Willow Creek’s 30-Year Apology

October 25, 2007 by

Christianity Today‘s blog, Out of Ur, posted last week about Willow Creek’s big apology as it relates to how Willow has been wrong in their approach to church for the last 30 years. In response to the experience-based environment of programs and participation so prevalent at Willow, Bill Hybels said, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have … taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

Time will tell how Willow comes to terms with this posture of repentance, and how their future behavior aligns with their updated belief. As I hold back my wagging finger that says “see I told you so” (I know I’m not alone), I am quick to evaluate my own life and ministry.

How do the projects I process and the people I pastor align with biblical discipleship? How does the mind of Christ influence every communication and marketing decision I make? How is my team spending their time? If we know that church marketing is not about buildings, budgets and big, why does so much of our time seem to be spent working towards that?

Maybe I need to repent too.

Post By:

Brad Abare


Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it. He and his wife Jamaica live in Los Angeles with their daughter, Miró.
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26 Responses to “Willow Creek’s 30-Year Apology”

  • The Aesthetic Elevator
    October 25, 2007

    Veeerrrry interesting. I remembering reading a Lee Stroebel? book about Willow Creek in the mid-90’s, and even then I didn’t necessarily buy into the whole seeker-friendly outlook it put forward. And more and more churches I was around seemed to focus only on programs, which was just completely lost on me, until about five years ago when the large church in Nebraska that I attended decided to radically change their model.
    And I though that change was a very good thing.


  • brad
    October 25, 2007

    If we perceive a vacuum and concentrate all our energy into filling, we will undoubtedly cause another vacuum somewhere else. Willow Creek has effectively tapped into a perceived need in the world, and now it’s simply perceiving another.
    It is humbling and inspiring to hear that is as big and outwardly successful as WC making very public apologies, and changing focus to accommodate real needs.
    I am a bit iffy on the term “self-feeder” though. I get its intent, but I think it tends to reinforce individualism — a major corruption of our faith.


    • Rev. Harold Carpenter
      February 7, 2011

      I think I understand the reservation many of your commenters have regarding the term “self-feeders”, but I would remind them of one thing. While the shepherd’s job is to guide the sheep away from dangers (of all kinds) and into good grazing ground, the sheep must do their own grazing!


  • Will Lowrey
    October 25, 2007

    It will not be an easy shift from programs to relationships. That is what our church is currently experiencing and feeling the struggles. I can tell you that we are also experiencing a great deal of deep relationships with others and with God, as we focus on relational and intentional ministries.
    As for Brad’s comment about self-feeder, I agree. There is a danger that it will let people flounder around. That is the last thing that is needed. In Hebrews, we are called to move past milk and move onto spiritual meat. Basically, we must grow up in our faith. That is a process that individuals contribute to, but the church as a whole can foster the growth and support the habits necessary for healthy, long-term growth.


  • Don Byers
    October 25, 2007

    Probably 30 years ago I heard a Christian leader say that the concept of discipleship in England was defined as helping people become “self-feeding Christians.” I think the purpose was to help us understand that true discipleship “weans” new believers from dependency on another Christian to ultimate dependency on Christ for their daily life.


  • Sam
    October 25, 2007

    My colleagues and I just read “Reveal” as a church staff and allowing it to inform our decision making process. It will be very helpful to have quantitative research to help us better reach our community as well as help our congregation self-feed.
    What bothers me most is the self-righteous gloating on other message boards. The fact that Willow is willing to share what they have learned demonstrates character and leadership on their part.


  • Aaron Marshall
    October 25, 2007

    I totally get trapped in the idea of a mechanistic “silver bullet program” Christianity.
    I love the transparency and humility in a huge church repenting. Its hard enough for me to admit I am wrong, I cant imagine being in that big of a spotlight and having to do it.
    Kudos to Willowcreek


  • Gene Mason
    October 25, 2007

    A fascinating account. The church I currently serve is making this shift away from program-driven ministry to relationship-driven ministry that is focused on small group disciple-making. It is very, very difficult to make this change, as there are some core items in the programming docket that are just tough to let go of.
    I’m encouraged that other church leaders are seeing the necessity of moving beyond campus-centric programming to something simpler and ultimately more effective. It will be interesting to see where Willow Creek ends up in 5 years. I think its brave to have this level of introspection as a nationally-known church in a public forum like books/internet.


  • Mark Howell
    October 26, 2007

    It is a massive overstatement to say that Willow is apologizing for their philosophy of ministry. They’re simply saying that based on the findings of the surveys that form the basis for Reveal: Where Are You? they’re aware that they’ve not done enough to teach believers how to continue to grow by self-feeding. In addition, a careful reading of Reveal acknowledges that 85% of the 5000 surveyed come 3 to 4 times a month, much more frequently than the average Willow attendee. What does that say? It says that what they’re “apologizing” for is not being proactive about helping their most mature believers become self-feeders.


  • Jimmy
    November 7, 2007

    Are these people serious? We made a mistake. We led thousands of churches and took millions of dollars down the wrong road. We’re sorry. Now let’s go down this new survey driven road together. Don’t forget to bring your cash. We have lots of books and seminars to sell.
    Here’s how I see it. Their 30 year marketing plan has run out of steam. They play the humility card, admit they were wrong, star a new “conversation” (sound “Emergent” to anyone else?) and build a whole new publishing and workshop empire.
    God gave us a book. It tells us everthing we need to know as Christians and what to do as a church. Why are we waisting millions on this junk?


  • albert
    November 9, 2007

    If the early church was seeker sensitive,where would we be today?
    It’s still the 3 b’s: buildings, bucks, and butts. As a pastor who attempts to preach the word surrounded by seeker sensitives, I wonder what my children’s churches would look like. Are Hybels and company sincere or looking to add to THEIR kingdom?


  • Debra
    November 13, 2007

    I have been heavily involved in my seeker targeted church. I have recently left because of the hurtful marketing/demographic study that showed they needed to cater more toward the 20/30yr olds.I was a member of the vocal team(9 yrs) and turned 40 recently. They stopped scheduling me to sing. They wanted to vocalists to mirror that age group. Very hurtful. What happend to shepperding the flock? Its hard to be viewed as expendable.


  • Geoff Freind
    December 5, 2007

    It is with great interest that I read of where Bill Hybels has assessed that they have been wrong in the way that they have discipled the people in their care.
    My opinion is that if every Church in the world had been as wrong as Bill and the Willow Creek Church, the whole world would be saved now and we would be with Jesus in heaven.
    We have a lot to thank Bill Hybels for… He is one of the greatest Christian leaders in our time and his passion about reaching lost people for Jesus has impacted thousands of Churches around the world.
    Only a great leader is able to admit their mistakes… I am sure that Bill will learn from this and be even more effective in reaching lost people to Jesus…
    Our mission and purpose is all about bringing Christ’s new life to people… God Bless!!


  • David Young
    January 11, 2008

    With regard to Willow Creek apologizing.Here we have a church that in effect has admitted to wasting time and millions of dollars of donor money that could have been better spent on the REAL needs of people rather than Church programs that do nothing more inflate the egos of the Church leadership.The phrase “blind leaders of the blind” somehow comes to mind.


  • David Young
    January 11, 2008

    With regard to Willow Creek apologizing.Here we have a church that in effect has admitted to wasting time and millions of dollars of donor money that could have been better spent on the REAL needs of people rather than Church programs that do nothing more inflate the egos of the Church leadership.The phrase “blind leaders of the blind” somehow comes to mind.


  • topchessplayer
    January 11, 2008

    With regard to Willow Creek apologizing.Here we have a church that in effect has admitted to wasting time and millions of dollars of donor money that could have been better spent on the REAL needs of people rather than Church programs that do nothing more inflate the egos of the Church leadership.The phrase “blind leaders of the blind” somehow comes to mind.


  • Topchessplayer
    January 11, 2008

    With regard to Willow Creek apologizing.Here we have a church that in effect has admitted to wasting time and millions of dollars of donor money that could have been better spent on the REAL needs of people rather than Church programs that do nothing more inflate the egos of the Church leadership.The phrase “blind leaders of the blind” somehow comes to mind.


  • Topchessplayer
    January 11, 2008

    It is doubtful that Willow Creek has ‘repented’.All they have done is admit a mistake-there is a difference.


  • Joe Miller
    January 26, 2008

    I thought you might enjoy this cartoon I created illustrating some of the key points of this discussion. Check it out and let me know what you think.


  • SUB
    February 3, 2008

    I have to agree with Mark Howell.
    The willow leaf foundation has run out of steam. They are doing what any corporation in that position would dol. Get together and come up with a redemtion stragety. Well it seems that they have done just that. Don Byers stated that their church got together and have found the “Reveal” campaign to be great answer to a failed concept.
    The Willow leaf corporation has just shifted fire and the tickling ears are listening.


  • SUB
    February 3, 2008

    I have to correct my post.
    Mark Howell should have been Jimmy at November 7, 2007 10:17 AM
    and Don Byers should have been Sam at October 25, 2007 12:26 PM


  • Sam
    February 4, 2008

    SUB,
    You misunderstood the intent of my post.
    I said that my staff and I had read the “Reveal” book and found it informative as to what we really want to focus on. Every church I have been to in my life has focused on getting people into a “program” of some sort. Not caring if we facilitated permanently shallow faith. This was before anyone had ever heard of Willow.
    My staff and I simply want to help make disciples like Jesus commanded. It my and my colleagues impression that Willow is desiring to focus on that as well. Call Willow’s book an apology or call it whatever you want. I honestly doubt that most of the people who criticize the book so fiercely have read it. My original irritation with self-righteous gloating still applies as well.


  • Kimberly
    August 11, 2008

    I don’t know if anyone will ever read this, but here is my two cents. If it were not for Willow Creek and Bill Hybels ‘seeker service’ I don’t know where I would be today. This man, this church and the message I received was life changing. I had been seriously seeking the answer, the right way, the right religion since I graduated Catholic school at eighth grade. In my heart of hearts I realized that Catholicism was not what God intended when he said I am a jealous God and though shall have no Gods before me. I could not continue to pray to Mary, the Saints, etc. I studied other religions and actually formally accepted Islam shortly after college, until….9/11
    Then I was REALLY lost!!! My family and many well meaning Christians tried to explain Christianity to me, logically, biblically, and otherwise…NO LUCK! The more they tried, the harder it became for me to see their point because they could not answer my questions. I saw a documentary on television, that I now know was centered around the DaVinci Code, that really sent me in the wrong direction. Then one Sunday, I happened to wonder into Willow Creek. They offered me the TRUTH in a non-threatening way that was REAL and RELEVANT to my life and everyday struggles. They illustrated for me what Jesus did for me and how it all related to my life. For their ‘seeker’ model and the absolute transparency and humbleness of Bill Hybels, Willow Creek, the Leadership team and the thousands of volunteers that it takes to make that place run like a well oiled machine….I SAY A RESOUNDING THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!
    I was a part of the survey taken about the church and the direction of it when it was solely seeker driven. I had been attending for over a year at that point and began watching Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, TD Jakes and the like on TBN and reading books and of course meditating on God’s Word; which offered me more biblical direction and the option to go deeper in my faith and bring me to a new level. As I began to go deeper, I began to feel the void that someone mentioned in an earlier post, between ‘seeker’ and ‘saved’. Sunday service was solely ‘seeker’ driven and the weekday service was more worship and bible based learning, but my heart just wanted more. I was torn between feeling loyal to the place where my soul was saved and going somewhere else. I have since moved to Phoenix and have joined Cornerstone Chandler Church, a Willow Creek Association church, and absolutely love it. It saddens me to see such anger and skepticism towards Willow Creek and Bill Hybels. I can only pray that God removes the scales from your eyes and softens your hearts to see light and life in an extraordinary man, church, and philosophy.
    God Bless!


  • joseph
    August 11, 2008

    Creflo Dollar? Joyce Meyer? biblical direction from TBN? wow… just wow.


  • John Hankes
    April 24, 2011

    I think all religion is a joke and faith in some higher being is just wishful thinking. Willow Creek, Church of Christ, St. Peter’s, etc… none of it really matters. People don’t live inside of whales, they don’t take off in flaming, flying chariots, the physically blind don’t see again and dead don’t rise. Civilization didn’t start 6,000 years ago and man didn’t suddenly appear in the fertile crescent. The sooner you idiots realize this the sooner you will start caring about the world around you and quit thinking you are going to be taken away in some ridiculous exodus. Grow up, take responsibility. Jesus is not coming back, what you have is all you have so make the best use of your time on this earth. Quit hating gays and realize that all people are just that, people.


  • Frank Selletti
    January 13, 2012

    As someone who attended Willow Creek Church for years (primarily because my wife loved the place), the culture of the church never took hold with me.

    I sensed a “marketing machine”, which focused mostly on ways to get people to attend (entertainment, etc.). The place always gave me the feeling that I was witnessing a Hollywood production, as opposed to having a sincere motivation to be humble in how they went about their business.

    Bill Hybels is a very gifted orator (as many successful pastors are). The man (at least to me) also appears to have an ego, bigger than the mega-church that has been built. If anyone paid attention to how he carries himself over the years, he gives multiple clues to indicate his need to be the center of attention.

    With all this said, to each’s own. If a place like Willow Creek helps you to become a better person, than have at it. To me, the culture was something I couldn’t take anymore, because it just didn’t seem the least bit sincere.



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