“For 60 minutes I sat in my own personal agony, watching this guy, who was probably only ever going to come to church once. I could viscerally sense him being pushed further and further away from the God that he was interested in, albeit mildly.”
That was one of the emotional and transformative moments Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek, described during an hour-long interview in front of the more than 700 clergy and laity at the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church in June. The pivotal scene he described took place during his teenage years in high school when a fellow baseball player – the wildest kid in school – asked to attend a church service with Hybels.
“I didn’t think about it,” recalled Hybels. “I should have thought about it…. I had never sat in my little legalistic, traditional, inward-focused church with someone far from God.”
After a few days of feeling as though his teammate was intentionally avoiding him, Hybels finally asked his friend about the church service. “Bill, I know you’re religious, but you pitch normal, you dress normal, you talk normal,” he said. “What you took me to was just not normal. So I’m just trying to figure out why someone as normal as you would be a part of something as abnormal as that was?” That encounter gave Hybels his “first rude awakening to what can happen in a single church service.”
Hybels launched Willow Creek outside of Chicago in 1976. Forty years later, more than 25,000 people attend one of Willow’s seven regional locations each weekend. He is also chairman of the board of the Willow Creek Association, a network of more than 7,000 member churches from 90 denominations in 90 different countries.
That high school experience when he was 17 years old gave Hybels a passion for creating a spiritually-centered – but outward-focused – congregation. When a first time visitor appeared at the church, Hybels wanted to make sure that the staff paid careful attention to “rehearsing and true innovation and heartfelt pieces of art that would move human souls, and preaching that would actually be intellectually rigorous and theologically sound, but also applicable Monday morning.”
The Hybels interview – conducted by his friend Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida – was one of the key components of a leadership emphasis at the 2016 Florida Annual Conference. The event also featured presentations by Jeff James from the Disney Leadership Institute, Texas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, and Lucille O’Neal, author and mother of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.
Hybels has become a driving force in providing leadership models and training for local Christian churches through his renowned Global Leadership Summit each year and through his books such as Courageous Leadership, The Call to Lead, Leading from Here to There, and Leadership Axioms.
Vision for the Church
“There is something beautiful and powerful and potential-filled in the concept of a church,” a professor told Hybels during a study of the book of Acts in 1972. This was the second transformative event that shaped Hybels’ vision for Willow Creek. His professor provided a picture of a New Testament church that triggered a life-altering response in Hybels.
“There was once a worshipping community radically devoted to God. They were relentlessly committed to spreading the Gospel, even at the risk of their own lives,” Hybels recalls his professor saying. “They were sewn together in a kind of fellowship where they called each other brothers and sisters. They sold their property and possessions so that no one in the community would live with ongoing need. And gender walls came down and racial walls came down and socio-economic walls came down. And they experienced the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in community at a point in time.”
“It blew my mind,” Hybels recalled. “I got all caught up in the vision of what the church could be. I knew the church of my youth and it was not faith-inspiring, it didn’t move me to want to do much on its behalf. But he described a kind of church that I had never experienced.”
Why don’t we have churches like this today, the professor provocatively asked his students. “Has God lost His power? Is the Holy Spirit no longer fired up? Does the Gospel no longer change lives? The problem is, young people like you won’t risk everything to try to build one. That’s the problem.”
Hybels had never been confronted with a vision like that for the church. “Some of you are just thinking about what your parents want you to do,” said the professor. “You’re just going to inherit a business…. I plead with you, why not cancel your career plans and give every day of the rest of your life to the building and developing of an Acts 2 church?”
Those words hit a nerve because Hybels’ father was a very successful businessman who had a plan of handing the family business over to his son. Meanwhile, Hybels was feeling an undeniable call to plant a church. The two visions collided when Bill explained his call to his father.
“It’s the first time that I ever knowingly disappointed him,” he confessed. “He was a hero figure, bigger than life – flew his own airplanes and sailed his own boats and traveled all over the world and did deals and was a strong Christian. I devastated him by that choice.”
Hybels’ father made sure that his son understood the gravity of his decision to walk away from the security and responsibility and rewards of the family business. “If you have any idea in your mind that I’m going to support this venture financially, I’m not going to,” Hybels recalled his father saying. “Further, if you’re going to really do this, then we’re going to have the lawyers come down and we’re going to write you out of the family interests and you’re going to sign some papers and you’re going to give back the keys to stuff and the credit cards and all that. I’m not cutting off relationship, but let’s see if this is God really calling you or if this is something you think that our family is going to underwrite.”
Hybels admitted an internal struggle. “And I went back to prayer,” he said. “I asked God a second or third time on that” – triggering laughter by the crowd. Nevertheless, the call was undeniable. At the same time, his father was not bluffing. “I remember it like it was yesterday, signing all the legal papers,” said Hybels. “And that was it for that.” Regretfully, two years after the church began, his father had a massive heart attack and died. “He never saw what Willow Creek would become some day,” said Hybels. “He only thought that I was being careless with something that he had spent a lifetime preparing for me to lead. So that’s a hard part of the story.”
Doing things differently
“After 40 years, how would you have started Willow differently, knowing what you know now?” Acevedo asked Hybels during the Q&A session.
“I have been asked this question before. And I actually have a bit of an issue with that kind of question,” responded Hybels, with a grin. “We’ll get over it,” he said as the audience laughed.
“In actuality, we don’t get to go back with the knowledge we have decades later. We’re living life real time right now. I’d like to be as smart now as I hopefully will be 10 years from now, but I can’t microwave that,” Hybels said. “When I look back at some regrets, instead of beating myself up and saying, ‘Oh, you idiot,’ I realize I was 22 when I started the church and I did the best I could and I made some terrible decisions and I made some, what turned out to be, pretty smart decisions. And I don’t get to do that do-over.
“I would rather remind myself that every day is the only day I get to live real time. So I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit today. I want to love my enemies today,” Hybels continued. “I want to do good in this world and try to reach some people today. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here yet. The only shot I have is real time.”
Virtuous Spiral Upwards
Leadership matters to Hybels because people matter to God. “The only thing God spilled the blood of His son for is people,” said Hybels. From his vantage point, if you have been given the spiritual responsibility of human souls, you have a sacred obligation to grow as a leader, develop your pastoral skills, and learn how to preach more effectively.
Hybels is fully committed to training the leaders of local churches despite denominational affiliation or worship style. More than 20 years ago, Hybels launched the Global Leadership Summit to help develop spiritual gifts of leadership. In 2016, more than 300,000 people participated in the live telecast of the Summit. Throughout the fall, Summit events take place at more than 675 sites in 125 countries and 59 languages.
“Everyone wins when a leader gets better… I shamelessly ask all of you to make the decision to get better, to preach better, to lead better, to communicate, to worship – whatever it is that you do in the church…,” Hybels said. “When you feel in your own spirit that you are developing and … your heart is growing, your head is growing, your gifts are growing, it creates a culture around you of people who start to live their life that way. … It’s a virtuous spiral upwards, if you can create that kind of culture. If you don’t, there’s a high degree of probability that there will be a less than virtuous spiral the other way.”
The downward spiral hit the church of Hybels’ childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when it officially closed its doors. “It was a thoroughly defeated congregation that had to hold its own funeral and sell the building…. I sat in front of that church and balled like a baby. What is sadder on planet earth than a kingdom light that goes out? We live in a dark world. We don’t have that many lights. So when one starts to flicker and then it goes out, it’s a cosmos-wide tragedy when a church dies. Some do.”
Hurricanes and spiritual conversations
“We United Methodists are pretty good at acts of compassion and mercy,” Acevedo told Hybels during the interview. “We’re at our best when a hurricane blows through or there’s a crisis. We’re good at giving away bags of groceries. And yet, we’re not so good at just ‘walking across the room,’ a phrase that you’ve popularized, and engaging in God-honoring and people-honoring spiritual conversations.” Although Willow is most well known for effectively reaching out to spiritual seekers, Hybels praised United Methodism’s social outreach.
“If you guys are really as good as he’s saying at compassion and justice, I want to say from the rooftops, way to go,” Hybels said. “Because most churches around the world don’t give a rip about the poor. They just don’t. They hold their little services, keep it all tidy. And they’re not passing out any groceries, they’re not responding to any hurricanes. There is a passivity and a complacency in churches around the world that drives me up the wall. So the fact that you are good at compassion and justice is no small thing. Hear my commendation, for whatever it’s worth, and please don’t devalue yourselves for being that, because that’s a major part of what Christ said we ought to be about.
“But if you’re a little weaker on the evangelism side, then I would just say, oh, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued. It is the vision, simplicity, and power of that passage in Acts 2 that originally ruined Hybels – in a good way. The Scripture reads: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (42-47).
This is clearly the dynamism that Hybels lives for. “I don’t understand church work apart from the adventure and the thrill of seeing God transform a human heart,” he said. “Now, I’m all for the compassion and justice. We do a lot for prisoners. We do a lot of compassion and justice stuff. When people say, what’s the church really about? It’s about evangelism, discipleship, and compassion and justice in its simplest framework. When evangelism is occurring supernaturally and people are growing in their faith, putting roots down deep, and joining small groups and you’re doing compassion and justice, pinch me.
“Forty years into it and I’m as passionate about the beauty, power, and potential of the local church as I was day one. I am in awe of the church. And when it’s working right, there’s no institution like it on planet earth,” Hybels said.
You’re not crazy!
“Every pastor needs to hear every once in a while that you’re not crazy. Because there’s a lot easier ways to earn a living, and there’s a lot easier ways to develop a career that isn’t as messy and as exhausting as being a pastor,” Hybels said to conclude his remarks. “And there are times when we’ve launched capital campaigns and fallen short of the goal. And there are times when we’ve had what we thought were brilliant ideas and launched them with high hopes and they just fell flat, and no one’s life changed.”
At the same time, Hybels reminded the clergy that “God has entrusted you with what He treasures most in this world…. And He’s gifted you. And He’s given you His Holy Spirit. And every once in a while someone probably just has to say to you, ‘You are not crazy for pouring your life into this.’ You are not crazy for enduring what you endure, from season to season. You are not crazy for staying faithful to the Word of God when pastors are bailing on the trustworthiness of scripture, right and left. You are not crazy for holding the line on certain moral issues that everyone is willing to cave on. Every once in a while you just need someone to tell you you’re not crazy.”
Hybels ended the session by describing a time that he spoke at Acevedo’s Grace Church. “The place was electric because Jorge’s life story is one of redemption and optimism, that God can do anything, and he’s got a congregation that has experienced so much recovery and they key into Jorge’s optimism,” he recalled. “The place was on fire that night.”
Hybels transitioned from the story of Acevedo’s United Methodist congregation committed to recovery ministry into a benediction and a charge. “I would encourage you to do whatever you need to do to stay fired up, stay on the faith-filled side of things, tell people God is still strong, the Holy Spirit still has His stuff, the Gospel still transforms people’s lives, the church is still the hope of the world. And you keep beating that drum and good things will happen.”