In 1995 Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, IL) started a two-day event called The Global Leadership Summit (TGLS). It exists to “transform Christian leaders around the world with an annual injection of vision, skill development, and inspiration for the sake of the local church”. Attendance that year was 2200 at one location. This year’s totals were expected to be over 135,000 attendees, 400 locations, 76 countries and 37 languages, worldwide.
This past week, August 11-12, the 2011 Summit was held. And, for the first time, one of the downlink locations was a Seventh-day Adventist Church—my local congregation, Wasatch Hills in Salt Lake City, UT.
For the past several years there had been no downlink sites in Utah. A local church in Salt Lake initially planned on hosting it this year, then changed their mind. Our pastor learned of this and proposed to us that we might take their place. We agreed. Thus began a wild ride. Preparations began in March with tasks to be staffed and trained for. A satellite dish was installed and we ran cable into our existing system. A massive screen/projector system was rented for the event, erected and the system tested. In other areas we had to handle event registration, resources for sale, ushers, food service, setup, cleanup and lots and lots of coordination. Over 30 church members were ultimately involved in various capacities over the two day event. Exhausting but rewarding.
The Summit format consists of various speakers and interviews, each ½ hour to an hour. Speakers this year included:
· Seth Godin: best-selling author and blogger
· Michelle Rhee: former chancellor of Washington DC Public Schools
· Cory Booker: Mayor of Newark, NJ
· Mama Maggie Gobran: Founder & CEO of Stephen’s Children’s Ministry; Nobel Peace Prize Nominee
It is difficult to summarize what the summit is like. My expectations were that it would be mostly secular with Christian overtones, targeted for Christian-friendly business professionals. In actuality, it was aimed more for nurturing church pastors and staff, and was much more overtly Christian and personal. I was working mostly in the Audio/Visual booth and consequently was able to experience more of the content than some of the other volunteers. The speakers were uniformly outstanding and many were profoundly moving. For a more complete summary of the 2011 presentations you can read the Summit blog here.
When Wasatch chose to participate we had to consider that Willow Creek has been controversial within Adventism. For a number of years Adventist ministers had attended training events at Willow Creek and some denominational leaders felt that this was not furthering Adventist mission. One critic, Michigan Conference president Jay Gallimore, gave a presentation entitled Can the Church be Relevant and Survive, that was very pointed in its criticism of Willow Creek. His presentation is unfortunate, in my view, as it oversimplifies and mischaracterizes. The result produces a straw-man argument and a false dilemma.
And recently GC President Ted Wilson, speaking at the ASI convention in Sacramento, stated: “Avoid inviting non-SDAs as major speakers for church meetings, large convocations, and retreats. Understand what I am saying. Do not ask them to make spiritually themed presentations when they don’t know the Great Controversy message. We can learn from others, but we need to invite our church leaders to speak.”
Consequently, in our currently polarized Adventist environment, it is difficult to navigate between Adventist distinctives and cross-denomination collegiality. And Willow Creek has, at times, become a touchstone for the wider disagreement within Adventism between liberal and conservative perspectives. Not everyone at Wasatch was in favor of participation. And that’s ok. What is less ok is when we Adventists cannot disagree constructively and wind up talking past each other. We see many examples of this on the Spectrum website.
In the end, the bottom line has to be whether what is done in the church’s name uplifts Jesus and if the participants are nurtured in their Christian experience. And by those criteria the TGLS event passes muster, at least for my needs and temperament. But I couldn’t have adequately known this in advance. It is something you have to experience first. To provide you a glimpse—and I’m afraid it's one that is so condensed as to be woefully inadequate—here are some video clips from the 2011 TGLS.