One of my first appointments was as an associate pastor in a large congregation. This was in Willow Creek’s heyday. Many churches wanted to copy the “Willow Creek Model”. Some members of my new congregation traveled to Willow Creek (just before I was appointed) and drank the Kool-Aid. To be honest, I’d never heard of the place. After seminary, I spent two years in the British Methodist Church. The words “Hillsong” and “Willow Creek” meant nothing to me.
Evidently, my new church was on the Willow Creek train. What did this mean? I asked some questions and did a little reading. I didn’t like what I found. It was all a little Amway-esque. Apparently, we needed to do what they were doing, lock stock and barrel. From reading Bill Hybel’s books to wearing embroidered Polo shirts, our goal was to emulate his formula. He was charismatic, kind of like a football coach who led seminars with moral overtones for IBM sales executives.* There was no theological depth. That was in 2001.
Fast forward to today. What a joke! If could get those hours back I spent watching a sleaze lecture me about leadership, I’d be more than happy. I knew it was weird and a little creepy then and now I know for sure. I didn’t like having this formulaic contemporary suburban Christian cult shoved down my throat. Now that I know Hybel’s definition of accountability is to sleep with whomever he wants, I’m sickened.
I applaud those churches and leaders who pulled out of this week’s Global Leadership Summit. Going to Willow Creek for leadership lessons is akin to parents asking a brothel owner for advice on how to raise their teenage daughters. It’s not cool. The church doesn’t get a free pass simply because we preach Psalm 51 and say I’m sorry in just the right way. Take a number, get in line, and look around: no one’s buying Willow Creek’s version of the self-help Gospel. There’s a footnote in American religious history waiting for you and your dear leader.
Richard Lowell Bryant
* Of course, this was until someone came along saying, “You don’t want to be the next Willow Creek, you need be the new Saddleback. Have you heard of the Purpose Driven Life?” And so we bounced from fad to fad, seminar to seminar, and earned a few frequent flyer miles in the process.