Willow Creek Community Church began in a rented theatre in 1975, when pastor Bill Hybels decided to take a radically new approach to church outreach. The heart of his idea was that the local church should cater for the needs and wishes of the un-churched community. Door-to-door research was carried out to find out what people wanted from a church. The findings were examined and an attempt was made to provide what people wanted. The ‘user-friendly’ church was born.
It has never looked back. People flooded in, attracted by the social facilities provided and the entertainment-oriented services. Part of a wider ‘church growth’ movement, Willow Creek succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Today 20,000 attend the various services each week on a ‘campus’ of 120 acres in an affluent, white, baby-boomer suburb of Chicago.
The movement promises (or threatens) to take over large sections of the Protestant Church in USA, Europe and elsewhere. But is it biblical and does it further or diminish the cause of Christ? In these articles I attempt to provide a critical assessment of the movement.
Why criticise a successful model for church growth? It is far from enjoyable to reveal the faults and weaknesses of others. Yet critical scrutiny is necessary, for the simple reason that Willow Creek is exerting such a powerful influence on churches all over the world.
Accordingly, Bill Hybels’ concept of the church must be examined in the light of the Holy Scriptures. Ultimately, we are dealing here with the truths of the gospel and of the New Testament Church.
While we must be slow to criticise others, it is significant that the Bible does not cover up the negative side of things. For example, we read: ‘Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything [carefully]; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil’ (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22).
Paul encouraged the believers in Thessalonica to examine everything and to keep what was good. Things that were found to be ‘evil’, however, were to be rejected. This view would be most unpopular today.
Those advocating ‘tolerance’ would like to allow everything to stand as it is. No more criticism! And, above all, no drawing of lines. Someone has expressed the current thinking in this way: ‘Tolerate everything except intolerance!’
Whoever reads the New Testament carefully, however, will notice that both Jesus and the apostles often voiced criticism and drew clear lines of demarcation (Matthew 16:11-12,23; 1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Cor-inthians 11:1-4; 3 John 9-10; etc.).
We are to examine everything in the light of the Word of God. Recently I read the report of a well-known Christian leader from Germany. After visiting the Willow Creek church he concluded: ‘I went to Chicago with typical German scepticism. But as I was exposed to this warm, friendly atmosphere, my heart was won’.
Naturally, he came back filled with enthusiasm. But it is legitimate to pose a few probing questions. Are we still able to examine things biblically? Or have we been blinded by the amazing statistics of the supposedly largest church in the Western world?
Have we been overwhelmed by the extraordinary charisma of a eloquent pastor in his mid-forties? Have we been taken captive by the gigantic advertising and marketing strategy of the Willow Creek organisation?
It would seem so. Few are willing to evaluate the movement by biblical standards. All too often today, ‘success’ is the overriding criterion.
The philosophy of pragmatism rules Western society. If it works, we are told, it must be right. But let us remember that the Bible warns us against accepting too readily things that may be only temporary.
Of the stony-ground hearer, Jesus said: ‘Yet he has no [firm] root in himself, but is [only] temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away’ (Matthew 13:21).
It appears to me that Bill Hybels is a confirmed pragmatist. Pragmatism is the notion that ideas may be judged by their practical consequences. A pragmatist concludes that a course of action or concept is right if it brings good results, wrong if it does not seem to work.
The late Chinese statesman, Deng Xiao Ping, defined pragmatism in an original way: ‘It makes no difference whether a cat is black or white. If it catches mice, it is a good cat!’
Referring to the dangers of pragmatism, John MacArthur writes: ‘But when pragmatism becomes a guiding philosophy of life or ministry, it inevitably clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth cannot be determined by what works and what doesn’t.
‘We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel does not usually produce a positive response (1 Corinthians 1:22-23; 2:14). On the other hand, Satanic lies and deception often are quite effective (Matthew 24:23-24; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
‘Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf. Matthew 7:13-14), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf. Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed’.
Pragmatism, therefore, does not judge things according to overarching principles, but solely according to their functionality. Pragmatism operates in terms of fulfilling a purpose. The tendency towards pragmatism, particularly in the spiritual realm, has deep roots in the United States.
Pragmatism as a philosophy of ministry has gained impetus from the church growth movement. Donald McGavran, the father of the modern church growth movement, was an unabashed pragmatist. He wrote:
‘We devise mission methods and policies in the light of what God has blessed and what he has obviously not blessed. Industry calls this “modifying operation in light of feedback”. Nothing hurts missions overseas so much as continuing methods, institutions, and policies which ought to bring men to Christ but don’t; which ought to multiply churches but don’t.
‘We teach men to be ruthless in regard to method. If it does not work to the glory of God and the extension of Christ’s church, throw it away and get something which does. As to methods, we are fiercely pragmatic; doctrine is something else (cited by C. Peter Wagner in A. R. Tippet’s God, Man and Church Growth; Eerdmans 1973).
Pragmatism at Willow Creek
Gregory Pritchard examined the content of the ‘seeker-service’ sermons at Willow Creek with scientific precision. He came to the conclusion that Hybels constantly made use of theories from psychology and economic management.
Furthermore, he plays heavily upon the felt needs of people. Hybels is in danger of proclaiming a ‘eudæmonistic gospel’, that is, a message which seeks, first of all, to meet the need for happiness in a person.
After a summer break for study and reflection, Bill Hybels himself expressed the pitfall of his approach thus:
‘I was still basking in the blessing of having just witnessed the baptism of nearly four hundred adults from this church on the last Sunday in June. But the basking came to an abrupt end when I asked myself the sobering question: “I wonder how many of those four hundred who were just baptised will still be faithfully following God, and growing in him, and bearing fruit for him upon my return in eight short weeks?”
‘The honest answer was terribly painful for me to admit. Over the course of thirteen years in this church, thousands of people have proven to be rocky-soiled people, thorny-soiled people whose faith has faded’.
We appreciate Hybels’ honesty. Yet we cannot refrain from asking if, in the meantime, he has succeeded in translating the valuable lesson he learnt into an altered philosophy of ministry.
Have the contents of his evangelistic sermons significantly changed since that time? One thing is clear; the ‘come to Jesus and you will be happy’ message is a truncated gospel. Those who only hear this type of sermon can hardly receive genuine life from God. One Willow Creek staff member put it this way: ‘This approach produces numbers, but no disciples!’
Pragmatism is not only preached at Willow Creek; it is practised. For instance, secular management experts were consulted in the early years, which helped the church develop a market-oriented strategy.
The theologian and church-growth analyst Michael Blömer, whose doctoral dissertation dealt with the Willow Creek Church, comes to this conclusion:
‘In the USA church planting and church growth have been thoroughly studied. All different types of churches have been surveyed and examined and principles have been discovered which, if applied, will help churches grow. Basically Willow Creek church is the Top Church, which has applied these principles the best’.
Willow Creek has women officially functioning as elders. Women teach in church meetings at which men are present. Program director Nancy Beach tells in an interview how this came to be: ‘The elders of the church worked through numerous books and commentaries. Ultimately they came to the conclusion that women could teach and lead’.
In the same interview she confirms the prevailing pragmatism at Willow Creek: ‘We can discuss theory for ever, but in the end that which works, prevails’.
These and many similar examples demonstrate that Willow Creek’s pragmatism relativises and undermines the clear statements of the Bible. Pragmatism and a superficial treatment of Holy Scripture go hand in hand. The resulting doctrinal confusion is a frightening reality.