This is the third post in our series on the Legacy of Willow Creek, and this post gets straight to the biggest reason why Willow must be examined: it had an outsized influence. Because of that influence Laura Barringer and I gave Willow special emphasis in our proposal that churches need to work hard at forming cultures of tov (goodnes). We have seven traits of goodness in A Church called Tov.
WCCC’s influence on leaders, pastors, and churches is unmatched by any other church of the 20th Century. The impact of Bill Hybels and the various leaders at WCCC was nothing less than magnetic, stimulating, and era-shaping. The Willow way, Willow’s DNA, became the way for countless church plants and church shifts. No other evangelical church in history has ever had as wide and deep of an influence that Willow had in the 80s and 90s. (I’m more than happy to hear of challenges on this.)
Gifted preachers have had enormous influence in church history, and one can go back to Charles Spurgeon and Dwight Moody as well as to Donald Grey Barnhouse and W.A. Criswell, but no church’s model of church has had the influence that Willow had in its glory days.
Many well-known Christian “influencers” began at Willow, or came into their own at Willow, and then moved on: Lee Strobel, Mark Mittelberg, John Burke, Shane Farmer, Mark Ashton, Garry Poole, John and Nancy Ortberg, Ruth Haley Barton and Mindy Caliguire come to mind. They no doubt were influenced by Willow and then used that Willow way wherever they went even as each of them, also no doubt, changed and adjusted and went their own way.
Since one of Hybels’ strategies was to create buzz events that would bring more to WCCC’s services, other well-known speakers and singers and celebrities found their way to the stage at WCCC: from Randy Travis to Henry Cloud to Kurt Warner. Some expanded their brand by performing on the stage. Willow’s own brand was marketed through its Willow Creek Association – a denomination-like affiliation that distributed to churches Willow products.
In our study, A Church called Tov, we press hard on learning to see each church as a culture, and learning to see a church culture as an agent in itself so that the church culture begins to form us into its image. Willow became a culture of influence and the Willow DNA became an agent influencing into international regions.
Publishers stood in line and offered big advances to the teachers at WCCC, some of whom became household names. Books were one of the most important methods Willow became influential, so influential that Zondervan had an imprint for the Willow books. I know because one of my own books, The Blue Parakeet, was given at the time of its original publication the Willow imprint. WCCC’s own authors were not permitted to take a full royalty and neither were they supposed to use Willow time for the writing of their books.
The granddaddy of their influences was the Leadership Summit, showcasing Hybels, his chosen favorites, and world-famous authors and speakers. Much of it was shaped by leadership culture figures, including Jack Welch, but the Summit was the buzz event of all buzz events. The new auditorium would be packed to hear about leadership from people as big as Bill Clinton. This term – “leadership” – became the buzziest of terms around Willow and as a New Testament professor and historian it was nothing if not a nuisance to me. The operative term in the New Testament for “leaders” was not leader but pastors and those with various spiritual gifts, and the resource for the biblical idea then of “leaders” was not the business world but the Bible and the rich depths of Christian history. I stand here with Eugene Peterson who never did stop griping about the shift in seminaries and especially “model” churches toward pastors as leaders away from pastors as spiritual mentors.
Willow, so far as I know, was at the vanguard of the conference model that all but said aloud: “Come see how we do it because we do it the best!” There were beside the influence of the performing arts conference, small group conferences and leadership conferences as well as “come see what Willow is like” type events.
Willow’s own brand was marketed, expanded, and became international through its Willow Creek Association – a denomination-like feeder program that fed other churches with cutting-edge Willow products of all sorts.
I have sat in worship services in Odder Denmark to Stellenbosch South Africa, from Florida to Texas to California to Oregon to Minnesota to New York and even in the heart of Amish, Mennonite country and seen the impact the Willow way. Willow Creek became the model for thousands of churches in the world as Bill Hybels became model leader.
With influence comes scrutiny. When a church sets itself up as the model to follow the scrutiny can be even more intense. When a church sets up expectations of excellence tied to Christian integrity, failures of the sort we learned about Hybels and WCCC lead to severe pushback. Tomorrow we turn to such elements of WCCC’s legacy.