or restriction seemed to have socially hamstrung some of the youth there; something about having your own special types of t-shirts, music, and bracelets felt “off.”
My real passion at this time was playing in a punk rock band—hence my initial resistance to the Willow Creek music scene. “Shows” and parties where our band could play were my thing. (The band hit it big when we made it in the local newspaper!) I had enough respect and love for my parents that I didn’t pursue that whole world of drugs and drinking that people might associate with teenagers into punk rock, though I had a few good friends who did embrace that scene. And that is where I came to a crossroad of sorts. A friend of mine committed suicide.
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