What's Tony Thinking

O, How the Mighty Have Fallen (again)


In 1990 an office of the United Church of Christ convened a gathering for younger senior ministers of larger churches.

Part of the experience was a field trip to Willow Creek Church in a suburb of Chicago.

Willow Creek had started in 1977, founded by Bill Hybels, a handsome, preppy-looking guy whose background was in the Reformed Church of America (home as well to Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale). As the story goes, Hybels had gone door to door all over the area asking people what kind of a church would interest them.

The result was one of the earliest of the mega-churches. Something that looked less like a church than a suburban mall or business park. Something that felt less like a church than a combination theater and civic auditorium. The music was contemporary and up-beat. Services were geared for “seekers.” Messages were spiced with drama, skits and humor.

At that time Willow Creek’s reported membership was something on the order of 10,000. Today it is 25,000.

I was impressed. I thought there were things we mainliners could learn. And I wrote a piece for the Christian Century to that effect, “Learnings from Willow Creek.”

I did have some questions. Is there a line where worship becomes entertainment and which side of the line was Willow on? And what happens a generation from now when the founding pastor, around whom so much of the church was built and centered, passed from the scene?

That time has come and Bill Hybels has resigned, along with entire board and senior staff of the church, amid accusations of sexual harassment against Hybels.

The accusations aren’t new. They have been public for at least several years. Hybels villified former staff members, John and Nancy Ortberg, who said there was a problem. He chalked it all up to “enemies” wanting to trash his legacy.

The Willow Creek Board circled the wagons around Hybels, claiming they had investigated the charges and declared Hybels innocent.

But it wouldn’t go away. In the age of MeToo, the Board finally decided they had been wrong to dismiss the victims and their accounts in favor of Hybels’ denials.

Are there now other “learnings” from Willow Creek? Here are two.

Like most of the mega-churches of this era, Willow Creek is an “independent, non-denominational church.” The idea of independent and non-denominational appealed to many in the age of suspicion of institutions. Denominations seemed (and often were) stodgy.

The problem with the arrangement is such churches and their leaders aren’t accountable to anyone but themselves and the organization they have created. (Think Seattle’s “Mars Hill,” and before that “Overlake Christian Church” in Kirkland.) The fox guarding the henhouse, so to speak.

While denominational structures are highly imperfect, there are ordinarily some set of ethical/ professional standards to appeal to as well as structure of accountability and discipline beyond a particular congregation.

As with a church’s books, it is best to have more than one set of eyes on what’s going on.

A second learning has to do with the charismatic pastor model. Again, mainline denominations have been faulted for not being receptive to the charismatic, entreprenurial type of leader. That’s a fair criticism. We’re tough on strong leaders.

But the charismatic leaders of the megas too often become larger-than-life idols. That is, instead of pointing beyond themselves to God, they become — if not God — then gods in their domain. To question them becomes heresy.

But the thing is, that the congregation is complicit in this. People want to put a leader on a pedastal. They want to be Bill or Mark or Andy’s followers and part of that person’s church.

When you’ve made this kind of bargain, it becomes very difficult to challenge such a leader.

Is there a difference between between being a follower of a charismatic, human leader and a disciple of Jesus Christ? I think there is.

These days this all has wider implictions. Globally, we’re in a time of the new “strong man” leader. Trump fits the profile. As do Putin, Erdogan, Duarte and Muti, among others.

People trade their freedom and responsibility for the supposed security of the leader. To be sure, capable leaders are important. But they are not God.

Categories: Uncategorized