Saturday, October 21, 2006

Willow Creek Community Church in the News (The Table)

Prepare Thee for Some Serious Marketing
Fara Warner
New York Times

As dusk settles on this neighborhood of 1920’s bungalows and old farmhouses northwest of Chicago, Randy Frazee strums a banjo on his front porch, waiting for his dinner guests to arrive. No cars line his curb because everyone who is coming lives within walking distance.

Once the 12 guests — ranging in age from about 7 to 70 — and the Frazee family have gathered around three tables set end-to-end, they join hands, and Mr. Frazee, a pastor at the Willow Creek Community Church, says a prayer. A meal of barbecued brisket, cheese potatoes and green beans follows.

Throughout the evening, conversation occasionally touches on favorite scriptures and “walking with the Lord.” The guests tell about their best and worst moments of the week. As dinner wraps up, Mr. Frazee asks one of the couples to talk about “how Christ walks in their life.”

It’s the first night of “The Table,” a new program offered by Willow Creek — a nondenominational megachurch that regularly draws several thousand people to its services at a 155-acre campus nearby, in South Barrington. “The Table,” however, is deliberately kept small as Willow Creek seeks innovative ways to meet the changing needs of churchgoers searching for ways to express their faith.

Bill Hybels, the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek, has used business-world strategies — notably branding and word-of-mouth marketing — to help the church grow from 125 congregants 30 years ago into the megachurch it is today. While Mr. Hybels says he does not use marketing techniques to spread God’s word, “we do attempt to harness the full potential of modern technology and business strategies to communicate with our members and our community.”

He has also brought in advisers like Mr. Frazee, who use business ideas to spread the message of the church. Mr. Frazee said many of his ideas grew out of a friendship he had with a Texas developer. “I mentored him in spiritual matters and he mentored me in transferable concepts to the church from his world of business,” Mr. Frazee said. “I would say it was one of the many factors that led me down a path to the ‘Table’ concept.”

The new messages — from Willow Creek and other nondenominational churches to mainstream denominations like the Episcopal and the United Methodist churches — tend to focus on connectedness, theology and shared values.

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