Author John Taylor
With attendances ranging from approximately sixteen to twenty thousand at weekend services, Willow Creek Community Church can certainly be described as a ‘mega church.’ Founded on October 12th 1975 Willow Creek Community Church is currently located in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington, Illinois and is the 2nd largest church in North America after Lakewood Church, Houston, Texas. Whilst the Willow Creek Association is a separate organisation it consists of twelve thousand member churches, mainly overseas, linked with Willow Creek Community Church. Although the Willow Creek Community Church statement is typically evangelical the attendees comprise more than ninety denominations of which 2% are Seventh-Day Adventists.
Willow Creek is an excellent example of a ‘user friendly’ or ‘seeker sensitive’ church. This basically means that the philosophy of ministry is primarily directed towards non-churched outsiders and those wanting to know more about the Christian faith. Consequently every effort is made to produce a style and presentation of the service tailored to their requirements.
Undoubtedly it is commendable that Willow Creek are attempting to evangelise and fulfil their part in the great commission. In addition they recognise, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23:
“I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now I do this for the gospel’s sake, that I may be a partaker of it with you.”
The questions remains though; “Are the means used by Willow Creek firmly rooted on Biblically based principles?”
To answer the above question I will examine the root and fruit of the methods used by Willow Creek and compare them with Scriptural precedent. I will also outline the various influences of a few individuals linked to Willow Creek and draw careful attention to some of the dangers evident within ‘user friendly’ churches. I shall also include a couple of Willow Creek’s admissions with reference to some of the hard lessons they have learnt in employing their ‘seeker sensitive’ strategies. Lastly I will hesitantly try to evaluate whether Willow Creek will attempt to make changes, particularly with response to their findings from the 2004 survey conducted by Greg Hawkins, and if other similar churches will make changes too.
To their credit Willow Creek are definitely aware and have seemingly considered many of the dangers of the trend toward user friendly churches. In the Willow Creek Association magazine known as ‘Willow Magazine (formerly WCA News)’ an article was published entitled ‘The Myths about a Movement’ in September/October 1997 consisting of constructive responses to what they regard as the ten most common myths regarding seeker churches. I shall therefore analyse the top five issues from the ten that the Willow Creek Association listed and compare that with what the Bible teaches.
1. Do seeker churches preach a watered down gospel?
Willow Creek takes great issue with that criticism and contend that:
“This is the single most important myth about this movement and, if it were true, the most damning. Paul says in Gal 1:8-9, ‘But if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you have accepted, let him be eternally condemned!'” (1)
In addition Bill Hybels the Senior Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church addresses the same point saying:
“Contagious churches have learnt that they must communicate to their culture without compromising with their culture. They know that if the message of Christ is ever diluted or hidden, then the battle has already been lost. What good is it to speak the language of secular people if we lose our message in the process?” (2)
To the casual observer it is likely that the above two paragraphs would dispel any notion that Willow Creek Community Church preaches a watered down gospel. However it is crucial to ask why this question arose in the first place and to do that I will briefly look at some of the roots of seeker sensitive churches.
Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church was heavily influenced in developing his church growth model by Robert Schuller. Schuller is a highly influential televangelist and pastor known throughout the world through his weekly ‘hour of power’ television service. In 1955 Schuller rented the Orange Drive in Theatre now known as the ‘Crystal Cathedral’ and it is considered by many as the first seeker sensitive church in the world. Rather than concentrating on condemning people for their sins Schuller prefers to focus on uplifting theology and positive thinking.
“Schuller pioneered the adaption of Church Growth Principles and societal contextualisation from the foreign mission context of McGraven/C. Wagner and taught at Fuller’s ‘School of World Mission.’ He adapted these growth principles to his own theology of self-esteem and fashioned a gospel presentation to lure Southern Californians into his church. He then taught this model yearly at the Crystal Cathedral pastor’s conferences. Among his most famous students were first Bill Hybels and then Rick Warren.” (3)
At this point you’re probably wondering where is the connection between Hybels being tutored by Schuller and a watered down gospel being preached at Willow Creek Community Church? Fair enough, so let’s establish Schuller’s definition of sin and the new birth!
First, for the record, here is Schuller’s definition of sin.
“What do I mean by sin? Answer: Any human condition or act that robs God of glory by stripping one of his children of their right to divine dignity. I could offer another complementing answer, Sin is that deep lack of trust that separates me from God and leaves me with a sense of shame and unworthiness.” (4)
Amazingly it is apparent that Schuller is unashamedly preaching another gospel and he adds yet another insight from his self esteem message.
“Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self esteem.” (5)
Is this anything like what John wrote about what sin actually is in his first epistle?
“Whoever commits sin commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4) and “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.” (1 John 5:17)
Contrary to what Paul taught in Galatians 1:8-9 and John 3:5-7 Schuller extends his good news heresy further as he attempts to explain the new birth!
“To be born again means that we must be changed from a negative to a positive self-image from inferiority to self esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust.” (6)
This is not even close to how Jesus answered Nicodemus’ question concerning what it actually means to be born again!
“Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘you must be born again.'” – John 3:5-7.
Is it not noticeable how many times the overemphasis on self-esteem crops up in Schuller’s wayward thinking? Jesus never taught the glorious self esteem message; in fact He had strong words about denying self, instead of feeding a positive self-image! Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
What was the net result of Schuller’s Church Growth model and Hybels and Warren’s preaching? Orrel Steinkamp argues that:
“Hybels and significantly Warren did not publicly and officially off-load theology. Rather they marginalised doctrine. They maintained an orthodox position for the record but it was put on ice in favour of personal fulfilment sermons, (posted on line for pastors to replicate to their congregations) and designed for post-modern audience. For example, the doctrine of the cross is accepted, but is then referred to only in passing and placed on the periphery. In practise their preaching is very similar to Schuller, but care is given to keep an acceptable doctrinal statement on reserve like a spare tyre lest the seeker friendly message is challenged.” (7)
2. Do Seeker churches shy away from the hard teachings of the Bible?
According to the Willow Creek Association magazine the answer to that one is an emphatic no!
“Willow Creek frequently and boldly teaches about subjects like these: the judgement day and hell, sin, Jesus being the only way to God, Christ’s payment for sins, homosexual practises, abortion, sexual intimacy, and the authority of the Bible.” (8)
However, Bill Hybels’ honest admission with regard to the lack of discipleship within Willow Creek Community Church seems to contradict the view that strong, meaty, Biblical truths are being taught regularly. With Hybels’ permission Greg Hawkins, one of the executive pastors at Willow Creek, carried out a study in 2004 to establish the effectiveness of the programmes and ministry of Willow Creek in their lives.
The report uncovered that the strategies employed for a number of years and taught to millions of individuals were not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Hybels confesses:
“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 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.” (9)
Again to his credit Hybels admits:
“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and 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 people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practises much more aggressively on their own.” (10)
Hopefully the findings of the report will lead to a greater emphasis on Bible study and spiritual practises (presumably prayer and Biblical meditation). Sadly, though, this begs the question as to why a consumer friendly market driven approach was invested in to discover the fact that people need to read and study their Bibles more frequently when the same can be found by reading the Bible itself? (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2, 119:15-16, 97)
3. Are seeker churches just into entertainment?
“For the people we’re trying to reach in the neighbourhoods near Willow Creek Community Church, we believe this is most effectively accomplished through the use of contemporary music, drama, multimedia, and other art forms to supplement and reinforce anointed Biblical teaching. Yes, these modes of expression can be enjoyable. Yes, they can be an initial attraction to spiritually lost people. But most important, they are a means by which God’s message of truth and grace is communicated in a way that irreligious people can understand, relate to and respond to.” (11)
This is another common critique of seeker sensitive churches. It is easy to entertain or work the crowd or even put on a show to keep people interested, which will cause minimal offence. However, if the gospel is preached in truth and love it will inevitably cause offence. There is no need to denounce the use of modern technological equipment in favour of traditional hymn books, or contend the specifics of tunes accompanying words as, even Wesley’s hymns were frowned upon when they were initially introduced! What is at stake here is to identify whether the focus is on the method used to deliver the message, or the truth and relevance of the message being delivered.
Michael Miller from Apprising Ministries attended a couple of meetings at a satellite downlink at Northwoods Community Church. Miller observed that the message seemed to be that of following the ways of the world and of corporations, entertainment and entertainers, academics and secular thinkers. These meetings were downloaded from the Leadership Summit, led by the Willow Creek Association, who originate from the Willow Creek Community Church. The Summit included those from the corporate, political and entertainment world and the pastors were in the minority.
Miller summarised his findings:
“Whatever you do as a Christian, don’t lead. Don’t set an example for the world outside the church. Don’t do anything that might cause the non-Christian world to sit up, take notice and wonder about these Christians that love one another.” (12)
And what was the focus of the 2006 Leadership Summit?
“The focus was on hiring personnel, greatness, results, power, staff all your great corporate necessities. Neither of the speakers – Ashish Nanda of Harvard Business College and motivational speaker /writer Jim Collins – expressed a Christian faith. In fact, Hybels, the father of seeker-sensitive Christianity, joked more than once that Collins wasn’t a Christian believer.” (13)
4. Are Seeker Churches Market Driven?
The Willow Creek Association response to this view is that:
“This misunderstanding stems from an informal survey in which the founders of Willow Creek asked neighbours why they didn’t go to church. Some observers have incorrectly concluded that this survey was to help the church leaders know what they should and should not teach – but that idea never entered the founders minds!” (14)
In section 2 I have already mentioned Hybels, comments on Hawkins’ findings from the 2004 survey. Gary Gilley at Southern View Chapel notes that Hawkins’ research revealed three noticeable discoveries. First, that an increase in participation in church activities does not determine whether a person will become a disciple of Jesus.
Second, according to Hawkins, in every church the congregation can be grouped into one of the five segments, including:
Segment 1 – Those who are just exploring Christianity
Segment 2 – Those who love Jesus and have a relationship with Him and are growing in that relationship but are fairly new in that relationship.
Segment 3 – Those who are close to Christ
Segment 4 – Those who centre their lives on their relationship with Christ
The third major finding was that the respective segments above had varying needs yet most churches dealt with those segments as if ‘one size fits all’ With specific reference to Segment 4:
The market driven, consumer friendly church seems to be a far cry away from Peter’s preaching. Peter didn’t reel in the masses by creating an environment that made the nonbelievers feel comfortable,
“And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’ Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” – Acts 2:40-41.
How should churches operate, or what model should they use, if any, if they wish to mature and become more like Christ? Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a perfect man, to a measure of the statue of the fullness of Christ” – Eph 4:11-14.
5. Are Seeker Churches more about psychology and therapy than sin and repentance?
In their defence the Willow Creek Association maintains:
“Through self improvement, can you change the composition of the human heart? No, friends, the Bible says it’s not through education, it’s not through material distribution, it’s not through the self improvement plan that anybody straightens out the condition of their life. Human beings, the Bible says, are helpless in overcoming disease of sin, but there is a remedy. The Bible says there’s only one and that’s the remedy of the cross of Jesus Christ.” (16)
With a church inclusive of such a wide spectrum of denominations it is hardly surprising that teachings rooted in mysticism and psychology appear to slip through the net. Chris Carmichael writes:
“One of the most damaging aspects of this Willow Creek pragmatism is their association and promotion of several ‘Christian’ leaders’ and experts that are espousing unbiblical teachings. Not only is Bill Hybels a supporter and friend to some of these people, but the Willow Creek establishment is actively promoting their books and ideas throughout their system. Shockingly, Willow Creek is seemingly unconcerned about associating with people who openly promote Eastern Mysticism, humanistic psychology and radical ecumenism.” (17)
The Willow Creek Community Church website recommends Richard Foster’s best-selling book Celebration of Discipline. Furthermore last year one of the women’s ministries study classes studied this book from Sept 13th – Nov 15th and Keri Wyatt Kent, writing in the Willow Creek Association magazine Issue 4, 2007, endorses the same work whilst admitting that it has been praised and criticised.
Richard Foster is a renowned Quaker theologian and is also the founder of the Renovare movement which is rooted in mysticism. In his famous work Celebration of Discipline Foster commends the writings of Thomas Merton, Plato, Augustine of Hippo, St Francis of Assisi, quotes Carl Yung and Ghandi and recommends reading the works of Lao-tse of China and Zarathustra.
In support of Carmichael’s observations T.A McMahon writing on behalf of the Berean Call contends
“How influential is psychotherapy in the church? It would be rare indeed to find a topical sermon with no supposed insights from psychology. Typical would be Willow Creek Church near Chicago, whose influence is national and international through its 10,000 member association of churches. One researcher of church-growth methods who spent a year at Willow Creek observed ‘(Pastor Bill) Hybels not only teaches psychological principles but often uses the psychological principles as interpretive guides for his exegesis of Scripture…King David had an identity crisis, the apostle Paul encouraged Timothy to do self-analysis, and Peter had a problem with boundary issues. The point is, psychological principles are regularly built into Hybels’ teaching.'” (18)
Mary Fairchild provides further evidence in favour of Carmichael and McMahon’s position with respect of psychology and mysticism being blended in with what is being taught at Willow Creek. Fairchild reviewed the content of a Friday morning women’s study in her article ‘Protestant no more: Willow Creek Infiltrated by a mystic Quaker.’
“A video of Mother Teresa was shown, during the Friday study, when she openly prayed to Mary for a ceasefire. They didn’t use this to discuss true Christianity but left it up to us and many were in awe.” (19)
“The classics the women’s ministry were introducing us to ‘avail to’ were mystical writings from around the fourth to fifth century. The mystics taught how to unclutter the mind and remove any rational thought so the mind is totally passive.” (20)
“Last fall’s women’s classes were equally disturbing in topics. Meditation techniques and the writings and traditions from the Jesuits, the Quakers, and the Black Church are being mixed with Scripture and New Age ideas.” (21)
Will Willow Creek Change? Should other Churches look at their programmes and make changes?
Whilst it is encouraging that Willow Creek Community Church are attempting to address the areas of concern highlighted from the results of Hawkins survey in 2004 there have been other recent dangers that appear to have been undetected.
In October 2007,
“The Yale Centre for faith and culture wrote a letter to the Islamic world on behalf of all Christendom asking forgiveness from the ‘All merciful One’ (an alternate name for Allah in the Koran). They went onto establish that Christians, Jews and Muslims all genuinely love one and the same god of love.” (22)
Among the three hundred plus pastors and leaders who signed the same letter are Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and Brian McLaren. Staggeringly these leaders either ignored or failed to notice the distinction between Yahweh and Allah. Christians believe in the Trinity whereas Muslims do not believe that God has a son, and the suggestion of the same would be highly offensive for them. It is correct that Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8) yet love is not listed in Allah’s names or attributes! They are clearly not the same person and this is ecumenism stretched to the extent where supposedly Christian leaders are willing to ask forgiveness from another god, either out of ignorance or compromise!
Brian McLaren is also listed as one of this year’s speakers at the youth ministry conference, hosted by the Willow Creek Association, known as ‘Shift.’ Brian McLaren is a prominent controversial voice in the emerging church movement and is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland. McLaren lectures on postmodernism, Biblical studies, evangelism, apologetics, leadership, global mission, church growth, church planting, art and music, pastoral survival and burnout, interreligous dialogue, ecology and social justice.
Mclaren is likely to transform people’s views about the way the church should function but it is unlikely that these insights will be Biblically based! What would McLaren have us believe about substitutionary atonement?
“Substitutionary atonement McLaren states, ‘…just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse’ (The story we find ourselves in, p102, quoted in Carson, p.166)” (23)
Are there any other revelations on Mclaren’s agenda that he would like to introduce to us? Absolutely!
“Brian McLaren wants us to learn about ‘meditative practises, about which Zen Buddhism has said much. To talk about different things is not to contradict one another; it is, rather, to have much to offer.'” (24)
Is it really acceptable for born again believers to have dialogue with Buddhists and their practises, extract the meat from the bones and see what it has to offer? What does Scripture say?
“Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.” – Proverbs 30:5-6.
More recently Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, has a new vision known as ‘vision 2010’. The aim of vision 2010 is to use ‘multiplied impact’ within the church, the surrounding community and the world. This involves firstly, a bolder witness to those particularly from various ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Secondly, those attending Willow Creek will be encouraged in the ‘deep truths of God’ by learning to read Scripture on their own and take responsibility for the same. Having said this rather than expecting to be spiritually fed with a 35-40 minute sermon each week congregants will start learning how to do their own feeding. Surely, though, the flock does need feeding and would benefit from being taught the deep truths of God in sermons as well as being encouraged to be committed in personal Bible study. Thirdly, Willow Creek seeks to provide unprecedented levels of compassion into the broken world. Currently thousands are fed through Willow Creek’s generous social outreach programme. The evangelistic efforts of a bolder witness and further altruism are commendable. If Willow Creek Community Church is also willing to combine this with an uncompromising gospel message and Biblical discipleship then there will be an incredible impact within the church, surrounding community and the world!
Time will tell if the Willow Creek Association will make significant changes too. There are so many respective denominational churches represented, which makes it extremely difficult to make general observations or evaluate whether the emphasis has or will change since the 2004 Survey. Whilst it should be brought to attention that believers will not pass through denominational gates when they enter heaven, inevitably any organisation comprised of such a massive range of churches will have to compromise regarding sound doctrine to uphold unity.
Let us not forget that no church is perfect and that if I or anyone else attended a hypothetically perfect church at present then we would spoil it as we are blameless (yet not sinless!) and are not yet glorified with Jesus. Out of the seven churches in Asia Minor only Smyrna and Philadelphia were spared a rebuke! Let us not forget also that ‘for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.’ (Heb 12:6) The chastening of the Lord is poles apart from Schuller’s self esteem gospel and rather than making us indulge in self adoration and feel good about ourselves, ‘no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ (Heb 12:11)
Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association obviously have a massive heart for evangelism, seeking those who are lost, and compassion to all those in need. If they continue in this but ‘contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 4) and ‘take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.’ (1 Tim.4:16) and ‘test all things: hold fast what is good.’ (1 Thess.5:21), then the non-believers will be provoked to jealousy and brought to faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us! There must be a marked difference between believers and the world, change is needed but it must be Biblically based not market driven!
1) www.willowcreek.com – Willow Magazine Archives – The Myths about a Movement, July/August 1997
2) (‘Becoming a Contagious Christian’) cited in The Myths about a Movement, July/August 1997
3) www.deceptioninthechurch.com – Apologetics Coordination Team – Schuller Planted/Hybels Watered Warren (Peter Drucker) Gives the Increase The Plumb line vol 10 no 3 By Orrel Steinkamp
4) (Schuller Self Esteem p14) cited in www.tbaptist.com – Independent Plains Baptist Challenger, July 2000 Hybels & Schuller Back Together Again E.L.Bynum
5) (Schuller Self Esteem p14-15) Hybels & Schuller BackTogether Again …
6) (Schuller Self Esteem p68) Hybels & Schuller Back Together Again…
7) Schuller Planted/Hybels Watered…
8) www.willowcreek.com – The Myths…
9) www.crosswalk.com – A shocking “confession” from Willow Creek
10) A shocking confession…
11) www.willowcreek.com – The Myths…
12) www.apprising.org – Willow Creek: Leadership Summit was follow more than lead
13) Willow Creek – Leadership Summit…
14) www.willowcreek.com – The Myths…
15) www.svchapel.org – Willow Creek’s Big Adventure, (December 2007 Vol 13, issue 12) by Gary Gilly
16) www.willowcreek.com – The Myths…
17) www.inplainsite.org – The Willow Creek Dilemma -Why our Association with them is wrong by Chris Carmichael
18) www.thebereancall.org– Psychology and the Evangelical Church, March 1, 2006 by T.A McMahon
19) www.cephas-library.com/renovare_willow_creek.html. Protestant No More: Willow Creek Infiltrated by Mystic Quaker Mary Fairchild
20) Protestant No More: Willow Creek…
21) Protestant No More: Willow Creek…
22) gospeldriven.wordpress.com/2007/11/01willow-creek’s-shift – Willow Creek’s Shift – Gospel Driven Blog
23) www.letusreason.org – Let us Reason Ministries – Spiritual Fusion East Comes West