Willow Creek’s “The Practice” blends New Age & Catholic mysticism

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A Catholic priest and a New Ager walk into Willow Creek…

No, it’s not a joke waiting for a punchline. It’s an experiment called The Practice, and it’s the brainchild of Pastor Bill Hybels’ son-in-law, Aaron Niequist. Niequist is also the Worship Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, and he calls a Jesuit priest his spiritual director.

Be warned; you are about to hear a lot of New Age lingo:

The Practice is an experimental gathering where we immerse ourselves in God’s dream for humanity, practice the historic disciplines that align us with His dream, and carry each other along the way.  PracticeTribe.com

Starting this Sunday, Niequist will teach you about “unforced rhythms of grace,” in which you will learn to align your rhythm with God’s rhythm, practice contemplative prayer methods like Lectio Divina, and learn from a Catholic priest.

The Practice has been a Sunday night ritual at Willow Creek church since 2013, after that summer’s Global Leadership Summit invited Vijay Govindarajan, Professor of International Business and the Founding Director of Tuck’s Center for Global Leadership, to speak about about innovation:

Niequist: Honestly without Vijay’s talk at the Summit, the Practice experiment could not have happened, because it gave us the language to navigate and frame what we needed to do. He spoke about his book, Beyond the Idea, and his three-box strategy. Basically, every organization, he said, has three boxes. Box One is about managing the present. It’s everything the organization is doing to maintain itself. Box Two is about making minor improvements to make Box One even better. But Box Three is about creating the future. It’s all about innovation. source

Note that Niequist does not mention Jesus Christ, the cross, sanctification or any other biblical doctrine as reasons to start The Practice. Just boxes and business management.

This season’s direction for The Practice:

RHYTHM: Learning to align our rhythms with God’s Eternal Rhythms, for the sake of the world.

Where does this idea of “unforced rhythms of grace” come from? Only one place: The Message, quoted extensively by Niequist:

Matthew 11:28-30 The Message (MSG)

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Does that sound strange? Try a word-for-word translation like the English Standard Version:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

(Side note: Rick Warren also blogged last spring that Jesus Teaches Unforced Rhythms of Grace.)

Here then, are the four ways Niequist is leading Willow Creekers in a new rhythmic realignment with God through The Practice:

(1) Present Moment Rhythm – practicing the Presence of Christ
Already I need to insert this:  On 9/20, Niequist has invited New Ager Ruth Haley Barton to teach Sacred Rhythms.
(2) Daily Rhythm – practice the Daily Examen
(3) Weekly Rhythm – keeping The Sabbath
(4) Yearly Rhythm – aligning with the Church Calendar
What church calendar?  Here is The Practice Calendar, in which you are invited to deep dive into a self-assessment of your own rhythms. Next month, you’ll learn the three foundational practices for a life aligned with God: SILENCE, EMBODIED EXAMEN, and SABBATH.
“Silence helps us hear God’s still small voice and align with God in each moment of our day.  The Examen helps us look back upon each day and find God’s fingerprints in the most unlikely places.  Sabbath helps us reorder our days into the rhythm God established in Creation: 6 on and 1 off,” Niequist says.
And then, the church calendar: “In December, we will align with the church calendar and celebrate the season of ADVENT… and also helpful to give a vision for why the church calendar is so helpful.”  source
Could it be that Niequist means the Roman Catholic calendar?

Eucharist and priestly preachings

During the “Examen” phase, a distinctly Catholic element comes into play, with the introduction of Father Michael Sparough, a Jesuit priest who guided The Practice community through the Catholic practice of The Examen.

Last April, my spiritual director—Father Michael Sparough, SJ—guided our Practice community through the historic Christian practice of The Examen. The night was powerful and so unexplainably holy that we wanted to invite more people into the experience. So we’ve turned the live recording of Fr Michael into a full New Liturgy—fleshing it out with an evocative musical score and three original songs. We hope it helps you connect with God in a deep and daily way.”

You can read more about Sparough here.

It’s interesting to note that The Practice openly promotes building a bridge between Protestants and Catholics through Ecumenicism, “the idea that unity among the whole church is central to spreading Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth.”

Here’s a sample of what you’ll learn during the Examan phase including this digital toolkit:

  • Audio: The Cross Meditation – a ten minute guided meditation on the Sign of the Cross.
  • Teaching: St Ignatius and The Examen – Fr Michael Sparough teaches on the history of The Examen.
  • Teaching: The Five Steps of The Examen – Fr Michael Sparough teaches through the steps of The Examen.
  • Video: A conversation with Fr Michael Sparough and Aaron Niequist about The Examen, spiritual direction, and learning from other Christian traditions.

Spiritual Formation

It would appear that the entire purpose of The Practice is to practice Spiritual Formation and all of its contemplative components, like Lectio Divina, a centuries-old mystical Catholic practice involving repeating a word or phrase from the Bible over and over until you reach a higher level of consciousness to “hear God speak” to you:

I think that lectio divina has connected most deeply with our community. This “divine reading” of the Scriptures has become such a powerful supplement to a more analytical/study/expository approach to the Bible.   source

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 2.06.30 PMWho is Aaron?

Aaron Niequist is a singer and author, who married Bill and Lyn Hybels’ daughter, author Shauna Niequist, who frequently speaks at women’s retreats and conferences. The couple worked for Rob Bell’s Mars Hill church in Michigan, Aaron as his worship music leader, and Shauna as his media relations (PR) guru.

Before The Practice, Aaron’s A New Liturgy project did musically what The Practice is doing …liturgically?

On his blog, Niequist also promotes the idea of “Mother God,” along with his dear friends Rob Bell and Michael Gungor:

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But there is good news:

You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.  2 Peter 3:17-18

Questions about any of the New Age terms you’ve read here?  Be sure to study our White Papers for extensive research on New Age,  Spiritual Formation,  Catholicism (RCC), Contemplative Prayer, and the Emergent Church.