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. Here is the promo for Examen:

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.

(Hat Tip to Robin Steen)

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

  1. healingInHim September 9, 2015 at 3:18 pm #

    What saddens me is that other ‘professing Christians’ just don’t see anything wrong with this. 🙁

    • sbyrstall September 9, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

      They don’t. Many who go to church are worse than sheep. They don’t not want to practice discernment for fear of losing the friends they made at this church (or really any liberally-based theology.
      This is why I left the mega-churches for the more Biblically-based smaller church, similar to what the apostles practiced in the 1st century. People, thoughts and the Bible get lost in the large churches. I feel bad for anyone in this church following such anti-Christian messages, or refusing to refute it.

  2. Lee September 9, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    Satan doesn’t wear a red suit and have horns on his head…he looks like the All-American family. 🙁

  3. Sola Scriptura September 9, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    Excellent article. We need more of these writings exposing the leaching of babylonian (and now far eastern) catholicism into the body. Below is my attempt at setting out a scriptural and historical framework proving that catholicism is not only unbiblical, but is deeply wicked:


  4. Lisa September 9, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

    Amy, you most definitely have a voice!!! This is sadly unsurprising. Yet another serving of spiritual stew from Hybels– on a very nice plate with excellent music… It’s kind of like the deep fried everything served at the fair– dip anything in batter and fry it up– kinda hard to tell what you started out with. In this case, they took a smorgasbord of “spirituality” (RC, New Age, etc) and rolled it around in lots of pious Christian terms, and voila! They will fool many with this toxic meal.

    • Grace April 30, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

      It’s so sad to see and hear the criticism coming from well meaning fundamentalists aiming at those who are receiving life, and life more abundantly.

      It was when I left the structured church, and all of its stale clichés, that I found God for myself, and wouldn’t you know it, the scriptures supported my experience.

      How beautifully explained … Examen and Lectio Divina … unusual words and a different way of doing things, but why does this build up so much fear in Christians? Different isn’t wrong, it’s just different. Have you tried it for yourself, or are you only ready to shoot the arrows at anything that sounds different to what you have heard and believed for yourself?

      Guess what? When I discovered these practices for myself, I didn’t enter satan’s cave.
      I moved into a deeper relationship with the Trinity. As for me, I will choose Life.


      • Socialism is Bondage September 6, 2016 at 7:38 pm #

        Hmmm. Curious. How do you define “fundamentalism”? And (therefore), how do you conclude that everyone speaking out here is (somehow) a “fundamentalist” ?

        Interestingly, you and I seem to have opposite experiences. Mine was one wherein I found true “life” and “hope” in Jesus Christ (for eternity) when I chose to leave the catholic church some decades ago, due to the growing trends of “new age”, “liberalism”, “social gospel” and other strange teachings that were creeping in.

        Finally, upon being exposed to the true gospel of Jesus, (revealed in scripture) .. NOT some “pop, watered down” gospel peddled by TV preaching nor catholic sermon, did I finally have hope, “assurance” and true faith (And “love”) for my Lord Jesus, His Father, … AND .. His Holy Spirit. It was then that I (truly) found “LIFE” (Christ living in me .. (Galatians 2:20) by His promise) .. :o).

        Curiously, are you aware that TRUE LOVE also “warns” and even (at times) “rebukes” ? Can you comment here about this passage ? (Hebrews 12:5-11).

        Grace, .. I love your name (truly) … b/c I love (and praise Jesus) for His “Grace” upon us unworthy sinners .. :o) … Choose to ignore my words if you will, but we are living in the very “last” of the “Last Days” revealed in God’s Word (eg… the very Words of Jesus). And our churches need Christ followers who will yet stand up for both “Grace AND Truth” (in LOVE). Not one w/o the other. These two virtues (Grace AND Truth) were what the TRUE Jesus was “full of” …. take a look here (John 1:14-18).

      • Rich June 1, 2021 at 6:21 pm #

        You didn’t find God. You found the God you could accept and tolerate. God is a million miles away from Aaron Niequist. My wife grew up with him. They are all about making money.

  5. Kevin September 9, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    It has been interesting to watch over the past several decades the ebb and flow of the New Age movement and the evangelical church. I guess it should not be a surprise to see the two merge together. Watching Willow Creek, Bethel Church in Redding and others willfully yet blindly bring in mystical (false) teachings should not be a surprise as it merely the next step in a progression along the same path. I suspect Satan has much practice doing this and he patiently introduces his poison one small drop at a time over several decades. minor/subtle changes built upon hundreds of other minor/subtle changes. It easily goes under the radar of many who should know better, but each drop of poison is not presented as poison but as medicine that will help grow the church and make better quality Christians. Satan is brilliant!

  6. Joshua September 10, 2015 at 12:20 am #

    Lectio Divina is just divine reading, aka reading the bible or other holy writ. it is not repeating one word over and over and over.

  7. Dwbra Smith September 10, 2015 at 2:51 am #

    All of this is very dangerous. You are headed down the path of satanism and witchcraft. You will hear voices, but not God, a devil. I’ve been there years ago. Please, you are being very deceived. I will be praying for you.

  8. David Wilson September 10, 2015 at 7:55 am #

    Sorry to agree with Joshua, but if they are doing an Eastern Orthodox/Hindu repetitive chant then that isn’t the standard Lectio Divina (I’m not advocating L.D., just saying). Lectio Divina would require them to ponder a piece of Scripture (which, given it’s Willow Creek, might indeed be a revelation!) while praying for understanding of how it relates to them and the Living Word and His teaching. Even a quick check of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lectio_Divina will show that. Mind you if they are getting their guidance from a Jesuit then they are getting their guidance from an occultist (the Jesuits were occultic certainly from their second Superior General – I’ve never been able to ascertain whether Loyola himself was) so who knows what he’s been teaching them….
    I feel sorry for the sheeple but can’t for the “pastors”. They know the Scriptures. They know what God thinks on all these matters. May the Lord deliver the poor sheep from these Wolves.

    • Anam Cara April 25, 2016 at 8:04 pm #

      Excuse me? You have linked Eastern Orthodox with Hindu? Seriously?

  9. Joshua September 10, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    Im not part of this group. Im an actual roman catholic. Its why I said that lectio divina is not repeating one word or verse over and over, its just, in the roman catholic church, divine reading, aka the bible or other holy writ.

  10. S Cary September 10, 2015 at 1:51 pm #


    You should probably read some Catholic sources on Lectio Divina.


  11. Justin Traver September 11, 2015 at 1:52 am #

    I read with interest the article. We are not all on the same page…some of us are not even on the same team.

    I went to WCCC as new Christian for 10 years. I was even in the Hybels home and very involved. I saw compromise in some of their methods to reach the lost and called some leaders out on it. They resisted, saying “Justin if the Holy Spirit speaks with one voice, why are you the only one saying this?”
    A year later the WCCC Elders commented Bill’s messages “were helpful, but perhaps not leading people into deeper Christian discipleship.”

    Hybels then recognized the need to be more challenging (1988) and coined and started the “Fully Devoted Followers of Christ” campaign. Then in 2007 came the WCCC ministry research book “Resolve” (?) where they allegedly “repent” for their weak discipleship results as quoted in the article above.

    Ironically, a local seminary professor who was invited to teach a symposium there called Willow Creek Institute ( a 1990 forerunner to the WC Association) told us (prophetically) in a talk regarding the Kingdom of God…
    “Beware of institutions.”

    Then a friend of mine who was 100% involved in WCCC…mysteriously left the church and stated as a goodbye…”I’m sorry, I have to leave. Please seek the Lord. SEEK The Lord.”

    Why do we teach as doctrines, and follow after the precepts of men?
    Or why do we as consumers, engage so eagerly in what is being offered?

    I knew WCCC was on a slippery slope of compromise when they began inviting celebrities. May God bring discernment and prophetic words to the leaders of WCCC.

    • Jesse September 21, 2015 at 11:18 pm #

      Thanks for this look at WCCC, I know it can do great things for God but institutionalism will always be detrimental.

  12. Anthony September 11, 2015 at 9:06 am #

    This is what happens when people turn away from the Word of God and the finished work of Jesus at the Cross. They get into foolish, even blasphemous things and eventually are lost.

  13. Cheryl Gilbert September 15, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    I used to be a devout Catholic and am now a non-denominational Christian. I have been a deep seeker of Christ for many years and have studied and been involved in several denominations. I sure grow weary of Christians who are dogmatic and overly intellectual and afraid of the spiritual aspect of God. What kind of God is He if we can’t know His voice ? ((He is our Shepherd) Remember the scripture where Jesus says “You have my Words, but you have not me”. We need a balance and we need to not be afraid to seek Him intimately through prayer guided by the Word. He Himself is life and if I just know “about” Him it’s not the same as knowing Him. You intellectuals need to ease up and focus on the real battles.

  14. roddy September 15, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    What verse are you referencing with your quote?

  15. Ron McKeever September 15, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    Beware of any movement, church or leader that abdicates Biblical teaching for life and practice and substitutes programs instead. More and more, you are seeing what Jesus meant when He taught that the way to Heaven was straight and narrow and only a FEW would find it. Satan is alive and well and he is in the pulpit. So sad.

  16. Brandi September 15, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    Ok, so take a deep breath here. I have been a Protestant Christian nearly my whole life. I went to Catholic school, so I have a good understanding of their faith as well. I believe that doctrine is crucial to our faith, but I also don’t think that any one of us has it exactly right. That will happen when we arrive in heaven. If a practice brings you closer to God, is it evil? If I practice meditating on God’s holy scripture, is the devil in that? If I examine my words and behaviors each day looking for where I could have been more like Christ, is this the work of Hades? The practices of lectio divina and examen are well documented practices of the early church saints who gave their LIVES for Christ (PS the Catholic church was here before the Protestant one, so remember your roots friends). Why are Protestants so scared of what they do not understand? Can you not learn more about these practices before you condemn them? You are covered by the blood of Christ, and learning about ancient practices will not change that. God wants to transform all of us into the image of Christ for the sake of others. How are you doing so far? Is your church service transforming you? Your Bible reading? Honestly appraise yourself. Maybe you are changing, but maybe you are stuck in a desperate rut that you can’t seem to get out of. These practices can help you draw closer to God. They have changed my spiritual life in a way I can hardly express. I don’t wish to argue with anyone or stir up your feelings of fear/anger. Just ask yourself where you are on the road to transformation to Christ-likeness. Jesus wants so much more from us than sound doctrine. Just ask the Pharisees.

  17. Brandi September 15, 2015 at 5:25 pm #

    And PS. keeping the Sabbath is a commandment FYI. And I’m pretty sure we would all be better off if we were cognisant of Christ’s presence.

  18. Tucker September 19, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    Has anyone posting here actually been to the service they are so eager to condemn?

    • Marty Rich December 8, 2015 at 5:46 pm #

      I went to WCCC for almost 15 years. The leadership of the church became so liberal I didn’t recognize it. I felt as though I had been duped by the music and the production of it all. I questioned the purpose behind The Practice and felt it was very much New Age. The lingo was spot on. I longed for a pastor to open the Bible and really teach out of it. It took me a long time to seek out another church to attend.

  19. james Speed November 3, 2015 at 8:15 am #

    God will expose this heresy, just like he has all others. They cloak their message which sounds enticing but with trappings of a religion that does indeed chain the soul. Only in Christ and Christ alone are we set free. We do not pray to dead believers or to Jesus’s dead mother.. we pray to God the Father in Jesus name.

  20. Dave November 3, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    The “Practice,” if properly represented here, is quite simply, profane. Seems worse than the spate of sociology based messages passed off as theology, and here I thought it couldn’t get more perverted.

    Thanks for the heads up.

  21. Jason Pearson April 25, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    this is excellent – thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’m definitely going to check it out now.

  22. RHONDA April 30, 2016 at 10:41 pm #

    I so can not believe the narrow thinking of Christianity. I am a Christian and love God dearly and know and experiece his love for me everyday. But I am also embarrassed to use the word Christian any more because of such funfamentalist thinking. I left the church but not the faith because I realized God is much bigger than Christian institutionlised religion.


  23. Lana November 5, 2016 at 11:34 pm #

    The MESSage is not the Word of God and neither is the E.S.V. which was quoted here. The ESV calls Jesus Christ a devil.

    Daniel 3:25 English Standard Version (ESV)

    25 He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a [[[son of the gods.”]]]

    Daniel 3:25 Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV)

    25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the[[[ Son of God.]]]

    • Kevin November 6, 2016 at 7:17 am #

      Context… Context… Context!!!

      Lana, You did not include enough of the passage to understand who said it. It was a pagan, and pagans do not recognize the true God so it was not surprising that the pagan leader, Nebuchadnezzar, would have thought it was something from his own belief system. It was the Son of God that he saw but the passage is quoting the words of Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar would not have recognized the Son of God so he spoke using words describing what he saw through the lens of his belief system. Below is verse 24-25. Verse 24 sets a more complete context of verse 25.

      24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.”

  24. Matt July 11, 2021 at 9:59 pm #

    I found out The Practice is no longer a ministry of Willow Creek. The new leadership most likely had a disagreement with it, as it doesn’t fit the mission and values of the rest of the church. I know a lot of people didn’t agree with the theology of it too. The whole idea of inviting roman catholic priests seems really off to me. I heard they had hosted a retreat for nuns too. They tried having them lead worship at a weekend service and many people I knew didn’t like it.

    • Amy Spreeman July 26, 2021 at 1:48 pm #

      That’s good, but have they ever publicly addressed this or corrected/repented of this false teaching? Otherwise we don’t know why they no longer have this – perhaps the program ran its course and they moved on.

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