An article by radio show host Bob Burney has been circulating recently about the “Shocking Confession” of Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church. The article takes a few quotes of Bill Hybels (Senior Pastor of Willow) and Greg Hawkins (executive pastor) and makes sweeping conclusions of the failure of the ‘seeker sensitive movement’. He has read the recently published book “REVEAL” (by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson), about the statistical data on Willow Creek’s effectiveness in partnering with God to change people’s hearts. The primary idea of the paper is found in the first paragraph, “The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples.” He further states that now Hybels himself is admitting that his entire philosophy was, in large part ‘a mistake’.
How do I know? I was there, in person, in detail. I served at Willow Creek as the director of evangelism for seven years 1999-2006. I also directed or oversaw the ministries to New Believers, Internationals, Apologetics, and launched Casa de Luz, the Hispanic ministry. Having been a senior leader at Willow, I know the inside scoop of what happened publicly and behind the scenes. I was a coworker with Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, with a very close day-to-day relationship with Parkinson. I was there when the survey was taken. I sat in rooms as the data was analyzed. I watched the effects as the data hit the streets. I saw the announcement at the leadership summit of how this data affected leadership decisions and the future trajectory of the church.
Here are some reflections:
1) Every church has strengths and weaknesses. Ours sure does. The thing about Willow is that Hybels has the guts to measure his, change things, and publicly admit the weakest places. Wow. That is courageous leadership.
2)Willow Creek is a massive church, with approximately 20,000 in weekly attendance. Some people who attend were very shallow in their faith. Some were more mature. My ministry had hundreds of non-Christians and new believers. We also had 11 former pastors and 20 others with Christian master’s degrees in Christian programs- all of them volunteer leaders. These leaders were very well formed spiritually and passionate about teaching Inductive Bible Study, personal prayer, apologetics, theology, spiritual disciplines and rigorous Christian thinking.
3)Willow Creek has led an inordinate amount of people to faith in Christ. In a congregation like Willow, you will naturally have more people that don’t have inductive Bible Study skills because there is a huge percentage that came to faith as adults. Compare this to the typical American church that only sees about 1% of their congregational size come to Christ in a typical year and you can easily imagine why the ‘average’ person in a typical church has a higher Biblical literacy rate than one in an evangelistic church. It makes sense that there is lower Biblical acumen in a church with a high rate of growth through conversion.
4)When the results of the REVEAL survey came out, there were many categories that Willow Creek scored exceptionally high on. Hybels did not brag about these at the leadership summit, nor did Hawkins and Parkinson in their book. Willow people are insatiable learners and will tend to go after areas of improvement with tenacity. This is not to say there are not tremendous strengths, but they are often understated by Willow’s leadership.
5) Willow does a better job of turning people into fully devoted followers of Jesus than nearly any church I have ever seen. Not only are there Sunday services, but additionally, there are deeper-life services on Wednesdays with extended worship and excellent Bible teaching every week. In 2000, there were 17,000 weekend attenders and 17,000 people in small groups ministry. As a staff member, we would constantly go after excellence in Christian maturity in training, discipling, encouraging and loving people. Were there really weak areas? Of course! And there always will be. Did we take risks on some things and fail? Of course! But I am proud to have ventured out and tried some things – even though they did not all produce the fruit we dreamed of.
6)New Believers were trained in understanding the scriptures, Biblical concepts, and how to study the Bible in their first year of discipleship. In addition to the two services a week, they were in small group contexts with a mature disciplemaker who would invest deeply in their growth. This pattern was certainly in place before I ever arrived and was continuing on in 2006.
Being a high profile church, Willow is constantly attacked by people who have little firsthand knowledge and a big axe to grind. In his article, Bob Burney states of Willow and churches that utilize a Willow Creek strategy: “We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn’t “cutting edge” and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.”
7) In all my years at Willow, I have heard any of the statements or nuances that are explicit in this claim, neither in church, nor in conferences. Burney is attacking a non-existent straw man. It is too bad that so many are willing to buy his assumptions without knowing the facts and quickly forward emails on to influence others as well.
One of the most important rules of good Bible Study is to ‘take the text in context’. Another is to understand the historical background and context of its author. Not only are these good rules to follow for Bible Study, they are an intelligent way to understand the present culture. Unfortunately, when it comes to his critique of Willow, Burney ignores both of these – quoting people out of context, and ignoring the reality of the amazing evangelistic and discipleship ministry God is doing at Willow.
It is my prayer that my church, and churches across America will experience the same courage and boldness that Willow did in facing its weaknesses and working to correct them. We plan to do the REVEAL survey in January. I hope it grows our church and helps us to become all God wants us to be. Kudos to Bill Hybels and Willow for leading the way once again!