LAKE FOREST – Mention “Christ Church” in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff and chances are you’ll hear something like the following:
“The big white church on the corner?”
It’s something Senior Pastor Mike Woodruff hears often, and he’s looking forward to a time when his congregation is more widely known for its programs than for its striking, award-winning architecture at one of the most heavily trafficked intersections, Route 60 and Waukegan Road, in west Lake Forest.
“We know we will be doing our job when people say ‘Christ Church? Isn’t that where they help the poor?’ Then we can say we are something other than ‘the big white church on the corner,’ ” he said.
That may not be far off. At a time when Christianity is on the decline in the U.S., Christ Church’s weekly attendance has doubled by some measures and tripled by others to 1,800 people, including 400 children and teens, since Woodruff became senior pastor in 2002. To accommodate the growth, the church expanded to two nearby communities: Highland Park in 2010 and Grayslake in 2014.
Members interviewed for this story said they love Christ Church for its mission programs; its emphasis on small groups; and its lively music that includes six music teams of about five to 12 members each, for a total of 60 volunteer musicians, who perform everything from rockabilly and blue grass to gospel and classical. They also speak highly of the youth programs, which span Kindergarten through high school and are so popular that some parents get nudged to go church by their children, not the other way around.
Another significant reason for the growth of Christ Church is the pastor himself.
“Mike Woodruff’s teachings are powerful and intellectually stimulating – he’s a major draw,” said Chris Webb, a former CCLF deacon, father of two and president of Webb Financial Group in Lake Forest. (When Webb and his wife Diana moved to Lake Forest several years ago from Chicago, they told their real estate agent they were looking for a non-denominational church. “She told us there’s a big white church over on Waukegan Road where people go in and they never come out,” Webb said.)
“The church encourages spiritual depth and growth with guidance from God’s word, the Bible,” said Mary Mowry of Lake Forest, who has been attending Christ Church with her husband Bill for 25 years. “And Mike Woodruff is brilliant and his sermons and books are insightful and inspiring,” she added.
Woodruff reluctantly agreed to be interviewed for this story, which is part of an occasional series on North Shore religious leaders and their houses of worship. (Click here to read the first story, about Rabbi Wendi Geffen of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe.)
“It’s not as newsy as you think,” Woodruff said before we sat down in his light-filled office on a recent Monday afternoon. He was wearing a button down shirt and jeans, his standard uniform, and talked about everything from Christ Church’s mission; his quasi-religious upbringing; his thoughts on evil; and what he tells people who don’t buy what he’s selling.
He also talked about his health and the stroke that nearly ended his life on Good Friday 2014, which you can read about by clicking this link to Part 2 of this story, which will run on DailyNorthShore.com and in the November issue of Forest & Bluff magazine.
Here are excerpts from our long conversation about the church:
DailyNorthShore: So we’ve established that Christ Church is the “big white church on the corner” … but what else is it — what congregation?
Mike Woodruff: It’s a historic, orthodox, Protestant Community Church. It was started 35 years ago by 17 people in Lake Forest who wanted to create a non-denominational church centered on the teachings of Jesus. Our mission is to talk of God’s love and model it.
DNS: Were you part of it then, one of the 17?
MW: No—but I did attend briefly in 1983 as a graduate student at Trinity (International University – an Evangelical Christian college in Deerfield).
DNS: What were you doing between getting a Master’s degree from Trinity in 1985 and coming to CCLF years later?
MW: I was a management consultant for businesses and non-profits. I felt called to the church in a very surprising way.
DNS: How so?
MW: I was doing pro-bono consulting for Christ Church, and when they were looking for a new associate pastor I gave them some names of candidates. One day I called to find out how an interview had gone, and the staff member who answered the phone said it had not gone well. I asked what they were going to do next, and she said:
“We’re just going to wait for you to take the job.”
And I knew in a half second that I was going to take the job. I had just bought an office building in Washington (state) and hired a friend who quit her job to come for me. I was making a lot of money. My wife and I had three kids – 12, 8 and 4, and when I told her about it, she felt the same way. This confirmed it for me and so we moved across the country.
By the way — I don’t recommend that people make decisions this way. But it was as clear a moment that God had spoken to me as I’ve ever had. It was shocking but clear.
DNS: Let’s talk about the expansion of Christ Church to Highland Park and Grayslake.
MW: In 2010 we partnered with the former Evangelical Church of Highland Park (at 1713 Greenbay Road). At the time it was a very small church, 20 people, and they were growing older. They put out an S.O.S. and we answered. We spent several hundred thousand dollars to modernize and refurbish the church, and we sent 50 people there and launched Christ Church Highland Park, which seats 120.
Last year we had five services in Lake Forest and we were going up to two in Highland Park. We had the demand but not an option in Lake Forest for a 6th service, so we went looking for another site. Since about 600 people in our database live in Libertyville, we went west for the third campus and partnered with Crossroads Church (1350 I-37) in Grayslake in 2014, right on the Libertyville border.
DNS: People say they love your sermons, but with three campuses how do you preach to everyone?
MW: I am the senior pastor, and we have a campus pastor at Highland Park and Grayslake who are pastoring those congregations, but the sermon is live-telecast by video. I preach 80% of the time.
DNS: Why do you think people are drawn to Christ Church?
MW: Um … wow. … I don’t know how to answer that. (He thinks about this carefully for a minute or two):
We feel very fortunate to be growing and we trust that in this season God is looking with favor on us, and we are striving to do our best, as are many other churches. We are doing our best to love people, to tell them about God’s love and model it as best we can. We do this very imperfectly. We have strong small groups, great programs for kids and this brings in younger families, which adds energy. And we obviously hope there is a spiritual reason people are drawn to us here.
But we see ourselves as a local congregation that is part of a big church and we want to see the other churches grow and thrive. Like in North Chicago. …
DNS: What’s Christ Church doing in North Chicago?
MW: We have had families relocate and move to North Chicago as part of a long-term mission to be part of what God is doing there. There are lots of good people there, lots of good programs, and we want to be part of that over the long term.
DNS: Back to those people who are moving from the Lake Forest area to North Chicago?
MW: Three Christ Church families have relocated and purchased homes in North Chicago. It’s exciting, and is just one of the programs we are involved with in North Chicago. There are several churches and groups working through North Chicago Community Partners and we are one of them.
We are also working with the Fuller Center for Housing to pilot our first Matthew Home, committed to being the light Jesus calls us to be in Matthew 5:14. The mission of the Fuller Center is to identify and buy homes and fix them up using as much volunteer labor and donated supplies as we can find. Then we work with North Chicago churches to identify vibrant, healthy, mission-minded families who want to buy these homes with a no-interest loan, and who will be part of a long-term ministry to their neighbors.
We are now on our second home. We’d love to make investments in 30 homes in the next three to five years.
We also have business people in Libertyville, Lake Forest, Lincolnshire and Deerfield who are mentoring entrepreneurs in North Chicago to grow their businesses so they can thrive and provide more jobs. We’re working through the mayor’s office and their community development program.
And we have a church-school partnership with Forrestal Elementary.
DNS: I asked friends of mine who attend Christ Church what they most want to know about you, and one of the things that came up was “what makes him tick?”
MW: I am a simple and straightforward guy. I really truly believe there is a loving, gracious God and a lot of people are looking in the wrong direction for the kind of peace and joy and success that they definitely want in life. I am trying to tell the story of God’s love and grace that is extended freely to every person. That’s it. I’m not more complicated than that.
DNS: Did you grow up with a strong faith?
MW: I grew up in a modestly religious family in the Quad Cities. We went to church in a perfunctory way, and I hated it. I didn’t get anything out of it. It was very rules based. I felt there was a God and I had better do the right thing or I’ll get in trouble.
DNS: When did things change?
MW: It was not until late in high school that I came to understand grace and Christianity are not a matter of people being good enough that God will accept them. It’s a matter of God reaching down to us. That is a very freeing, life-giving proposal.
For college I went to Depauw (in Green Castle, Indiana) to be a doctor. But sophomore year I was leading Bible studies and finding joy and a sense of connection, and second semester I felt a call to ministry so I decided to walk away from the pre-med path.
DNS: You said late in high school you came to understand grace. How so?
MW: I didn’t have a very dramatic conversion. Friends of mine did, and they came back talking about it and invited me to Bible study. It was an 18-month process for me, and I don’t have a moment where I stepped over the line, but I realized at some point that I believe in God and that Jesus is God.
DNS: What’s it like pastoring an affluent congregation?
MW: There are a lot of wonderful, bright, capable, interesting and successful people here. Some people worship money, and some are very generous. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and problems. But as much as money is a challenge, it’s not the only challenge we face here — the pace of life is a challenge. Having money and a higher standard of living mean having more options. That is the biggest challenge. There are 1,000 things you can do, 1,000 distractions. But some things matter more than others.
DNS: What do you say to people who are on the fence about God?
MW: Doubt is good! If you have questions and are willing to explore – that is great! If you go after those things you will meet God. I sincerely believe that.
DNS: What about people who are going through really horrible things and wondering where is God in all of this? How do you read the newspapers and hear about all of the evil things going on, and still have the faith and enthusiasm you have?
MW: I believe this world is broken and that people are broken. That some things that happen are horrific, and that we have a God who understands that pain because he comes along side us. He is not distant from it. He is right there. He would declare it as evil. He wants it to stop.
DNS: Why doesn’t God stop it then? The evil?
MW: Sure God could step in and wipe out all evil. But then I’m done. And you’re done. It’s game over. …
And it’s not that easy to say “Stop that evil but not this one.” How does God choose which evil to wipe out? It’s like that quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (he gets up and walks to his computer to Google it, then reads it out loud):
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
DNS: How does that help innocent people who are going through really horrible things, who are really suffering?
MW: We need to be the hands and feet of God, and our hearts need to break for those who are suffering. We need to try to extend the grace and love of God and be there and help them move forward and say God has promised that one day he is going to work these things out. That is the best sense we can make of this now.
For Part 2 of this story, please visit DailyNorthShore.com on October 11.