“What if the birth was just the beginning?” is the theme of Willow Creek Community Church’s Christmas message this year. And to show that to the estimated 80,000 people attending their 12 services at the South Barrington location, they are adding a short film, scored to a 22-piece live orchestra, into the mix.
The film sets the birth and life of Christ in modern-day Chicago. A TV news anchor is the main character, and the trailer on the website opens with her announcing the birth of the Savior of the world.
Hundreds of volunteers from Willow Creek participated as extras in the film. Writer and Director Blaine Hogan, also a staff member at the megachurch, hired professional actors for the leading roles.
Church spokesperson Susan DeLay told The Christian Post that the same idea of “what if the birth is just the beginning” went into the story for the film.
Aside from the film, this year’s services have all the usual elements of a Willow Creek Christmas. DeLay said there will be Christmas music, a message from Lead Pastor Bill Hybels, and the traditional singing of “Silent Night” at the end of the service.
Part of Willow’s Christmas preparation goes in to catering to the many attendees who don’t regularly attend church. On a typical Sunday, Willow Creek has 24,000 people attending their services. But they expect to at least double that for Christmas.
DeLay told CP that “every service people attend at Willow is an opportunity for outreach.” But during their Christmas services those opportunities are multiplied.
They also try to reach out to those who don’t have a church home. During the Christmas services they tell them about the small groups and classes the church has, and upcoming events in January.
DeLay said there are a lot of people at the services that have never been to Willow. “We intentionally pray for them. We don’t know them by name, or who they are but we do know there are a large number of people here for first time.”
Willow Creek started planning for Christmas before Memorial Day this year. Church programming and production staff began by discussing the service from last Christmas, and highlighting what worked, and what didn’t. Then they pitched new ideas for this year’s service.
Paul Johnson, Willow’s programming director, said they decided on a theme by early August. From there they developed it into a concrete idea and plan.
They shot the film in November. While the film was being edited, the worship team was rehearsing and preparing the music for the services. “By the time we begin dress rehearsals, everything comes together,” Johnson said.
The “coming together” part took a little more time this year. He said he and fellow staff members discussed and tried several ideas at the beginning, but none of them were really working.
That’s when Johnson remembered a poem by theologian Howard Thurman that his mom sent him in an email. Some of the lines read: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and the princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins.”
“Most Christmas Eve services conclude with the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” Johnson said. “As I read this poem to the creative team, we all realized there was something to it – that His birth was just the beginning.”
Even though countless hours of preparation go into planning for the service, the staff works hard to maintain some level of sanity during the chaos of the season. Johnson said, “We can’t do this on our own. It’s way bigger than one person, one team, or even several teams. But it’s not too big for God, and unless He intervenes, it doesn’t work out.”
Following the 12 Christmas Eve services, which kicked off on Sunday, Dec. 18, Willow Creek will hold one worship service on Sunday, Christmas Day. The upcoming Sunday service will be put on by Hybels’ immediate family who will run the sound and lights, lead the music, and read the announcements. Willow Creek staffs and volunteers have been given the day off – meaning no ushers, greeters, traffic team or child care.
“It will be unprofessional and I fear underwhelming, but, who knows – it might be unforgettable as well!” Hybels said in an email to Willow Creekers. “Anyway, you are all warmly welcome! (Just lower your expectations by a factor of 95% and we might make it through.)”