I will always remember the first time I heard Bill Hybels speak in person. I had been invited to be one of the teachers at an evangelism conference hosted by Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels addressed the opening session, calling us to use our influence to reach the unreached with urgency and creativity.
His passion for the lost was palpable. His leadership charisma was unmistakable. It was not surprising that he was leading not just one of America’s largest churches but one of our generation’s most influential ministries.
In the last year, so much of his story has changed. And now the crisis at the church he founded has reached a new level.
Last night, Lead Pastor Heather Larson resigned her position. The entire elder board of the church resigned as well. Christianity Today is calling their resignations “a seismic shock for one of the nation’s most influential churches.”
Elder Missy Rasmussen spoke for the board, stating: “We are sorry that we allowed Bill to operate without the kind of accountability that he should have had.” She added: “We exhort Bill to acknowledge his sin and publicly apologize.” As a consequence of their handling of this crisis, she announced: “Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board.”
Steve Gillen, lead pastor of Willow Creek’s North Shore campus, will serve as interim pastor. The church still intends to move forward with an independent investigation into the allegations against Hybels.
Why is the story of a single church’s struggles so significant? Because that church is one of the most significant congregations in American history.
A model for churches around the world
Bill Hybels was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the son of a wholesale produce operator. He came to personal faith in Christ as a teenager.
In 1971, Hybels was a youth pastor in Chicago when he started a worship service called “Son City.” The service targeted young people by using contemporary music and language, skits, and multimedia, virtually unprecedented innovations for a church at the time. Son City grew from twenty-five to 1,200 in three years.
In 1975, he and his leadership team opened a new church, naming it after the space they rented: Willow Creek Theater in Palatine, a residential suburb of Chicago. Costs were paid by one hundred teenagers who sold 1,200 baskets of tomatoes door-to-door. Attendance grew exponentially, leading the team to buy and build on property where the church is located today.
The congregation grew to more than 25,000 members. Its “seeker-sensitive” approach to reaching unchurched people became a model for churches all over the world.
In 1992, Hybels launched the Willow Creek Association (WCA) to link and resource thousands of like-minded churches. In 1995, he began the Global Leadership Summit, an annual training event for hundreds of thousands of ministry leaders. The 2018 Summit begins today.
A day for grief
Last March, I wrote a Daily Article responding to allegations of sexual misconduct against Hybels. Monday, I wrote another Daily Article on this issue after Hybels’ former personal assistant came forward with very serious accusations against him.
Her statements and the handling of this issue by the church’s elders led Steve Carter, then the church’s Lead Teaching Pastor, to resign. Now the church’s Lead Pastor and elder board have resigned as well.
Willow Creek Community Church was one of the largest and most influential churches in American history.
And so, today is a day for grief.
Grief for women who have felt that their stories of abuse were not heard or believed. Grief for the families who have shared their suffering.
Grief for Heather Larson and Steve Carter, gifted leaders whose ministries at Willow Creek ended so tragically. Grief for their families and all who love and support them.
Grief for the staff ministers and leaders of Willow Creek and its related ministries, thousands of women and men who have dedicated their service to Christ through this global movement.
Grief for the multiplied thousands of Willow Creek members, so many of whom found Christ through their church. Grief for the pain and shame this is causing them in their community.
Grief for the reputation of Christianity in our culture. Willow Creek was lifted high as a stellar example of a relevant church for our day. Now, critics have even more ammunition in their ridicule and rejection of our faith. The image of Jesus’ bride has been tarnished by this tragedy.
A day for faith, hope, and love
But this is also a day for faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Faith in the Father who rules the universe. Our faith is to be in God, never in man. Our security is as sure as the omnipotence of God.
Hope in the Son who founded the church and promises that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Our future is as bright as the providence of God.
Love produced by the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) that extends to sinners and their victims, knowing that we have all been both. Our compassion is as needed as the grace of God.
Brother Lawrence: “Many things are possible for the person who has hope. Even more is possible for the person who has faith. And still more is possible for the person who knows how to love. But everything is possible for the person who practices all three virtues.”
The church of Jesus Christ is the mightiest movement in human history. Rasmussen closed her statement last night by affirming, “We believe that God is still building his church.” And one day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).
The best is yet to be.