We live in a world that measures success by size. Bigger, we're told, is better. Willow Creek Community Church certainly fits the model. Every weekend 17,000-plus people attend six services (two exclusively designed for Gen-Xers) programmed with cutting-edge music, drama, and teaching to reach the unchurched. The services' "wow" factor is aided by 50 vocalists, a 75-piece choir, seven rhythm bands, a 65-piece orchestra, 41 actors, a video production department, and an arts center with 200 students that serves as a farm club for future talent.

But what if size is not the goal? What if you wanted to create the kind of intimate spiritual community in Acts 2, which describes early Christians caring for each other as if they were family? Can you create that kind of environment with thousands of people? Willow has spent 25 years figuring out how.

"The original concept of Willow was a kind of grand experiment," says Senior Pastor Bill Hybels. "It was based on the belief that it might be possible, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to build an Acts 2, biblically functioning community on the northwest suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s."

Hybels caught the vision from Gilbert Bilezikian, one of his instructors at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and still his mentor and close friend.

Bilezikian repeatedly shared his dream with Hybels for a contemporary Acts 2 church.

Hybels had been leading a youth ministry called Son City that in three years had mushroomed from 25 to 1,200 attenders. The loud, cutting-edge Christian music, the gritty realism of dramatic skits, and the use of multimedia were wrapped around Bible studies delivered without Christian jargon on topics that young people could relate to. The church's more traditional leaders struggled to accept what—in that time and place—seemed like radical methods for communicating the gospel and "doing church."

In May 1974, during a Son City outreach event when 300 kids stood in long lines waiting for counselors to lead them to Christ, Hybels knew he could never go back to doing church the traditional way. He and other Son City leaders began to dream about a different kind of church where seekers could come with their messy lives and not feel judged while God cleaned them up. It would more fully unleash the arts in service to the kingdom. Straight, expository sermons would be replaced by talks that connected the Bible to daily problems.

A year later, Hybels resigned as youth pastor and, together with a core group that shared the vision, rented a movie theater in the nearby suburb of Palatine to start the church they dreamed of. To pay the rent and buy sound equipment, 100 teenagers sold 1,200 baskets of tomatoes door-to-door.

Article continues below

On October 12, 1975, 125 people showed up for the first service of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels preached on "New Beginnings." He was 23.

"The train wreck of 1979"

Mistakes were inevitable. Getting the church off the ground and managing its rapid growth demanded long hours from its leaders. Financial pressures forced some staffers to moonlight at second jobs. Exhaustion and imbalanced lives exerted pressure on marriages. Philosophical and personality differences surfaced in the leadership team, which was heavily weighted with mavericks who chafed under the accountability that became necessary as the church grew more complex.

Then came "The Train Wreck of 1979." The elders confronted a staffer for an ongoing pattern of misbehavior and an unrepentant spirit.

The person chose to resign rather than address the situation. To protect the privacy of innocent parties, the elders chose not to explain what happened. People filled in the information vacuum with answers of their own. One scenario accused Hybels of a power grab. Some staff and lay leaders left the church. The church was in the middle of a $6 million building program with a $3.5 million loan, but it looked like the dream was dead.

In Rediscovering Church, Lynne Hybels describes her husband, face down on the gold carpet of their family room, pouring out his heart to God.

Hybels wept uncontrollably over his failure to lead the staff. He repented of the insane schedule he modeled and teachings that overemphasized grace and didn't talk enough about the consequences of sin.

Praying late into the night, he begged God for a second chance. The next day he met with board members and apologized for his mistakes, telling them that from then on, Willow was going to be "God's church done God's way."

Out of the brokenness, a humbler leadership team began to rebuild. Today, more than two decades later, Hybels says, "We've set up all our leadership structures and goals to grow a full-functioning Acts 2 community, as opposed to just an evangelizing machine that doesn't drive the roots down deep and do all the other things it's supposed to do."

From the bottom up

Nine years ago, Willow's explosive growth raised serious concerns about how to keep everyone connected in close community. Church leaders decided Willow would become not just a church with small groups but a church of small groups. Today everything circles back to small groups—more than 2,600 of them.

Article continues below

Everyone involved in the 100-plus ministries of Willow is incorporated in some form of a small group. Community-care programs, which account for 29 of these ministries, address everything from career transition and postpartum depression to homelessness and marital restoration.

A seeker's first exposure to Willow is often through one of these programs, and many find faith there. In the Divorce Recovery program, for instance, in which 450 people sign up for each 10-week session, 35 to 40 percent of those attending identify themselves as seekers.

Last year 102 people accepted Christ while part of the program.

Despite their variety, most small groups follow some combination of Bible study, sharing, prayer, and accountability, often combined with some form of service. Three retired men, for instance, meet regularly to repair and maintain the church's 40 vacuum cleaners and then share, pray together, and support each other as a small group.

There are groups drawn together by age, gender, marital status (divorced, widowed, couples), profession, spiritual gifts, hobbies, life situation (moms of teens, stepmoms, men's sexual purity), and talents, to name just a few.

Teresa Russo-Cox is the volunteer coach for the hairdressers ministry. Russo-Cox had been a professional hairdresser for 25 years and an educator for Paul Mitchell hair products when one of her clients invited her to Willow three years ago.

"I was raised Catholic but had left the church," Russo-Cox says. "When I first walked into Willow, I thought, 'What is this all about? No icons? No robes?' I remember John Ortberg spoke on 'Shhh, God is Speaking.' My heart was beating fast, and I knew God was speaking to me. Right there I rededicated my life to Christ."

Russo-Cox says she was like a hungry baby who couldn't get enough spiritual food to make up for the lost years. She took the "How to Be a Contagious Christian" class and a class on spiritual gifts. She and her husband were about to lose their house because they had gotten involved in a network marketing business that went sour. A volunteer counselor in Willow's Good Sense Ministry helped them set up a budget and get their finances under control.

Her husband got involved with the cars (Christian Auto Repairmen Serving) ministry, which last year provided 300 free car repairs and fixed up 120 cars (the best of 1,200 donations) to give to needy Willow families.

Article continues below

Russo-Cox started attending a Wednesday morning Bible study led, coincidentally, by a former hairdresser.

"God began putting on my heart a vision for a hairdressers ministry," she says. "I had lunch one day with my Bible-study leader and shared my vision. I presented my plan to church leaders. Now my Bible-study leader is discipling me as I lead this new ministry."

Still in its infancy, Russo-Cox's vision has grown into four small groups for about 30 professional hairdressers. In addition to regular meetings every other week, eight times last year the hairdressers set up a temporary salon in church classroom space.

Then they washed, cut, and styled hair at no charge for abused and battered women, women who were alone and pregnant, as well as for the homeless and clients of Willow's food pantry.

"We're starting something new in November," Russo-Cox says. "Hair Studio 62, a local salon next door to Willow's off-campus food pantry, has agreed to let us use their facilities on the day they're closed. We're going to do Days of Beauty for specific partner ministries. The first one will be devoted exclusively to Wings, a ministry to the homeless."

Small groups are not just for people who attend Willow Creek. Staffers also meet in small groups at every level of the organization.

The commitment begins at the top. When the nine members of the senior management team meet at 11:45 on Tuesday mornings, they conduct no business for the first 90 minutes. Over lunch they talk personally and connect as a small group.

Executive Pastor Greg Hawkins runs Willow Creek day to day and functions as Hybels's second in command. Although Hybels is the boss, "There's a level of frankness and candor that people might find hard to believe," Hawkins says. "People take huge risks to say things to each other. We talk about our marriages, our kids, who we're praying for to accept Christ, what we're personally struggling with. We talk about any issues that are in the way of our relationships with each other."

Hawkins says that such vulnerability and authenticity pay big dividends when staff members finally turn to business matters. They get more done, he says, because they have cleared the air and strengthened bonds.

At first glance, the variety and number of small groups at Willow Creek look like community run amuck. How do you man age a wildly diverse structure that mutates at the speed of light? How do you guard spiritual integrity? "You have to get comfortable holding vision and reality in tension and accept that we're all sin-stained human beings who will make mistakes," says Russ Robinson, who directs small group ministries.

Article continues below

Church leaders admit it has taken a long time to figure out how to make small groups work. At one point, some people had to wait 18 months to get into a group due to a shortage of leaders.

The quantity of leaders took temporary precedence over quality. Inevitably, says Marge Anderson, director of ministry services, some ended up in leadership who weren't ready. "We hadn't sat down and figured out, 'What is the best process for training and developing these leaders?' Now we're trying to standardize a process for leadership development and quality control," she says.

Though the church is known for its seeker-sensitive weekend services, only about 15 percent of weekend attenders describe themselves as seekers.

The key to Willow's evangelistic effectiveness has been building an evangelism component into every corner of church life—especially small groups.

The hub of evangelism

Most of the small groups maintain an "open chair" policy, which makes room for unbelieving friends. In addition, 58 groups are devoted exclusively to seekers. They can wrestle with their faith questions in the company of other unbelievers, led by a trained, mature Christian leader.

New converts are encouraged to take a Believer Basics course, after which they're placed in a New Believers small group. The next nine to twelve months are spent laying a firm foundation for their spiritual life.

Regular attenders are urged to take the Contagious Christian workshop with their small group to become comfortable sharing their faith in any circumstance. More than 3,000 took the course in the last 18 months.

Furthermore, most of the serving ministries of the church intentionally create places where unbelievers volunteer alongside Christians alert to evangelistic opportunities.

Harvest, a food service in which 700 people served last year as volunteers, attracts many seekers. One of Willow Creek's four self-sustaining ministries, Harvest recoups its entire $2.4 million budget each year through the sale of 480,000 meals to church attenders and conference guests.

"The board didn't want tithe dollars going to ministries that could support themselves," says Dick Anderson, director of operations.

"That would have meant offerings would be subsidizing food service, and that's not why Harvest exists. True, it exists to provide a place for the church family to gather before and after services and at conferences. But it also exists to provide an opportunity for volunteers to serve together in small groups and grow spiritually, as well as to provide opportunities for evangelism."

Article continues below

For Linda DeLeon, a job that combines food service, discipleship, and evangelism is an answer to prayer. DeLeon used to own a coffee shop. When she lost her lease and was forced to close, she mourned the loss of a place where she could evangelize and mentor others.

As one of Harvest's managers, she now leads a small group that meets for prayer and Bible study at 7:45 Sunday mornings, before serving meals. During conferences when more temporary workers and volunteers are involved with Harvest, her group steps up its evangelism.

"Before each conference, we pray and ask the Lord to bring us the people who need him," DeLeon says, "and we agree to speak about him boldly."

During an arts conference in June, there was DeLeon, off in a corner, drawing a bridge on the back of a cardboard box to illustrate salvation to a temporary dishwasher.

She has led about 20 people to Christ in the last four years.

"Some of these people have never heard that there's a God who loves them unconditionally," DeLeon says. "I get the privilege of telling them it's true. You can't believe the blessings I've received by taking this career turn. Now I get to come alongside people every day and tell them about the Lord, while I'm doing what I love."

The Five G's

Five core values inform not only small-group ministry, but all that Willow does. They are known as the "Five G's": grace, groups, growth, gifts, and good stewardship. The Five G's represent:

• Evangelism: seeker orientation at every level of church life.

• Community: relationships for encouragement and accountability.

• Spiritual growth: teaching and reinforcement of how to live a fully devoted life as a Christian.

• Servanthood: every believer identifying and using spiritual gifts to serve the body of Christ and those in need.

• Stewardship: managing talent and resources in a godly way.

Those values can be seen, for example, in Willow's committed core of 8,000 volunteers. "Empowerment is in the air and water here," says Betty Schmidt, a Willow Creek elder for 21 years. "It motivates you. You believe you have something to give to God."

In addition to thousands of regular serving opportunities on and off campus, each major conference creates an additional 1,100 volunteer jobs. Single mom Barbara Fischer closes her flower shop during conferences to serve with her two teenage sons.

Article continues below

"My boys love the connections they've made with the men we serve with, since they don't see their dad," Fischer says. "We church-hopped for 17 years. But from the first time we came to Willow, we felt a sense of family and belonging and being fed."

Promiseland, the ministry that serves 3,500 children each weekend, is a microcosm of the life transformation that's possible when all five core values are working. It also shows how small groups of individuals make Willow's ministry work.

When 13-year-old Blake Peacock first visited Promiseland six years ago, his mother, Becky, wondered how he would fit in as a boy with Down syndrome.

"Don Walker, Blake's small-group leader in the second- and third-grade classroom, made Blake feel like a valued member of the group from the first day," she says. Blake had a hard time processing words, so Walker modeled how to pray. Walker continued to disciple Blake after he accepted Christ and said if he kept growing spiritually he could someday return to Promiseland as a student helper.

As Blake grew older, he never forgot the dream Walker planted in him. In November 1998, Blake began serving as a helper in a Promiseland kindergarten classroom. Walker gave Blake a Bible to celebrate the milestone. "With friends, dreams are shared," said a note inside. "Isn't God wonderful to have brought us together? God has given you a heart to share his love with kids, the same love I have. I'm so proud of you for serving in Promiseland. Yea, Blake. Yea, God. I love you."

The extensive programs and the corps of committed volunteers like Walker are shepherded by 512 Willow Creek employees, 60 percent of them full time.

Another 120 people are employed by the Willow Creek Association, a separate nonprofit organization that shares insights about Willow with 5,600 member churches in 90 denominations. (Last year the association hosted 76,000 church leaders in conferences on Willow's campus and around the world.) Nearly 45 percent of the church's staff was hired within the past two years—not because of staff turnover, which is only 8 percent, but because of ministry expansion.

Executive Pastor Hawkins says employment at Willow requires sacrifice. The work ethic is high. The salaries are modest by church standards and low compared to marketplace jobs, as Hawkins himself found out.

In 1991 the Stanford MBA was asked to join Willow Creek to help re-engineer its infrastructure and later to implement its Five-Year Strategic Plan. He left a six-figure management consulting job, where he was on the verge of becoming a partner, to accept a one-year internship for $1,000 a month. By the end of that year, he says, he never looked back.

Article continues below

Even 18 months later, when he was named executive pastor, his salary was a fraction of what it had been.

The church attracts many employees from the marketplace, but Hawkins tells them working at Willow is not like working at Motorola.

"The corporate model is a machine metaphor—built around efficiency and throughput," Hawkins says. "We're a body—a living, breathing, organic thing."

Barrington and Beyond

In the end, the most compelling illustration of Willow Creek's success is not found in its size but in individual stories, stories of people like Art Holton, who found his Acts 2 family in small groups.

Holton, 56, sits on the edge of his bed, counting T-shirts and socks, trying to figure out what to pack. In a few hours he and 14 other volunteers from Willow Creek will fly to Costa Rica to build an addition onto a church in San Jose.

Last year Holton and another Willow team built a house in Costa Rica in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. They were among 4,450 volunteers in 1999 who served in some way with the church's 62 ministry partners in the inner city of Chicago, the suburbs, and overseas.

When Holton returns from Costa Rica, Willow's 25th anniversary festivities will be in high gear.

Holton can't help reminiscing how both he and the church have grown since he first came to Willow in 1976. Six years ago, for example, Holton's information technology consulting business failed. He found himself $17,000 in debt and painfully aware of how much his identity had been based on business success. He began meeting with a group of men with similar struggles.

"Eight of us began to meet together on Tuesday mornings at 6:30 in the office of a corporate video production company where one of our group worked," he says. "We studied Neil Anderson's book, Victory over the Darkness, which talks about finding our identity in Christ. The group was a safe place to confess our junk to one another and know we were with brothers who would not condemn us."

Holton subsequently joined a Good Sense small group—a Willow ministry that helps people learn to manage money in a God-honoring way. One hundred sixty people—most with business and financial credentials—serve as volunteer Good Sense counselors.

Some lead small groups for people in debt, others counsel those with unusual financial situations, and others serve in a workshop attended by 1,500 people annually.

Article continues below

"My Good Sense group held me accountable for following through with my debt-reduction plan," says Holton, who retired his debt in a year and adopted a simpler lifestyle. "I found I no longer needed all the 'stuff' to feel significant."

He went on to become a coach of other small-group leaders in a pilot spiritual formation workshop the church was developing. His role was to help small-group leaders develop their own plan for spiritual development that would include a variety of disciplines such as prayer, solitude, and Bible study.

Last year, Holton says, God began stirring him toward leading a new ministry for motorcyclists.

"Our purpose is fellowship and friendship evangelism," he says. The group takes long rides to destinations in Illinois and Wisconsin, 10 in the past year, with shared meals at the beginning and end of each trip.

"One guy who owns a paper-shredding business came to Christ a few months ago out of seeds planted over a dinner meeting at a restaurant in Galena, one of our destinations," Holton says.

The businessman's wife, also a biker, is now investigating Christianity.

"When I first walked into Willow Creek as a seeker, the church was about to celebrate its first anniversary," Holton says. "I found Christ there, and the life change that's occurred in me since then—as a result of Willow's investment in me—has marked my life."

Verla Gillmor, a member of Willow Creek for four years, is a writer, speaker, communication consultant, and author of the forthcoming Reality Check: A Survival Guide for Christians in the Marketplace.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.