From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Chris Haw’s journey from Catholicism to the Evangelical Church and Back Again

It’s been my very good luck to read some excellent books lately for the Patheos book club. One of my favorites so far has been Chris Haw’s “From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling my love for Catholicism.” Even before I had finished reading, I had a list of at least ten people to whom I wanted to pass on this book. I have many friends and family who are Evangelical, and at times have felt we were speaking past each other when engaging the topic of religion.

“You need to purify your belief system of any -isms,” I’ve been told for instance, which is impossible, since I practice Catholic-ism. And I’m sure I’ve made my share of clunky comments or arguments as well. This book does the nitty gritty work of having the Evangelical/Catholic conversation for us via Haw’s journey from a Catholic childhood, to an Evangelical mega-church, and back to Catholicism. Without polemics or contempt for either faith practice, Haw explains what he found attractive in the non-denominational Willow Creek Church as a teenager and young adult.

Willow Creek had vibrant youth groups, a sprawling campus, an auditorium for worship with mezzanine levels, a stage, and a worthy sound and video system for their professional worship band. The services were mesmerizing and relevant compared to the dirge-like Catholic Mass of his former Parish. And he was soon encouraged to make use of his gifts and talents within the Willow Creek Community.

“While ministering to the already convinced, Willow Creek’s leaders had long been in discernment about how to attract the ‘unchurched’ into their congregation. They judged that the modern world, in its increasing secularization, had grown weary of the stuffiness of old-school church services and their mystifying religious imagery. People wanted something more accessible, more ‘relevant,’ something without an embarrassingly religious gravitational pull.” (14)

Haw rejects his former Catholic Community, “Casually waving them off, considering them guilty of all the popular criticisms”:

  • They probably worship Mary
  • They engage in empty and dead ritualism
  • they make up doctrines in contradiction with the Bible
  • They are credulous enough to believe the bread and wine is literally Jesus
  • They are burdened with a long list of historical sins
  • and they are so old fashioned that women are not in leadership.

“Though a fair-minded critic might have pointed out that I had never read a Catholic theologian, I would have insisted that was beside the point. I found myself miraculously capable of judging over a millennium of church history as entirely corrupt, without knowing any of it.” (21)

After college, Haw became involved with a community ministering to the poor in the crime ridden and decaying neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey. There, Haw begins worshiping at Sacred Heart Parish. Over the course of a gradual reintroduction to Catholicism, Haw addresses each one of his former criticisms of Catholicism and how he reconciled them with theology, history, and his own very personal encounter with Catholic liturgy.

In Camden, living in the midst of violence and desolation, Haw sees the need for an incarnate faith, one that takes into account the realities of life in a harsh and often violent world. With a steady command of Girardian philosophy, Haw learns to appreciate the pagan origins of divine sacrifice, while also differentiating Christ’s death and resurrection from all myths that came before it. He explores the impossibility of Non-denominationalism, and how in seeking to hold no prejudices, many Christians limit the possibilities of faith. In a chapter on Art and Apocalypse, he sees the need for beautiful art and architecture, and explores the balance of the Church’s wealth in art with the mandate to care for the poor.

“From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart” is an important book that hosts a fair dialogue between two religious groups that share many of the same strengths, and also many of the same blind spots. He gives the Evangelical movement a chance to speak, and then the Catholic Church speaks back in such a way that neither faith could misunderstand each other. Haw’s purpose is not to establish the superiority of one faith practice over another, but to explain why young people might leave the Catholic Church. What do they find attractive in Evangelical churches? And why might an Evangelical return to a Catholic Mass when they’ve been “freed” from all the rituals and rules and retroactive thinking that Catholics seem to embrace?

I recommend “From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart” for any Catholic or Evangelical who’s interested in this dialogue.





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About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Owen

    The last local church I worked in as a Protestant minister before my conversion was a large, as in mega Presbyterian church (which may seem a bit of an oxymoron for those in the know…certainly in a Canadian setting) built on the Willow Creek model. Our staff went annually to WillaMecca but I digress. If I could afford to buy another book right now my guess is that in this book I would have plenty of oh-yeh-I-have-so-been-there moments. As I personally lived a good chunk of this story and as I shouldn’t buy another book at this moment I will be content in knowing that another dear soul has come Home and say, thanks Lord. I think I will recommend it to our university chaplain though. :)

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      I will add you to my list of people for whom I want to buy this book, Owen. As a fresh revert, Haw was able to make the Catholic faith look almost entirely new to me too.

  • Richard

    I had a similar journey to the author of that book, by the sounds of it. There is much that I value fro my time as a pentecostal and fundamentalist. It has enriched my faith greatly. I won’t buy it. though, as I will soon be entering a monastery. Less is more!

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  • Peggy

    My story as well. Left the Catholic faith through Calvary Chapel, married and had kids. Knew I had made a mistake with in a couple of years, but so as not to upset the family, I stayed away, only going to midnight mass and when I could go alone. Husband and family and I eventually ended up at an Evangelical Free Church. I watched the doctrine make Jesus seem smaller and smaller. Finally, I told the husband, I’m going back. I now go to mass mostly alone and then join the family at yet another “non- denominational” church. I am so happy to be back. After 7 years, I still cry at mass for joy!

  • Patrick

    I think it’s important to remember that Chris came back to the Catholic Church through Sacred Heart Church in Camden, obviously a vibrant parish living out the Gospel message in a very poor and dangerous area, quite different to the church he left, which for the most part still exists, and from which many Catholics continue to leave.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      Haw addresses this point in the book, actually. But he makes a pretty convincing case for the universality of Catholicism and its liturgy. He also quotes Chesterton, first replacing the neighborhood of central London, Pimlico with Camden, and then later in the book, with The Church:

      “It is not enough for a man to disapprove of (the Church): in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of (the Church): for then it will remain (the Church), which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love (the Church): to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved (the Church), the (the Church) would rise to ivory towers and golden pinnacles: (the Church) would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved….Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honor to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

  • Amy

    Definitely a book I’ll be reading! Although we’re much older than Mr. Haws, my husband and I also left the Catholic Church to attend Willow Creek for 10 years. After traveling through several other evangelical denominations over the following 12 years, The Lord in His great Mercy led me back to the Catholic Church just this year, along with my oldest daughter, the only one of our four children baptized in the Church before we left. She and I are now going through RCIA :) Praying for hubby and other children to follow us in. I’m so looking forward to reading his perspective!

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