The Chicago branch of huge Willow Creek Church is excited about the prospect of worshiping in the legendary Auditorium Theatre
By Manya A. Brachear
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 1, 2006
Named for the Palatine movie palace in which the suburban megachurch got its start,Willow Creek Community Church now plans to establish a city home in a theater of a different kind.
Beginning Oct. 1, the historic Auditorium Theatre's gilded walls and massive archways will become home to Willow Creek Chicago, the church's newest campus, under a handshake agreement reached by both parties Monday.
The city satellite of the South Barrington church, which expanded its auditorium in 2004 to accommodate its 18,000 members in multiple services, was launched in March and has been drawing about 150 people on Sunday afternoons to the Union Station Multiplex on West Jackson Boulevard. The church now hopes to draw hundreds more to hear its pastor preach from a stage that has featured Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and the Joffrey Ballet.
The unconventional location is not unusual for an evangelical church--especially one that hosts worship services that resemble Broadway productions.But the Auditorium Theatre is a cornerstone of Chicago history, a granite monument to the days when the young city aimed to outshine New York as the nation's cultural hub. A national historic landmark, the Romanesque building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway was designed by legendary architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler.
Leaders of Willow Creek were conscious of the history of the Auditorium as they planned the megachurch's urban expansion."It's got Chicago written all over it," said Rev. Steve Wu, who moved to the city earlier this year to lead Willow Creek Chicago.
Willow Creek members will be able to worship in the theater on Sunday mornings for one year, with the caveat that they must clear out before Sunday matinees, said the Auditorium's Executive Director Brett Batterson, who declined to disclose financial details of the arrangement.
The goals of the two organizations are the same, he said.
"The [theater's] mission is to make it accessible to all of Chicago," Batterson said. "If the renter is a church or a Broadway producer, we're more than happy. It's an auditorium for everyone."
The history of the Auditorium Theatre is as grand as its architecture. Even before it was finished, the theater hosted the 1888 Republican National Convention that nominated Benjamin Harrison for president. When the theater officially raised its curtain a year later, new President Harrison watched from a box seat. That night, star soprano Adelina Patti performed her signature song, "Home, Sweet Home."
Recalling the nostalgia of that era and welcoming its neighbors, Willow Creek Chicago's first series of sermons will be titled "A Place to Call Home."
"We want to communicate that Willow is here in the city to provide a place to call home--as a church, as an outreach to the city around us, to the community that so desperately needs the great message of the Gospel," Wu said.
Wu, 41, who moved from California's Silicon Valley, said he discovered the Auditorium Theatre while wandering around downtown and praying.
"There would be days I'd walk around and absorb the city, feel the culture, emotion and heartbeat," he said. "When I walked down in the theater district, I just had this sense in me that this would be a great place to land."
The performing arts, including live music, dance and drama, have always been a hallmark of Willow Creek's worship, and services at the acoustically perfect Auditorium Theatre will be no different. Worshipers will hear show tunes, jazz numbers, blues and gospel, Wu said.
"One of the things we believe musically is we need to have breadth of genres that resonate with the city instead of one wedge of Christian music," he said. "We want to really resonate with the deep musical history of the city."Music does not have to be Christian to draw a listener closer to God, he said.
"Music is a great gift from God we can use to speak to each other," Wu said. "When people hear a certain tune it evokes certain thoughts and emotions. The message might not be out-and-out Christian, but it resonates with the human soul."
The art and architecture of the theater also stirs the soul, said Willow Creek Chicago member Kathryn Tack, 60, an executive coach and mother of three. Her first visit to the theater was to see a production of "The Phantom of the Opera," she recalled.
"There's just the awesome presence of the Creator," Tack said. "The building in and of itself gives you so much to fill you intellectually and touches your heart. That's part of what God represents to so many people. It would be really amazing to have church there."
The theater has 3,800 seats, but Wu said he believes the house will soon be full. In addition to the performances, Willow Creek Chicago plans to develop its ministries for the homeless and prostitutes.
Wu said the expansion to Chicago is not only more convenient for city dwellers but enhances the partnerships Willow Creek already shares with social service agencies. In addition to its South Barrington campus, Willow Creek has regional sites in McHenry, DuPage and Lake Counties.
"Our dream and our hope," Wu said, "is to really bring something wonderful here to the city."