When people hear that Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington has more than 24,000 worshippers on an average weekend, they’re impressed at the number.
What founder and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels would like you to know is that they are way more excited about their ministries than their size.
“Don’t come here to warm a bench,” Hybels says. Instead he wants to challenge you and equip you to be the hands and feet of Christ in the community. “Do you love the poor? Are you faithful to your spouse? Are you raising your kids in a way that you’ll be proud of when they’re older?” Not the normal questions you expect from a pastor.
But Willow Creek is an unusual Evangelical Christian church. No pews, no crosses, no robed choirs. According to Hybels, when they started in the ‘70s the small group asked themselves: “What would it be like if a church service were creative rather than boring? What if it was practical rather than esoteric, and you could put the content to work on Monday morning? What if there were more forms of art than just a robed choir. What if the learning process at a weekend service could be intellectually stimulating, creative, practical, inspiring, challenging? Would that help people grow spiritually?”
The answer to those questions was obviously “yes.” On the North Shore, the congregation that meets in Northfield has grown to 2,000 since its founding in 2002. Led by Campus Pastor Steve Gillen, it’s not a posh or beautiful physical space, just a rented school auditorium, but like every Willow Creek congregation, it fills a spiritual need while serving the surrounding community.
Willow Creek is known worldwide because of the vision Hybels had to empower Christian leaders at other congregations and denominations. The Leadership Summit, which began in 1992, had more than 160,000 people participate this year in the live two-day conference via video feed. It featured speakers including Condoleezza Rice, Marc Kielburger and Harvard’s William Ury.
When they started the Summit, Hybels began with this premise: We’re going to find some of the best leaders in the world, not just church leaders. His reasoning? Leaders are incurable learners, who want to hear from people who have built something, overcome some obstacles, and who have proven the practices of leadership.
Hybels was inspired to start the Summit when he traveled around the world, and puzzled over why some churches were prevailing and moving strongly ahead while others floundered and declined. There was no demographic or denominational reason; the difference was leadership.
“It wasn’t enough to have great teaching. Someone had to mobilize the congregation to help solve the church’s problems, someone had to raise up young leaders, someone had to keep the path ahead clear with vision,” Hybels says.
Willow Creek stepped into the void of leadership education and, from the beginning, has fully embraced the potential of women as leaders. “We want women staff members, board members, elders, pastors and we never apologized, we never tried to be politically correct, we simply believe the Bible teaches that women should live out their full potential as Christ followers,” Hybels says.
His goal is to see congregations around the world where the worshippers are “well led and well fed.”
At the end of our interview in his office, which overlooks a fountain and pond that are part of the sprawling Barrington campus, we talked about the future of Christianity in this country and in the world. Hybels is optimistic that the church is growing and will continue to grow. “I want to inspire church leaders to lead well, to teach well, to serve people well so the church can reach its full redemptive potential in the world.”