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A MinistryWatch Analysis: What Happened At Willow Creek?

Warren Cole Smith

In the 1970s and 80s, radio personality Casey Kasem would often punctuate his “American Top 40” program with the phrase: “And the hits just keep on coming.”  The expression became a catchphrase of the era.

It was the same era in which Chicago-area’s Willow Creek Community Church rose to national prominence.  But Casey Kasem’s famous phrase could also describe the church’s decline: “The hits just keep on coming.”

The first hit came in 2018, when whistleblowers accused longtime pastor Bill Hybels of sexual misconduct.  The church’s leadership initially rallied around the pastor, who denied the accusations.  And that may have been the church’s second mistake:  to uncritically accept Hybels’ word against credible accusations, rather than investigate them.

The early whistleblowers gave others courage, and the church’s denials made them defiant.  Soon, the allegations were so numerous – and so credible – that Hybels was forced to resign.  So did others in Willow Creek senior leadership who had backed Hybels uncritically.

As the church was recovering from these hits to its credibility, more troubles followed.  In January of this year, a longtime church member shared in a public Facebook post Saturday (Jan. 25) that Gilbert Bilezikian — known widely as “Dr. B.” — kissed, fondled and pressured her to have sex with him between 1984 and 1988.  Bilezikian, a retired college professor who was for decades a mentor to Hybels, is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Willow Creek Church.  Hybels himself once said, “There would be no Willow Creek without Gilbert Bilezikian.”

It appeared at first that Willow Creek leadership had learned its lesson.  Acting lead pastor Steve Gillen acknowledged the accusations against Dr. B immediately.  “We believe that Dr. B engaged in inappropriate behavior, and the harm he caused was inexcusable,” Gillen wrote in an email.   Or so it seemed.  It turns out the acknowledgement came a decade too late.  Soon, it came to light that credible accusations against Bilezikian had been made a decade earlier, and the church’s elders had quietly restricted him from serving, but failed to inform the membership of Bilezikian’s problems.  In fact, about that time, Willow Creek gave Bilezikian an award for his role in the development of the church.

These cover-ups were so pervasive, that now Gillen himself has resigned as the acting lead pastor.  Further, the search for a new lead pastor – a role for which Gillen was also a leading candidate – came to a halt.

With all these problems, problems that have involved large numbers of senior leaders over decades, it is worth asking the question:  What happened at Willow Creek?  Are these problems anomalies, are they “baked in” to the kind of independent megachurch that Willow Creek became – and modeled for so many others?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to step back a few decades to look at the founding of what has become one of the most imitated churches in America.

Willow Creek’s Headwaters

Willow Creek Community Church and its dynamic and then young pastor, Bill Hybels, were in many ways strategically located to have an impact on the entire nation.  For one thing, it is in the suburbs of Chicago, the third largest city in the United States.

Perhaps more importantly, it is also near some of the most influential Christian ministries and colleges in the country, including Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Trinity International University, and the Moody Bible Institute.

And the suburb of South Barrington, Willow Creek’s home, is the kind of edge city or exurb that has driven economic growth in the country in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In other words, it was one of the most affluent and fastest-growing towns in the U.S.  In many ways, South Barrington in the 1980s was what America aspired to be.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Willow Creek Community Church became what many churches aspired to be. It became the archetype of the modern evangelical megachurch.  It grew from start-up to megachurch status (more than 2000 in regular attendance) in a matter of just a few years.  By 2005 the church claimed 21,500 members, making it the sixth largest Protestant congregation in the United States.  It eventually “topped out” at around 25,000 in 2015.

What really distinguished Willow Creek, though, was not just its size or the speed of its growth, but its influence on other churches. By creating the Willow Creek Association (now doing business as the Global Leadership Network), an organization that ultimately had thousands of churches as members, it has mentored others in its strategies and techniques for church growth.

 

Youth Group For Grown-Ups

Willow Creek, like so many megachurches and parachurch organizations, was born out of youth ministry—in this case, the youth ministry of another suburban Chicago church called South Park Church, in the nearby suburb of Park Ridge.

South Park Church itself was no mainline, old-school church. Though the mother of Willow Creek Community Church, it was barely an adolescent itself. Founded in 1947, South Park was also a nondenominational, evangelical church. In 1972 Bill Hybels began leading a youth group there. The group called itself “Son City,” and within a year the group had nearly tripled in size on the strength of Hybels’s personality and teaching and the style of the meetings themselves, which included the early ’70s equivalent of praise and worship songs.

Those who studied under Hybels have likely heard him say that every group needs a mission.  In May 1973 Son City was intentionally reengineered to give it a more explicit mission:  to be an outreach to nonbelieving youth.

Hybels saw the move as a way to continue to interest the youth who were already there.  Growing the group became their responsibility, too.  He wanted the kids to have a reason to come after the novelty of the informal worship service wore off, or was duplicated elsewhere.

This decision may seem logical and well intentioned. Indeed, many youth groups are considered outreaches of the church, not intended, or at least not primarily intended, for spiritual formation or discipleship. But that only shows the extent to which the Willow Creek model has become the dominant model of American evangelicalism, especially among youth ministry. In fact, Hybels’s decision to reach out to unchurched people and not “dig down” with current members was a turning point for Hybels, according to G. A. Pritchard, who wrote a critical history of the Willow Creek movement.

It was also a turning point in evangelicalism. One of the unintended consequences of a church that is constantly focused more on outreach than spiritual formation is that this model all but ensures that every generation has to be re-evangelized, since adults raised in such a church do not have the spiritual training to raise its own children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Pritchard is careful to say that none of these consequences were engineered out of malice or a desire for celebrity or empire. They were truly the unintended consequences of young men and women who were doing the best they could, the best they knew how.

The reengineered Son City grew rapidly.  The young leaders of the group had numerical evidence to support the idea that God was blessing their efforts. By 1975 Son City had grown to more than a thousand young people, far more people than South Park Church had at that time. Indeed, the large group was no longer meeting at the church, having outgrown it, and some of the people attending had “aged out” of the original youth group, but they kept coming anyway and bringing their friends.

So in 1975, the leadership of Son City decided to implement the same “principles on an adult level by starting a church,” wrote Don Cousins, one of the organizers of the church.

A key figure during that period was “Dr. B,” – Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian.

A Wheaton College professor, Gilbert Bilezikian is sometimes called the theologian of Willow Creek. Bilezikian was on a two-year teaching assignment at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., when a young Bill Hybels came into his classroom in 1975. Hybels was deeply influenced by the Wheaton professor, and the young Hybels would ride his motorcycle to Wheaton to get advice from his former professor. In fact, it was on Bilezikian’s lawn one afternoon that Hybels said, “Dr. B., you and I are going to start a church.”  That church, founded in a movie theater, became Willow Creek Community Church.

Most of the staff of the new church came from the staff of the youth group. This was an intentional decision. Because they were creating a new kind of church, Hybels believed they had to grow their staff from within, as those coming in from traditional church structures outside of Willow Creek wouldn’t “get it.”

This was another vital and defining decision. Because Hybels had little formal theological education and because the church recruited most of the leadership from the youth group, another unintended consequence was virtually guaranteed: the spiritual maturity of any new leaders would likely not rise above the level of the current leadership.

That would be fine if the church had somehow stumbled on a method or process for disciple making and spiritual formation heretofore unknown or lost somewhere in the history of the church. But it was a risky and presumptuous decision.

It’s likely, though, that the young leadership of the church understood neither the risk nor the presumption of the decision. Don Cousins, for example, defended the decision. “It is extremely difficult to judge a person’s character or spiritual authenticity in an interview. You have to see them at work for some time.” For this reason, Pritchard said, “Willow Creek does not like to hire individuals who haven’t demonstrated their character there.”  This statement, in retrospect, is ironic and eerily prophetic.

One positive consequence of this strategy has been that, over the years, Willow Creek has seen stability among its senior leadership team that is uncommon. Pritchard said that during the time he studied Willow Creek, Hybels supervised three individuals in a management team who in turn managed the rest of the staff. Two of these three were students in the original thirty-member youth group.

But the other side of that coin is that it leaves one man—Bill Hybels—in firm control, and the leadership tends to be insular. Pritchard wrote, “Virtually all the church’s work has remained firmly in the hands of people who shared the common experience of the youth group.”  A related consequence is that despite the fact that Willow Creek has gotten bigger and older, it remains essentially, in methodology and content, a youth group. Mike Breaux, who was a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, said Willow Creek was “youth ministry for big people.”

Because Willow Creek is so intentionally youth ministry for big people, entertainment, or infotainment, is at the center of the church’s methodology. The founder of the youth ministry Young Life, Jim Rayburn, famously said, “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.”  Willow Creek takes this admonition seriously, filling its sermons with drama and music, all strongly supported by state-of-the-art audiovisual accoutrement. Something is always happening on stage. And that activity is designed specifically to help “nonchurched Harry”—as Hybels often describes the generic seeker—see that church and Christianity are not boring. Pritchard quoted Hybels from one of the many pastors’ conferences that Willow Creek gives through its Willow Creek Association: “Variety, variety, variety, variety. You’ll get sick of hearing that in the next couple days. But friends, in every other environment except church, nonchurched Harry is exposed to variety.”

That nonchurched Harry might be coming to church to encounter something permanent and unchanging is a point lost here. That the church should be offering something permanent and unchanging, regardless of whether nonchurched Harry wants it or not, was – for many years — doubly lost.

 

Ideas Have Consequences – Bad Ideas Have Victims

Cracks in the Willow Creek veneer began to show up nearly 15 years ago, when Hybels himself admitted that the church’s brand of ministry has been a “mistake.” The confession came in the wake of a book published by Willow Creek. Reveal: Where Are You? was co-written by Willow Creek Executive Pastor Greg Hawkins and Callie Parkinson, who leads Willow Creek’s Reveal ministry. Reveal, and the book that bears the ministry’s name, promoted the results of a multi-year study on the state of the American church. The study suggested what many critics of the Willow Creek model have said for years: Most churches are not doing a good job of true disciple-building.

“We made a mistake,” Hybels said at Willow Creek’s annual Leadership Summit, where the results of the survey were presented. “When people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

Callie Parkinson told me then that the Reveal study would result in a “broadening of the movement. There’s been a breakthrough in our understanding.” But she reiterated that Willow Creek remains not just “seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed.”

That means, according to Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, that American evangelicalism is likely to see “more of the same” from Willow Creek. “In the ‘seeker’ view, evangelism and outreach are spiritual technologies that must be made more efficient,” Horton said. “Having a survey tell you that you need to add ‘discipleship’ to the list of technologies that we’re trying to make more efficient doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.”

Is the use of surveys as a replacement for true spiritual discernment among evangelical church leaders at the core of the problem facing the modern church? Horton criticizes the idea of church, worship, or the gospel as “product,” and lost sinners as “consumers.” People, he said, “are not consumers who need to be satisfied. They’re sinners who need to be justified. Preaching is not a technology. It is a means of grace.”

Horton admitted, though, that though the “the state of the church in America today is poor, it’s a condition you can’t blame on Willow Creek alone. It’s increasingly difficult to swim against the tide of materialism, consumerism, and narcissism in the culture.”

Willow Creek had to weather another controversy in 2015, when one of its worship leaders – Darren Calhoun – spoke and helped lead music at a pro-gay conference in Atlanta called The Reformation Project.  The Reformation Project was led by Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, a book that was widely criticized by those who uphold a biblical standard regarding human sexuality.

Calhoun and Willow Creek defended his participation in the conference.  “I’m a follower of Jesus,” Calhoun told me in a written statement. “My church community is Willow Chicago, the downtown campus of Willow Creek Community Church. There, I’ve served as a volunteer for eight years in various parts of our arts ministries including leading worship. … I’m also gay. As a Christian, I’ve been on a long journey to reconcile the reality of my orientation with the various views that the church world has on the topic of people who are attracted to the same sex. … At Willow, I was able to begin a journey of celibacy and prayerfully discerning what that means for my life.”

Willow Creek spokeswoman Heather Larson told me then that having an openly gay man in leadership at the church did not signal a change in direction for Willow Creek.  (Though the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s Chelsen Vicari took issue with Willow Creek’s position on homosexuality as early as 2013.)

“Darren is held to the same standard that we have for everyone in our church,” she said. “He is able to serve in a worship role because he has committed to all of the characteristics outlined in our Leadership Covenant, which includes living a life of sexual purity. For Darren, this is a commitment to celibacy.”

Once again, the passage of time turned the statements of both Calhoun and Larson on their heads.  Darren Calhoun left the staff of Willow Creek Church and is now an openly gay activist calling for “more queer voices in the church.”  When Bill Hybels was forced out as lead pastor in April of 2018, Larson got that job, then Gillen.  The church’s lead teaching pastor, Steve Carter, also resigned on Sunday, saying he could no longer continue at the church in “good conscience.”  The bottom line:  Willow Creek’s practice of growing its own leadership meant there were few people in senior leadership roles whose credibility was untainted.

Or, as Bob Smeitana wrote in Christianity Today, “church leaders had been blinded by their faith in their founding pastor and had failed to hold Hybels accountable.”

Willow Creek elder Missy Rasmussen put it this way: “We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment.”

 

Picking Up The Pieces

A church the size of Willow Creek won’t just disappear, of course, but it does appear be shrinking.  A source who asked not to be identified told MinistryWatch that weekly attendance at all Willow Creek campuses has fallen below 18,000.  That’s down from 25,000 in 2015.  The worship center at the main South Barrington campus holds 7,200 people and has three weekend services (one on Saturday night and two on Sunday).  That means total weekend service capacity exceeds 21,000.  Total attendance for all three services for the past few weeks was around 6000.

With the departure of Hybels, Larson, Gillen and so many others in senior leadership, and a “back to the drawing board” approach to finding a new pastor, it is not clear what the future holds for Willow Creek.

But G.A Pritchard’s 1996 book on Willow Creek also takes on an eerie resonance when read with the benefit of hindsight.  He concluded:

“Imagine Hybels and his team attempting to save someone being swept down a swiftly moving river. Hybels reaches out to try to catch the unfortunate soul before he or she is swept away. Hybels is using the tools of our culture to reach out to the unchurched Harrys being swept away to the judgment. Yet in attempting to reach out to others in the fast-flowing river of our culture, Hybels and his followers also sometimes fall in.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine and has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 20 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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