Another Summitting Leader Conference

kinnon —  February 24, 2009 — 11 Comments

I am not a huge fan of Willow Creek’s concept of church leadership, which must be a shock to many of the folk who regularly read me. Please note that this post is not an attack on Bill Hybels. I bet he’s truly a swell guy. I just think what he models and promotes as ecclesiastical leadership has been profoundly detrimental to the church.


A Chicago suburb-living friend emailed me the link to (CUE brass band and announcer with big voice) “THE LEADERSHIP SUMMIT 2009!” He knows me too well; knowing full well it would provoke a response from me. It has.

Willow says this on their Events page,

Anchored in a commitment to excellence and innovation, WCA events offer training, inspiration, and networking opportunities to church leaders from around the world.

Truthfully, Willow Creek is anchored in modern business leadership methods and modern marketing techniques. Though apparently the poster is now down from outside his office, this statement from it accurately describes the WC ethos,

“What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” [From the book, Shopping for God.]


One might have thought that the results from Willow’s own REVEAL study would have chastened them – moving them away from promoting events with rather awkward taglines like, “…where business, leadership and ministry meet,” and “...forums for results-oriented leaders.

(As an aside, please note: Chicagoans, Scot McKnight and Dave Fitch get into an interesting discussion in late 2007 on the REVEAL study, which you may find interesting – It’s an audio download. I have great respect for Scot, but find his support for Willow incongruent with his very good books. Perhaps that’s just me. )

In spite of obvious issues with the “results” of what WC has been selling all these years, they are still promoting the business leader/marketing strategy for church leaders. One, I daresay, that leads to the kind of legitimate questions Jared Wilson asks in this post.

My friend, Jonathan Brink, commented on Out of Ur’s REVEAL mea culpa last year (scroll down to the 5th comment),

(Hybels) says, “That survey rocked my world.” He calls it “The wake up call of my adult life.”

Hawkins even said in his own video, He says, “Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.”

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s business as usual, when they’ve provided a lot of information to suggest the alternate.

Willow isn’t just a church. They teach people how to do what they do. And when the teacher says, “We got it wrong.” It has a little bit bigger affect (than) Bill seemed to be willing to admit. [YouTube link added]

Church leaders still rush to sit at the feet of Hybels et al. They want to be like Bill – leading a Giga-church that can put on the kind of spectacles that Willow is noted for – spectacles that will bring in the crowds. (This approach infects the Western Church World.)

They listen to business leaders like Patrick Lencioni and Marcus Buckingham (both gifted writers in a business context) coming to believe that their role as “Sr. Pastor” is that of a CEO. They commit to “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (wanting to move from Good to Great – or even mediocre to good) and get busy getting the “right people on the bus and the wrong people off”. And this is what we end up with, as I quote in my post, Just How Damned is the Church, a focus on edifaces,

…borrowing by churches became more common in the 1990s, reaching $28 billion* nationwide in 2006, including mortgages, construction loans and church bonds…[NYT – a story on Church Foreclosures]


Crippled by an “Edifice Complex”, Church leaders are sucked into believing that Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams was a word from God, “if you build it, they will come.” If these “CEO-Pasters” can just learn the right business and marketing techniques, they can grow their church – for God, of course. But these systems chew people up and spit them out. I speak from experience.

Let me end this post with a quote from the man who taught Hybels and was part of Willow Creeks founding team, Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian,

“The bane of the church is that it becomes worldly. Instead of imparting the Word and becoming an agent of change, it adopts the values of the world and integrates them into its structures and life.

“The biggest problem is the definition of its leadership structures. There are very clear directives in the New Testament for how the church is to be constituted, on the basis of community, which implies congregational participation, consensual decision-making, accountability of leaders to the congregation. Leadership should not be directive but developmental.”



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

11 responses to Another Summitting Leader Conference

  1. Bill, I guess Hybels slept in (from the wake up call). ;-P

  2. Honestly, my gut feeling at the time (and you remember, Bill, we were all talking about this intensively at Seabeck) was that Hybel’s reaction was just typical, over-the-top salesmanship. I never did have the sense that it was a genuine moment of, dare I say, repentance. It just had all the same tones, the same vibe, as every other great product that they were trying to sell. One key to being a great megachurch pastor, I’ve observed, is an hyperbolic enthusiasm for whatever is happening right now.

  3. Some of this is a generational thing. It is Boomers and Gen Xers who like this approach. The reality is that my generation talks big and acts little. This is the old institutional model updated for a media saturated culture. Here’s the train coming at them in the tunnel. Yours and my children’s generation – Millennials – are not impressed by what these guys have done. As Bruce Reyes-Chow, later 30’s pastor of a new Presbyterian church in the San Francisco bay area said at an event here in Asheville last month, “The 20 somethings talk big and aren’t going away.” We have to adapt to their desire to do something. I don’t see the Willow Creek model doing anything, except building big buildings. At the church of my childhood, a new pastor came in 17 years ago with a Fuller Seminary Church Growth education and a commitment to creating a Willow Creek church out a traditional downtown Presbyterian church. After running off many of the families that historically had been there, he proceeded to lead the church into a campaign to be a WC-like auditorium that has saddled the church with a huge debt. Now, he’s just announced his resignation, and the church moves on with a building that it really didn’t need. I’m with you Bill.

  4. Bill, I can’t help but add Ed Stetzer’s own words today when he said, “Many church planters are spiritual bankrupt and strategy rich.”

  5. This is like the difference between the law being “out there”, something you can bash people over the head with, and the law being written on your heart.

    If someone was a leader that I would listen to and give due deference to, their leadership probably wouldn’t even be called that or look like that. It would probably be overlooked by the people who attend leadership conferences, I imagine. It comes from the heart, from lived experience, from a certain sort of inner authority that people carry when they know stuff, they’ve lived it. Most often, good leadership comes from broken people.

    The alternative just makes me puke 🙂

  6. Cynical or what?!

    The “or what” would be that you are a realist – and this is definitely an accurate read on BH and WC, JMM. 🙂

  7. And how many hundreds, if not thousands of times has that story been repeated across the US and Canada, Ed. It is profoundly sad.

    I don’t think Hybels set out to create this kind of pseudo-Christian world, but he has certainly succeeded at that, anyway.

  8. If we only have the right tools, we can bring the Kingdom here and now. Kinda like the folk who wanted to build that tower in Babel, back in the day. Great quote from Ed, Jonathan.

  9. Sue,
    Amen and amen!

  10. Dr. B. has been very important in my formation and I am glad to see you end with his thoughts. I can only pray that those who paid such close attention to him at the start are still able to hear the voice of their mentor.

  11. Especially love the paragraph about “BHAGs”, good to great, and getting the right people on the bus. Where did the church – founded on the selfless sacrifice of laying down one’s life – become so obsessed with “leadership”? It gives me a headache.


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