Why the West Misunderstood Willow Creek

In 1975, Bill Hybels and Dr. Bilezikian discussed a concept that would be one of the most impacting—and one of the most misunderstood—in the Western Church.

While they implemented may ideas, some of the more notorious included diligent research and feedback, emphasis on local community, and effective communication. These principals, and others, grew their numbers at a startling rate, and eventually drew respect of many in the American Church, including some of their largest opponents from their early years.

Why was their such a misunderstanding, though? And why do many Christian groups misrepresent what Hybels did at Willow Creek? Perhaps this is easier to understand if we review three closet assumptions held by many Christians in America…

1. Research and market feed back are shallow, aesthetically-focuses, and greed-driven, only used by top-heavy, bureaucratic, for-profit businesses.

2. Good Bible teaching must use big words that normal people shouldn’t understand. Since seminaries teach with big words, those big words must be taught to the plumber in the pew before he can understand the Bible… even though those big words aren’t in the Bible.

3. The only reason anyone wants large numbers of people is for selfish ambition. No one wants to “help” large numbers of people for a “good purpose”—and anyone who claims to help many people because they “genuinely love others” is only selling snake oil. If something is good, it must always remain small and mostly oppressed by the evil, successful people in the world. This also means that God’s Church should mostly suffer, remain smaller, and always be less attractive than the sinful greed and beauty of secular society.

While these three assumptions are obviously not true, and few people, if any, would admit to believing them, all evidence hath shewn that they are heavily embraced by the American Church. Anyone who departs from these will—somehow—be accused of heresy, embracing a doctrine of “cheap grace” or “tolerance of sin”, or “commercializing” the Church.

Of those who misunderstood Willow Creek, there are two basic groups. Both of them make the same three closet assumptions (above), but one group condemns others for not agreeing with the assumptions, while the other group fits the stereotype of those three assumptions perfectly.

There are many genuinely commercialized Christian organizations in America. Many of them rightly reflect a shallow desire to have a successful image, they do, in fact, water down Scripture and avoid  controversial teaching. And, they have used Willow Creek’s methods to justify their own greed—effectively painting a straw man image of Willow Creek. Then, the old-school Christians, who misunderstand Hybels, blame Willow Creek for the people who misrepresent him.

The core concept Hybels introduced, through simple sermons and seeker-sensitive liturgy, aimed to make sure that the gospel can be accurately understood by people who genuinely want to understand it. He wouldn’t back down on truth, but that didn’t mean he’d use the gospel to give the congregation a $64,ooo vocabulary quiz. Maybe the American Christian establishment can learn to tone-down jargon when preaching to plumbers. My grandpa was a plumber. He was brilliant—but he didn’t read the dictionary every day. He was too busy fixing the pastor’s toilet… that thing seemed to clog all the time.

In a more practical sense, Christianity taught the world a revolutionary concept, that it’s good to tell people when their wrong, especially because you love them. That’s what good sermons do. And it’s all made possible Jesus’ teachings about grace  and forgiveness  and His work on the Cross. People need to hear truth. Maybe that means your kids. Maybe that means your boss. Maybe that means your coworkers. Maybe that means the politicians in Washington. Everyone should be looking for truth. People who don’t want the truth know they should want it, they just don’t want to admit it. All of us get on the wrong road and need a loving hand to turn us in the right direction.

To anyone who thinks the Bible is a club, rather than a book, that sounds like watering down the gospel. Willow Creek was successful, the jealous establishment said, “They’re diluting Scripture.” So, that’s just what America’s youth did over the last decade.

I’m saddened by the fizzle-and-pop Emergent Church movement. But I’d like to give accolades to Don Carson for telling us not to blame our own negligence on the next generation, whom we failed to teach. Donald Miller was loved by the movement, but didn’t contribute to deconstructionism. In one of Donald’s 2006 speeches, he explained, more or less, “In Canada, dish soap is dish soap. But, in America… your dishes are tired, they need a day at the spa, and if you use this brand of dish soap, your hands will be beautiful, your dishes will love you, and people will want to have sex with you. This is American commercialism—and it has invaded the Church.” (paraphrased)

Now, you can’t argue with that! Rob Bell? His reproach was the loud silence on the idea that Jesus was the substitute punishment for our sin—that He took the punishment we deserved (or Substitutionary Atonement, for those of you at Gordon-Conwell.) The only time this topic was preached with Rob on stage was with Dr. Greg Boyd in the Christos Victor theme, and in the sermon, The Dune is Heavy, by a pastor on Mars Hill’s staff, delivered the day Bell’s resignation was announced. The reason for Rob’s silence on this remains unknown, but his contribution was more from silence, while genuine Emergent authors engaged in more active deconstruction.

So, where does that leave us? What was really going on when the American Church misunderstood Willow? Look at it through America’s progressive view of the clerical-denominational system. Didn’t know America’s clerical-denominational view was changing? Consider this…

Technically, the clerical system, includes bishops and diocese (though denominations use different words for the same concepts). A hierarchy of bishops and large regions (diocese) is the basis for the denominational structure. Pastors are clergy. When Protestants and Anabaptists departed from Roman Catholicism, we stopped praying to God through the priest, but we kept the clergy and called them pastors, touting Ephesians 4:11. But, even Protestant-style clergy are never seen in the New Testament. Maybe you disagree, but here’s an idea you can’t argue with: Denominationalism—and its sympathizers—are decreasing in America.

The Evangelical Free Church was among the first to be a soft-handed denomination. Though they have “regional superintendents” (diocese bishops), those superintendents don’t set agendas or direct decisions of local congregations (parishes). This was a revolutionary step in its day.

Soon after the EFC, “Independent Congregations” became popular. One hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have been tolerated. Of course, four hundred years before that, the world was flat. But, with all the independent congregations sprouting up through the fertile lands of America, there was a need for teaching and systems and strategies to bind them together. Enter: Willow Creek Association.

WCA created “membership” affiliations with any local congregation that would pay a simple “membership fee”. This didn’t result in any  accountability from Willow, only easier access to their books and conferences, which were remain largely open to the public, even without the membership fee. A congregation could even be part of a denomination and join WCA without a conflict of interest! Through WCA, Hybels not only gave the concept of purposed smallgroups (which have been rebranded multiple times over the last two decades, probably to evade the ‘Willow stigma’), and he not only “sitkyified” the idea that sermons could be understandable, but now, denominations were replaced by associations—and what the American Church didn’t seem to realize in the late twentieth century is that this was a change to our core, American, denominational system, which is not without ramifications for America’s clerical system.

About ten years after Willow Creed formed, a young fire and ice preacher, the son of a boxer (and so-claimed mafia family), Mike Bickle, started the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Mo. Just like Hybels—and Columbus—Bickle was misunderstood, misrepresented, and despised for going against the sacred cows of Christendom. But, just like Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute stood up for the Local Church movement of Watchman Nee, John Wimber of the Vineyard stood up for Bickle and the so-called, and infamous, Kansas City Prophets.

If you listen to Bickle, you’ll quickly understand that he doesn’t understand half of what he’s doing—by his own admission. So, just like Rob Bell helped deconstruct Christian doctrine through his unintentional silence, so has Bickle helped continue the same trend away from clerical-denominationalism, which was aided by EFC and WCA. Of course, EFC, WCA, and IHOP-KC rarely share the podium at conferences, but we’re all one big angry family in God’s American post-denominational Church.

IHOP-KC, under Bickle, has teachings, conferences, materials, and open-handed onramps for any Christians to participate with them, but without any association. Moreover, while Willow Creek emphasized local community among Believers, IHOP-KC has increasingly emphasized local identity: They are the International House of Prayer—at Kansas City! And, because they genuinely believe in a local identity of the Church, they mainly emphasize this about themselves. They don’t try to force that view on other Christian ministries. You can’t “join” them. Your organization can’t “get a membership” with them… and there’s one other thing: Though they have many teachers and many leaders within their fellowship, they do not have any clergy and everyone is encouraged to make disciples outside of their administrative structure. Though Bickle may not say so, IHOP-KC is already post-clergy.

It’s interesting. Just as denominational sentiment has been on the decline, now, especially with books like the book Pagan Christianity being accepted by the American Church, it’s clear that the clerical system has also seen the beginning of its end.

Does this mean we should hate pastors? Of course not! The American Church has already been transitioning away from the clerical-denominational system over the last five decades, if not the last century. We need no change, only preparation and honest acknowledgement for what the next stages of that transition will be. What will it look like?

I’ve read the tea leaves. The next thing coming for the American Church is a thorough review of the Local Church movement of Watchman Nee. It’s not perfect, but is has successfully grown to two million Believers worldwide, stemming from China, and has done so with neither denomination nor clergy nor association. When America understands how the LC movement was able to spread without an administrative system, America will then—and only then—learn how to duplicate the concept that began with IHOP-KC. That is a sustainable method for the American Church to press into the future, find the unity of Christ’s unanswered prayer of John 17, throw off the invisible shackles no one likes to talk about, get the elephant herd out of the sanctuary, and fulfill the Great Commission. When that happens, we’ll have no problem discarding the three assumptions that Willow Creek is still trying to get us to sober up from.

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