I used to know what was wrong with Willow Creek. After my parents separated in 1991, my mom and I attended there. It was massive, and well-produced, and on the whole not a bad place for a recently divorced single mom and her eleven-year-old son. I joined her there for about seven years. We would go both to weekend services and mid-week services. The regular teaching staff included Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, and John Ortberg. We used to eat in the food court. I played in the orchestra. We made friends. I was baptized in the pond out front.
Naturally, I began to develop opinions about the place—many of which developed further after I’d left and began to take on some more formal theological education. The language of being “seeker-sensitive” was in the air—we all knew what was going on. Willow was attempting a model of attraction by simplification and production. Simplification meant reducing to the absolute minimum those churchy things that might turn away seekers—hymns, theologically heavy sermons, even the representation of a cross. Production meant controlling the weekly service outcomes—professional musicians and singers, perfect timing, lighting and camera work. Willow both authored and mastered these techniques with immense, almost unimaginable success. By the time we were there some twenty thousand people were attending on a given weekend.
Over time, I came to form judgments about the place. Willow was, indeed, successful—and yet it was also shallow. Even as a young man I missed biblical teaching. Even as a young man I could tell that I was being fed diet, Jenny Craig Christianity. There was meat to be had, but I was being offered salad without dressing. Clearly, Willow was also business-like. How else would it be possible to manage 20K people on a weekend without a strong management system? Things moved like clockwork, and it showed. But that same business efficiency masked the ultimately superficial nature of the enterprise. Things functioned, and people were busy, and everybody had a job, and friendships were made—but did it result in greater Christlikeness? Could shallow and superficial teaching generate deep and thoughtful Christians? No, it couldn’t, and my convictions were confirmed a few years back when Willow issued a public apology for being too soft on teaching the Bible. It was an astonishing reversal.
I was troubled, as time passed, at how other churches were eager to ape the Willow Creek model. It appeared that under the influence of Willow’s success they, hungry for their own success, began to implement degrees of simplification and production. The secret to church growth would be programs, lighting, timing, and an ethic of theological laxity. In one of the worst cases, I remember reading about a pastor who attended a Willow Creek leadership summit, and, returning to his home church, announced that he knew just what they needed to revitalize their ministry: theater seats. They would remove their pews and put in theater seats. That would get the butts in the door.
I don’t regret attending Willow for those seven years of my life, and yet I never loved the place. Having moved on, I continued to believe that it served a kind of purpose. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church attended Willow. In a church of 20K certainly some—if not quite a few—of its members must be good Christian people.
I could make my peace with Willow Creek because I used to know what was wrong with it. Not anymore. Just a few months ago news began to break about some serious allegations regarding Bill Hybels, Willow’s founding and senior pastor, leadership guru and megachurch patriarch. First in the Chicago Tribune, then other rumors and stories, and lately in the New York Times, we have read how (allegedly, but is seems pretty certain), Hybels has sexually harassed quite a number of his female associates over the years. These were events that took place during my time at Willow. They were happening behind closed doors, and with some frequency, and apparently not a few people knew that Hybels may not be the most safe person to be around. This, the same Bill Hybels who authored the book, Who You Are When No One’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise. The irony would be laughable if it didn’t induce vomiting.
Suddenly, there’s much more wrong with Willow Creek than I had anticipated, and my previous critiques, which I could consider somewhat benign, are now more insidious. It’s a rule of thumb that (Protestant) churches carry the DNA of their founding pastors. Was he a gregarious, outgoing preacher? In time that comes to shape the congregation. Was he a reflective, thoughtful counsellor? In time, so also the congregation. Was he short tempered, divisive, and double-faced? So too the congregation. The DNA of Bill Hybels saturates and overshadows the Willow infrastructure. And that’s a frightening thing to realize. There’s now something poisonous running through everything with associations to Willow Creek. The best comparison is to imagine that you found out that MacDonalds, for years, has been grinding up puppies and mixing them into its french fries. Upon discovery of this you might become sick at your stomach. You’d probably never be able to eat them again. Willow has mixed something just as wicked into its brand.
Willow Creek’s model promulgated a fundamental expediency about ministry, but with these revelations it appears more than ever that their expediency was influenced by a hunger for power. Willow was eager to be the best, it was quick to believe its own success. To this hunger for power was added protectionism—defending, and even masking Hybels’s concerns because in many ways he was the brand. And, fundamentally, these both reflect a corrupting utilitarianism—if a thing works, we go with it. Hybels worked, and therefore we’ve got to keep going with him. This is the poison that now infects the Willow Creek brand.
In the year 2000, in a move that now screams of incredible irony, Hybels invited then president Bill Clinton to join the global leadership summit, during the Monica Lewinski investigation. The Bills sat across from one another, the pastor offering solace (and… what? acceptance?) to the president. And yet behind the scenes the two were far more alike than we had imagined. Both were using their positions of power to mask corrupt character and decrepit behavior.
One of the things we have to be careful about in these matters is assuming that correlation is causation—just because two events can be linked does not mean that one was necessarily the cause of the other. Did Willow’s weak theology lead to pastoral misconduct? Probably not—especially since churches with solid theology also commit pastoral misconduct. And yet what becomes prominent in this present Willow nightmare is the presence of utilitarianism and the love of power. Is it not the case that a culture of expediency unmoored from reflective orthodoxy creates the conditions for other sins of power? But hang on—is it not also the case that sins of power become self-perpetuating, encouraging greater laxity and utilitarianism? Which came first? Moral failure, or bad theological praxis? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is true—utilitarianism gets masked and hidden in the church, masked in particular by the promise of power and success. It is that power and success that Willow has sold to the churches of the world. It is the poison at the heart of the Willow model.
The fallout is disastrous. Willow leadership models have influenced countless numbers of Christians globally. Willow ecclesiological models have encouraged utilitarian approaches to ministry. And now all of it is impacted by this. “Disaster” might be too weak a word.
Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy, commanded the following, “Keep yourself and your doctrine, remain in them; for doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm 4:16). Keep yourself, Timothy. Guard your life, your holiness, your purity, your sense of identity. Keep also your doctrine, preserve it with the same fervor as you do your bodily life. And by so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Your life and your doctrine save your hearers, Timothy. It’s both. Willow Creek has failed to keep its life, and it has failed to keep its doctrine. The fallout from this is just beginning. May God have mercy on His Church.