Twisting in the Wind and the Willow

Greetings Scandal Seekers:  

The slow cascade of revelations regarding Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Church and Association, fits an all too familiar pattern: rumor and accusation, denial, demonstration of support and counter-accusation, erosion of support, damning accusation, confession and resignations. These may be the seven stages of lost reputation usually associated with star-personality leaders whose empire rests on the integrity of their reputation. Building a church with over 20,000 attendees and an international association that includes over 11,000 congregations, Hybels created a vast network dedicated to a welcome of the unchurched. Relying on a ‘seeker friendly’ atmosphere, Willow Creek championed contemporary music, the removal of hymnals and offering plates, arena-style sanctuaries and welcome spaces designed to look like hotel lobbies. The main church in South Barrington boasted a food court that seats hundreds of diners between services, and in the 1990’s, Harvard Business School added Willow Creek to their massive library of corporate case studies.  

Since their first worship service in 1975 at the Willow Creek Theater in Plainfield, Hybels created a phenomenon transforming the practice of American Christianity. Like it or hate it, every congregation in the country had to contend with Willow Creek’s redefinition of how to “do church”.

From the beginning, I looked on Willow Creek with suspicion. I had several conversations with Gilbert Bilezikian, New Testament professor and Hybels’ spiritual mentor, about authenticity and expedience. Bilezikian contended that the power of the New Testament church was its ability to convey Christ’s message using the tools of contemporary culture. He suggested Hybels’ heavy reliance on focus groups was akin to Paul’s Areopogus sermon using the Athenian Temple to the Unknown God as a starting point (Acts 17). The major difference was that Paul’s message brought no converts; Hybels cultivated thousands. 

My own distaste for the genre was its preferential option for the new. Traditional architectural and liturgical elements were jettisoned as off-putting, even offensive, to the unchurched. Crosses, baptismal fonts, pews, pulpits and even Bibles were cleared from view. But in the cleansing of the temple, what was also lost was any evidence of mortality or decay. For me, a primary message of the Gospel is how we grow irrelevant, age and die. The cluttered detritus of Christians gone by reminds us of the very mortality, the very sin from which we are saved. Willow Creek saw these reminders of the past as the church’s biggest problem; I perceive them as helpful guideposts to our process. God’s grace not only redeems our present selves; it also incorporates and forgives our imperfect past. 

So now the bold visionaries of the next-generation church are grappling with the age-old consequences of a leader’s indiscretion. I have no prediction regarding the viability of the Willow Creek institution. If their reliance was overly dependent on the creativity, character and charisma of their founder, then I presume their future is bleak (imagine the future of Tesla if some tragedy were to befall Elon Musk). If, however, their institutional stability is rooted in a broader sense of mission and accountability, Willow Creek may retain identity and strength into the next generation. I only hope that as events unfold, people discover how the reality of God’s grace radically transcends our fascination with technique and trend.

Seeking stability beyond scandal, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor