Willow Creek’s big adventure

Gary Gilley Dr Gary E. Gilley has been the pastor of Southern View Chapel since 1975. Along with his preaching and teaching ministry, he is the author and editor of the monthly contemporary theological issues p
01 April, 2008 7 min read

Willow Creek’s big adventure

It has been a tough year for the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, the flagship congregation of the ‘seeker-sensitive’ movement. Most know that Willow Creek has set the pace for 30 years in its redesign of the local church. More recently Rick Warren, and his Saddleback Community Church, have stolen the spotlight from Willow and, to some degree, eclipsed its influence on new-paradigm churches.

But rest assured, Willow – along with its Willow Creek Association which boasts 12,000 member churches from 90 denominations – is still charting the way for those who look to felt-needs, surveys, the latest innovations and market strategy, instead of Scripture, for their structuring of the local church.1 When Willow speaks, church leaders listen. When Willow wheels out a new product or method, churches around the globe fall in line. Whatever Willow promotes, others emulate.

Integration issues

So, as I said, it has been a tough year for Willow Creek and its followers. It was only in September 2006 that Willow put up the shutters on its highly acclaimed Axis experiment. Axis was Willow’s ‘church-within-a-church’ designed for 20-somethings.

At one point, the ten year project boasted 2000 worshippers at services designed especially for Generation Xers, but this had fallen to 350 and the leadership decided to shut it down.

What Willow discovered was that ‘Axis didn’t connect young adults with the rest of the congregation. Once they outgrew the service, Axis members found it hard to transition into the rest of the Chicago-area megachurch. Young adults also struggled to meet and develop relationships with mentors in the larger congregation’.

Who would have thought that separating the young people from the body of Christ for a decade would result in integration problems when they grew up? Somebody must have missed the fine print in a Barna survey!

At any rate, Willow recognised its error and folded Axis into the larger congregation. This move came too late, however, for hundreds of Willow clones who were in lock-step with the mother church. Many started similar ‘church-within-a-church’ congregations under Willow’s leadership and most will now suffer the same fate.

Humiliating as the Axis failure was, the latest bombshell dwarfs it by comparison. Willow’s leadership now admits, in the words of Bill Hybels, ‘We made a mistake’. The founder, Senior Pastor and Chairman of the Willow Creek Association, is referring to Willow’s philosophical and ministerial approach to ‘doing’ church.

This is the approach pioneered by Hybels and company, honed to perfection and passed on to eager church leaders worldwide – the approach that distinguishes the seeker-sensitive model from all other models. It is this approach that Hybels now admits was a mistake.

Willow’s confession

First, let me say that I admire Willow’s transparency on this matter. Not many people or groups would make a public admission of error of this magnitude. It is an act of true humility to admit that their model of ‘doing church’ – into which they have poured thirty years and millions of dollars – has been a mistake.

This is not to say that Willow’s confession is without flaw, for while they profess mistakes they still apparently think they have done pretty well. And they still believe that they are the ones to lead the church into the future, even if they have been wrong for three decades. But more on that later. For now, what are the specifics of the confession?

One of the Willow Creek executive pastors, Greg Hawkins, became deeply concerned that despite all their efforts, the Willow megachurch might not have been as effective as they thought.

As he watched people dropping money in the offering plate week after week, the thought nagged him: ‘Are we spending those folk’s money in the right way?’2 So in 2004, with Hybels’ permission, Hawkins launched a study asking the congregation how effective the programmes and ministry of Willow Creek had been in their lives.

Later, Hawkins turned to thirty other Willow Creek Association churches to see if the results of his study were reflected in these churches – they were. These results, which have been published in a new book Reveal: Where are you?, have been described by Hybels as everything from ‘earth breaking’ to ‘mind blowing’ in a disturbing way.


What are the specifics? Hawkins defines Willow’s ministerial goal as ‘trying to help people who are far from Christ become disciples of Christ characterised by their love for God and other people’. This is a most commendable goal, but how has Willow gone about trying to attain it?

‘We do that’, Hawkins states, ‘by creating a variety of programs and services for people to participate in. Our strategy is to try to get people, far from Christ, engaged in these activities. The more people are participating in these sets of activities with higher levels of frequency it will produce disciples of Christ’.

This has been Willow’s methodology of discipleship throughout the years – a philosophy that has been transported and reproduced around the globe. But what the multi-year, multi-church study found was disturbing. Hawkins identifies three major discoveries.

First, that increasing levels of participation in these largely social activities does not predict whether a person will become a disciple of Christ.

Second, in every church there is a spiritual continuum in which ‘you can look at your congregation and put them [the people] in one of five unique segments. The segments are aligned around someone’s intimacy with Jesus Christ and how important that relationship with Christ is to their lives’.

The segments into which a local church’s people can be pigeon-holed are (they say):

1.  Those who are just exploring Christianity – non-believers who are attending services or activities provided by the church.

2.  Those who love Jesus, have a growing relationship with him but are fairly new in that relationship.

3.  Those who are close to Christ and whose relationship with Christ is important to them on a daily basis. These are people who ‘might pray, read the Bible and have thoughts of God’ on a daily basis.

4.  Those who centre their lives on their relationship with Christ – which is the most important relationship in their entire lives (Hybels calls these ‘fully devoted followers of Christ’).

5.  Believers who are stalled in their relationship with Christ and don’t invest time in it on a regular basis. Although they regularly invest time in church events this doesn’t apply to their personal relationship with Christ.

One size doesn’t fit all

The third ‘ground breaking’ discovery was that each of the segments has different needs, yet most churches deal with them as if ‘one size fits all’. Also, the church activities that most churches provide are most helpful in the first two segments (seekers and young Christians).

‘Churches do great things to help people in those segments’, Hybels states. But the activities that seem to be helpful to the first two groups are less helpful for the last three segments.

As a result, the study showed that ‘it is the ones in the first two segments who are the most satisfied with local churches’. For instance, ‘pre-Christians’ gave Willow top marks and new believers were not far behind. However, ‘the last three segments have increasing dissatisfaction; they are disappointed with the role that the local church is playing in their lives’.

The third segment (described by Hybels as ‘growing Christians’) were much less pleased and the ‘fully devoted followers of Christ’ (segment 4) were quite unhappy with Willow. This group says ‘they are not being fed; they want more of the meat of the Word of God; serious-minded Scripture taught to them; they want to be challenged more’.

And increasingly those in segment four are thinking about leaving the local church – which is, Hawkins laments, ‘incredibly sad; the people who love God the most are the most disappointed by their local church’.

Rocking the church

Hawkins told Hybels, ‘We’ve made a mistake … [as they became Christians] we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders.

‘We should have gotten people, taught them how to read their Bibles between services, [and] do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own. Because what’s happening to these people, the older they get the more they are expecting the church to feed them – when in fact the more mature a Christian becomes the more he becomes a self-feeder’.

To remedy these ‘mind-blowing’ mistakes, the leadership at Willow is working hard ‘to rethink how we coach people to full spiritual development’. They are pioneering ‘personal spiritual growth plans – customised spiritual growth plans for everyone at Willow’.

Hawkins admits, ‘All of what we are discovering is rocking our world at our church’. And so it should, for Hybels owns up: ‘Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into – thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually – when the data came back it wasn’t helping people that much.

‘Other things that we didn’t put that much money into, and didn’t put much staff against, is stuff our people are crying out for’.3 In the light of this study, Hybels tells us: ‘I got the wakeup call of my adult life … [It was] one of the hardest things I have ever had to digest as a leader’.

Things they should have known

What Hawkins and Hybels have discovered are things that many churches have always known, although they have often been intimidated by the megachurches into believing they were wrong. They are discovering:

1. That ‘nickels and noses’ do not tell us if we have a church that pleases God. The Lord never tells us the size of church membership or the numbers attending at local churches in the New Testament. The two churches out of seven commended in Revelation chapters 2-3 were apparently small and poor (2:8-11; 3:7-13), while the churches that seemed to have it all were rebuked severely by the Lord (3:1-6,14-22).

2. That participation in programmes does not produce authentic disciples of Christ. While every church has programmes, the Scriptures teach that only the Word of God through the power of the Spirit changes lives.

3. That unbelievers and baby Christians will attend a good show and even give high marks for the production, but those who hunger for true spiritual life will be disappointed.

4. That whatever is used to draw people must be continued to keep them. If you attract people through entertainment and superficial teaching, most won’t hang around if you shift to solid exposition of the Word and God-honouring ministries.

5. That attempting to reach people for Christ through meeting their ‘felt-needs’ is a bottomless pit. Christ-centred people are not likely to be produced by programmes that cater to their self-centredness.

6. That churches based on the foundation of secular research, group opinion or surveys may please people for a time, but it will not please God. He has already given his design for the church in the New Testament; it is neither necessary nor right for us to ignore that design and create our own.

To be concluded

Gary E. Gilley

Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel, Springfield, Illinois


1.  It is not my purpose to explore at this time in detail the Willow Creek church model. I have written extensively on the seeker-sensitive church movement in my book, This little church went to market (EP). Please consult that book for more information regarding the methods and teachings of those who embrace this paradigm.

2.  All quotes by Greg Hawkins are from Hawkins’ video clip found at http://www.revealnow.com/story.asp?storyid=48

3.  All quotes by Bill Hybels, unless otherwise stated, are taken from Hybels’ video clip at the 2007 Leadership Summit found at http://www.revealnow.com/story.asp?storyid=31.

Dr Gary E. Gilley has been the pastor of Southern View Chapel since 1975. Along with his preaching and teaching ministry, he is the author and editor of the monthly contemporary theological issues p
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