Bill Hybels at his Best

Bill Hybels at his Best April 30, 2007

There are an assortment of churches — megachurches, megachurch wannabes, big churches, small churches, house churches, missional churches, cafe churches, neighborhood churches, village churches. Some change constantly; some are the same as they were when Grandma and Grandpa were baptized there by the pastor whose grandson is now pastor.
Some in the emerging movement toss criticism at all things megachurch; and some megachurch pastors think their church happens to be the first one to have figured out what “church” is supposed to be. Some liturgical churches look down long, traditional hoary noses at small church creativity; and some spontaneous churches haven’t a clue that most Christians have been more liturgical than creative. I could go on … you get my point.

After three years of speaking hither and yon, I’ve come to where I like all churches (or most churches). I like big ones and I like little ones; I like the cafe church and I like the missional churches. I think we ought to get along and participate together in the redemptive work of God in this world.
Which brings me now to my post for today … it’s about a megachurch, Willow Creek, and its superstar pastor, Bill Hybels, and this is not an open invitation for you to take potshots at megachurches, Willow or Bill Hybels. But, I would like you to think with me about his latest “vision.”
Some of you may know that Bill Hybels has not been healthy for a few months, and his sermons carried a little melancholy as he struggled with his health issues. But, this weekend Bill was at his best — back to his vision-casting and motivating and creating vision. Here are the three new elements of Willow’s vision as it moves on. This kind of vision is the kind of thing megachurches do well; and do often.
Essentially Bill lives with this vision from God: “The destiny God has in store is far beyond what even your faith can imagine.” And Willow is reaching now for “multiplied impact.” Here are the three elements of this new vision:
1. Raise your level of risk to reach people far from God.
2. Recoach people on how they grow — so they become “self-feeders” as they mature.
3. Unleash unprecedented amounts of compassion and justice for our neighborhood and world.
I’ve never been at a Willow service when so many people “participated” (saying things, clapping, “Yes”).
Personally, I don’t think the term “self-feeders” is the best of terms and I really don’t think it expresses what Bill was getting at — the need for mature Christians to become more personally responsible for their theological development, and not expecting the church to do it all. Maybe some of you were there and heard what he said and have some thoughts … and some of you weren’t and have thoughts.

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  • Scot,
    I like the three elements and see them as essentials. Seems that not only megachurches, but all of us can do with a rekindling of the vision of what we’re about. And Scot, I very much support your comment concerning us getting along and participating together in God’s redemptive work, although I hasten to add with tears that we often seem so divided and far from exemplifying the love and justice of God, that many turn away.

  • Trevor Hudson

    Thank you for sharing Bill’s vision. As usual it is deeply challenging. I miss one thing–an emphasis on community. Living on African soil has underlined for me the gospel’s invitation to community as an essential dimension of biblical spirituality. The language of spiritual formation in the Bible, as I understand it,is nearly always social language.I missed this in the vision.

  • Yes, thank you for the reminder that we need to encourage, support and praise God for all kinds of churches, even when a particular church doesn’t “do church” the way we lean in our understanding.
    As Greg stated above we would all benefit from embracing Hybels’ three elements. For number two it seems there needs to be a focus on spiritual transformation. Maybe talking about becoming more and more like Christ. Something along the lines of Willard talking about needing a theology of transformation. I really like number 3’s phrase “Unleash unprecedented amounts.”

  • Scot,
    Thanks for affirming Bill Hybels. When I’ve attended WCA sessions or WCC services where he cast any kind of vision, I was deeply moved. I agree with you that that is Bill at his best.
    I also appreciate your spirit as reflected in: “After three years of speaking hither and yon, I’ve come to where I like all churches (or most churches). I like big ones and I like little ones; I like the cafe church and I like the missional churches. I think we ought to get along and participate together in the redemptive work of God in this world.” Good stuff, brother.

  • Diane

    I visit many different churches. Almost all have a piece of the puzzle of how to build the Kingdom of God, I think. So many have so much to offer. As always, I think we run in circles arguing while God has put it right in front of us: love each other and try to understand each other and all the puzzle pieces will come together and sort themselves out into a picture that will be something like the Kingdom of God. OK, that sounds hopelessly idealistic! As an aside, I do, in rare instances, see a church that seems “off.” They’re out there and sometimes become the face of what “Christians” are to the secular world. Promoting the reality of the 90-plus percent of churches that are healthy, be they little, big, new, traditional, is essential.

  • I am not sure there is anything more impactful than #3…it seems to be a subset of Matthew 22:39.
    As far as #2, I like it but I feel it is why many dismiss the MC philosophy because spending a year in Genesis from the pulpit is their stimulus for growth.

  • I was unaware that Bill Hybles was ill or struggling with health issues. I am sorry to hear that. He is truly good man.
    We are too diverse as a nation to expect any one type of church to reach us all. The illusion that this is posible arises because we tend to obsessively focus one the mega or house or the emergent churches. They are next thing. A healthy variety seems right.
    Those three emphasis – they are right on the mark.

  • Matthew

    About point 2: I agree but I would add something. I think the Navigators got it right when they described reproducing reproducers. Even more than taking responsibility for one’s own spiritual maturity, I think the goal ought to be taking responsibility to be actively discipling (or mentoring or whatever other term you like) those who will in turn disciple others.
    Instead of just feeding themselves, we want those we work with to feed others, who will feed others…

  • Allie

    Darn right, Bill Hybels is at his best when visioncasting. (Darn it, I missed the service, since I usually go to Willow Creek’s downtown Chicago regional campus, and I was in the children’s ministry that morning).
    Despite that, God has given him a gift of a vision that all churches(emergent, traditional, independent, small, medium, large and extra-large) would do well to listen to and implement (modifying it to fit their individual congregations, if need be, obviously). Thanks, Scot, for bringing this to your audience.

  • Rick

    What is the most effective missional approach to point 2? Should the church take a large disciple training/development focus so that people can be more effective missional disciple-makers in their community, or should the church be more missional in part by being more seeker (unchurched) friendly and thus leave the training/development focus to the individuals (or small groups)? Is it realistic to have a both/and balance here since churches tend to lean towards being either more internally focused or more externally focused?

  • Georges Boujakly

    Would self-care leaders/providers get at what Bill wants to say to us? Is there ever one term that encompasses such a large endeavor as having a theology and methodology of spiritual transformation?
    I see the tenor and context of what Bill is saying as “in community.” But still with Trevor #2 and Brad #3 (Hi Brad!) community and transformation should be spelled out. Often what is assumed does not get done (a personal opinion).
    Thank you Scot for your largesse of spirit regarding all churches’ value to the work of God.

  • Right on Georges, “what is assumed does not get done” is most often true. And again, I am impressed with the emphasis on the value of all churches. I think we all (including myself) need to be reminded of this often.

  • Bill Hybels is great! One of my favorite authors next to Scott McKnights “Praying With The Church” of course. Hybels book: “Too Busy Not To Pray” help my prayer life so much!

  • (1) I’m so sorry to hear of Bill Hybel’s poor health. I hadn’t heard anything about it before now, and will be praying for him. I’ve not interacted much with his work, but everything I do know about him points to his being a faithful servant of God.
    (2) The only issue I have with the self-feeder category is in its potential abuse. I’ve known a number of pastors who use the category as an excuse not to do any discipleship, or heavy lifting in their teaching/preaching, because they argue their efforts should be focused on reaching the lost. The saved or already convinced ought to be feeding themselves. My reading of scripture suggests we all benefit from leadership, guidance, and discipleship. Should “mature” believers be making efforts to feed themselves? Sure. That presupposes though that someone came alongside at some point in their life and taught them how though, no?

  • Don

    Every church has its angels and demons that it must deal with prayerfully and creatively. You rightly bless churches of all types and stripes. The mega-church has its vulnerabilities that leaders like Hybels must punch through if that size of church is to not onl survive but thrive. Push us Scot about the variious angels and demons you see in our different types of churches you visit around the country.

  • SLR

    My reading of scripture suggests we all benefit from leadership, guidance, and discipleship. Should “mature” believers be making efforts to feed themselves? Sure. That presupposes though that someone came alongside at some point in their life and taught them how though, no?
    I agree! Sometimes it seems like missional-minded people are trying to turn this into a false dichotomy–either you’re entirely reliant on your pastor or church being spoon-fed everything, or you’re completely on your own at a buffet.

  • hybels…take 2 « finitum non capax infiniti

    Scot McNight at his Best
    Scot McNight posts about Willowcreek and Bill Hybels. It’s good stuff, and for me, an essential reminder about the body of Christ. After three years of speaking hither and yon, I’ve come to where I like all churches (or most—–
    […] For a positive view on Hybels’ ministry, I refer you here. Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.   […]

  • Rick

    I agree with SLR #16 in that there can be a both/and, although some churches are still trying to find that balance. I like Hybel’s approach to #2, combined with Scot’s view (as quoted by Dan Kimball) that “the church should be a training center for missional people”.

  • I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a sampling of churches from mega to micro and echo the thought that there certainly can be great value and importance of all. There is also plenty of well-deserved criticism for all and even more un-deserved criticism for some. Am I wrong in thinking that as each local body is a part of the universal body of Christ that perhaps we need to have some differences in emphasis and focus to truly reflect the needed functional parts of that body? Just wondering.

  • Matt R

    Never been there, but it seems Hybels, and Willow, were an important part of reaching ‘un-churched’ people, especially through the 80s and parts of the 90s.
    The new vision cast sounds right on. I agree, #2 needs a little rephrasing, maybe more though too. Maybe- Christ followers who reproduce other Christ followers in vital comunity? I also think, however, that in my ‘mega-church’ experience it’s not just the vision that we have to consider, but how they impliment that vision… In most I have been exposed to this = programs. Programs aren’t in and of themselves bad… and are often neccesary the larger the community… but I wish more in the mega world thought about changing the overall culture of their faith communites towards such a vision (as we often talk about in the ’emerging’ and ‘missional’ worlds).

  • Matt R

    Sorry… in #21, second paragraph, that should be “more THOUGHT too…” I know, a bit ironic.

  • which campus do you attend? we go to north shore.
    i think it’s important to remember that this isn’t “bill hybel’s” vision, but a vision for the willow creek community for the next 4.5 years. he stressed the number of people who struggled together to find God’s desire for this community. i find that refreshing given the difficulty of the task AND how large WC is! also, that they continue to reshape and rethink what God wants to do, instead of sticking with one method. the whole seeker-sensitive method has morphed into a no-nonsense, hard-hitting message, but in a friendly way. 🙂
    i thought hybel’s easter message was equally passionate. he feels the message to the core and that comes through. i get beyond, “this is bill hybel’s speaking” and think, what is God saying to me (and us)? the north shore pastor called it, with tears in his eyes, a “holy moment.” it was.

  • Great reminder, Scot.
    I don’t often think of the value in the different models of church, but I have experienced the short-comings of nearly every model! That should produce some humility – it is easier to get it wrong than right.
    “There are an infinite number of angles at which one may fall, but only one angle at which one can stand straight.”
    – G. K. Chesterton

  • Diane

    I heard that Hybels wouldn’t distribute Mark Driscoll’s video at a recent conference because it only talked about developing male leaders and not female leaders in the church. Has Willow Creek always embraced women in leadership or is this a new turn?

  • Diane,
    From the very beginning as far as I know.

  • Peggy

    It was from the very beginning, as described by Gilbert Bielzikian’s (sp?) book: “Beyond Sex Roles.” He was an influencial professor of the then-young Hybels at Wheaton, and he turned to him (as the “expert”) to help their church planting group process the issue of women in ministry–since a significant number of their core volunteers were women. It is a good resource book.

  • Diane

    Thanks Peggy and Scot. Willow Creek is one of those places I’ve long been aware of by reputation but beyond it being the most famous of the megachurches, I know little about it.

  • pat

    I’m with you, Scot…I wish all churches and church goers could just get along We all have the same purpose even though it seems so simple.

  • I was at this service, visiting (truly a visitor, the last time I was in the building, everything was different). I left disturbed. I couldn’t say “Amen” to Bill Hybels’ prayer.
    There was a lot of preface to these three points, some of which I think needs to be examined: Willow surveyed people on how well Willow was helping them in their walks. These people self-reported whether they were not yet believers, new Christians, adolescent Christians, or mature Christians. As I expected, but Bill Hybels did not, the self-reported more mature Christians said they didn’t find Willow as helpful in their walk.
    The suggestions for ways to help more mature Christians in the surveys were to explore more issues, theology, etc. Mr. Hybels made a remark that basically relegated issues and theology to a seminary and not as part of a church’s job. (An unsettling comment–who other than the pastor should someone appraoch when they have questions?)
    The plan the vision staff came up with was to teach newer, adolescent, and mature Christians to become “self-feeders.” Willow Creek was going to basically become a place for tools and resources, and people were going to learn to feed themselves like young children eventually need to. (SLR, #16, this false dichotomy was brought up by Hybels & the staff, unfortunately. I am loosely quoting words and phrases he used, but he did say, “so that you’re not so dependent.”)
    I was quite saddened. This vision basically promotes self-help. Where is God in this vision? What happens to the role of the church? I’m most disappointed by the attitude of ‘we’re not going to feed you more mature Christians,’ as if the young child analogy is fair or accurate to the body of Christ.
    I think the response should have been, ‘Okay, let’s tweak our preaching and teaching content to reach both new and more mature Christians.’
    Mr. Hybels talked a lot about Willow as an “Acts 2 church.” I do not see
    promoting independence from the church, pastors, and fellow believers as, well, a church. What ever happened to Matt. 28:19-20 or John 21: 15-17? Discipleship cannot be done with this ‘go and feed yourself’ theme. Jesus taught his disciples with “Come” and “Follow Me.” Jesus told Peter, “Feed” “Tend” “Care for” Jesus’ flock.
    I just felt there was a huge lack of distinguishing between self-discipline and spiritual exercises (activities people can learn to do alone, eventually), and learning theology, history of the church, or what have you (subjects that really benefit from guidance!).
    A professor of mine describes John 21 as his focus and theme for ministry: Feed God’s flock, as the number 1 reason not to preach shallow messages.

  • Percival

    Number 2 – “self feeders” Of course we should feed ourselves, but isn’t this a individualistic way of looking at things? Is our goal to be autonomous in spiritual growth too? Of course, no one else can do my Bible study, praying, or fasting for me. Oh, wait a minute – maybe they can. Maybe I can serve others and help them grow in some ways and they can help me grow in other ways. I’m not sure what the vision is on this number two, but I hope it is not merely more on empowering the individual and neglecting the importance of body life.

  • Diane

    Thank you for your comments, which offer a different perspective on “self-feeding.” I agree with others that the term is probably not the best. I think of Jesus saying not self-feed, but this is my body and blood, given for you (feed on me). Your comments hit home as I am now starting classes to join a new church. I’m less than happy to be in this finding-a-new-church situation. I’m not a hopper, I’m not a shopper, etc. etc. … One of the things I said to an acquaintance about this new church is that the sermons seem to be aimed at a spiritual third grader. I know no church is perfect and I’m trying to go with this, but as a spiritually more mature (whatever that means) person, I do cry out for a different level of feeding. I don’t know how to resolve this. I do feed myself, but obviously if that were entirely satisfactory, why belong to a church at all ? I am sensitive to the problems churches face in having to meet people at all different levels and that this is not easy. Are there models for church’s meeting the needs of the spiritually mature beyond self-feeding? Jesus met people where they were. That indicates that the church, as the body of Christ, should be able to meet people where they are. I have no answers but would love to go more in depth on this topic.

  • Scot,
    Thanks for this post regarding Bill Hybels. That certainly seems to be (as per the title of your post), “Bill Hybels at his Best.” I could hear his voice in each one of these three points.
    As you suggested, I am not sure that “self-feed” is the best way to state that but I do agree with what I think he was trying to say.

  • AJS OPINION » Jesus Creed » Bill Hybels at his Best

    […] For those who follow Willow Creek’s journey here is the latest on their vision, summed up by Jesus Creed.  Bill Hybels at his Best […]

  • discokvn

    Self-feeding — isn’t that why we visit this blog?

  • KathyJ

    Great insight in this post and others’ comments. If you are passionately involved in #1 and #3 isn’t that in itself “feeding”. Many of my greatest growth moments happen in the context of community, reaching the lost and serving the community. It may not be theological head knowledge but it molds Christ-likeness within me. I question why some want to be externally fed? It’s the preachers fault I’m not growing? I assume this is the consumer mentality? I’m not trying to be harsh but I have heard this complaint often. Part of spiritual maturity is realizing we take responsibility for our growth and sanctification. Another part of spiritual maturity is DOing what we have learned…putting our head knowledge into action and that’s what I see #1 and #3 beautifully addressing.

  • Allie

    While the terminology of “self-feeding” definitely is not the best, the point raised by it is so strong. We can’t rely on our pastors/small group leaders or other small group members to give us what we most need. It’s like showing up at a wedding and expecting the bride to feed us the meal. Stupid analogy, probably, but the point is the same: we are responsible for our own growth, not our leaders or community.
    From what I’ve been able to glean, the vision of nurturing individuals (which is what the “self-feeding” is meant to remedy) is going to be attempted to be fulfilled by the writing and use of study guides and questions appropriate to both individuals and small groups, as well as prayer guides and other materials. I don’t see that as being too “individualistic”; rather I see it as a sincere attempt by Willow to remind each maturing believer of their responsibility to work with the community, and pull their fair share, not just leach resources from the community.

  • Jinny (#30),
    What if Bill’s exhortation was for the church to become more like the Bereans who apparently were able by themselves to evaluate even what Paul taught? I cannot see where Jesus’ command to Peter “Feed my sheep” equals “teach the Bible.” That is a *popular* interpretation of what Peter was to do. ANE shepherds didn’t “feed” sheep, they led them to places where they could eat green grass (cf Psalm 23). Peter is being directed to do all that a shepherd does for sheep after the example of Jesus–the good shepherd, i.e., to love them.

  • Peggy

    What if the folks at Willow are returning to the task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry? Wouldn’t that be exciting!
    There is a terrible myth out there that the Holy Spirit is not able to bring understanding to those (yes, Bereans, John!) who are hungry and thirsty for Truth as found in Scripture. That does not mean there is no place for the trained teacher, but that it is to augment and confirm what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of those who are indwelt…not supplant the Spirit!
    Back to the both/and, it seems, friends. We will be held responsible for our relationship with Christ…we cannot just totally blame pastors/ministers/teachers. God has provided all the pieces: indwelling Spirit, covenant community, mission, pastors, teachers and Scriptures.
    As heretical as it may sound, only the first in the list is a “single-point failure”, as they say in aerospace. The rest are great support systems provided by God to help us be faithful to the covenant. But they can all be stripped away (look at the persecuted church in China and elsewhere). As long as the Holy Spirit indwells a person, God can provide everything necessary for sustained life and growth. It is not a fun way to go, but I didn’t think we were in it for only the privilege…there is a purpose that must never be forgotten.

  • Wolf N. Paul

    Diane (#25),
    that video story seems to have been blown up way out of proportion.
    Firstly, it wasn’t Bill Hybel’s conference (so it would not have been his decision to distribute the video or not), secondly, the video was distributed at the three main exits from the auditorium and was available on tables at the rear, and thirdly, unless someone has deliberately lied Bill just made very passing reference to Mark’s video (although his comment recognizing woman church planters was obviously prompted by the all-male language of Mark’s video).
    I find the tone of the blog comments discussion which this prompted more disturbing than the initial incident (although I find it rather thin-skinned of Mark Driscoll to call Hybels’ comment a “criticism”.)

  • Wolf,
    I’m wondering if you were there. I’ve read reports by several who were there and they thought plenty of folks were offended by Bill’s remark.

  • Todd Gorton

    I was on staff at Willow for 2 years. I have the deepest respect for all who serve and do life in and around this organizational organism. I also know that NO organization or person has it all right, thus the clear metaphors throughout scripture indicating we are a body fully dependent on each other and the Spirit.
    Curiously this movement to become Ephesians 4:12 churches is spreading throughout the US. I’ve heard it called the second reformation. I believe the desire whether expressed as “equipping” “missional” or “externally focused” is to see the Word of God both in Spirit and text be kept in the Church’s hands. The Church is you, me and us.
    I think it’s time to throw out the buzzwords that have lost their meaning and get down to redefining what we mean (side note – Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places has been helpful to me here).
    #30 references the typical megachurch concerns that we are “self-help” etc. My concern in the tone and language here is the “left out” feeling indicated that the “vision staff” made decisions, etc. I know that Willow involved ALL 400+ staff in the “Unleashed” strategy and have done a phenomenal process in involving lovers of the bride of Christ to see the Kingdom of God explode forward.
    That said, I agree with Scot that “self-feeders” is an awful term and confusing to say the least. Maybe “Jesus-feeders” – OK that is horrible too. Our problem is that we (especially mega-churches) have a hard time moving away from consumerism, as it is the foundation of the “seeker” movement.
    We need to walk forward TOGETHER in Christ under prayer and love. NONE of this is about us. It’s about each other. Taking attractional, seeker model churches and moving them toward missional, equipping model churches is going to take a great movement of the Spirit (already under way) and a group of Jesus loving disciples to listen and follow the Paraclete’s leading.

  • regarding the driscoll/hybels pseudo feud, see tall skinny kiwi’s post on this:
    TSK and others in attendance tell the real story.

  • Todd Gorton! How random and funny to “see” you on my ex-professors blog!
    -tatiana : )

  • Peggy

    Sheryl (#43),
    Thanks for the link to Andrew’s blog…but I am now totally depressed after viewing and reading all the comments.
    However challenging the situation feels for me at times, let me say again how much I appreciate the tone (most of the time) of your blog and your commenters.

  • Scot, I listened to the Podcast of Bill’s message and although I heard the passion behind his words – I was very disturbed by his comments about “self-feeding” – as a “recovering” Evangelical (now Eastern Orthodox) I found that both spiritually and physically “self-feeding” can be a very unhealthy thing! So much in Evangelical Christianity today is based on a kind of “making it up as you go.” Bill’s interpretation of the request to “feed me” is not an intellectual need, but a spiritual one…we need to know HOW to love God with all our hearts, minds and strength – that’s why we need the culture and tradition that is Christianity – not just a proliferation of more “ministries” and activities. Spiritual discipline and transformation, and not more information, is what people are asking for.

  • thanks you guys [ooooppppsssss . . i mean ladies] for your mention of my post.
    Scot – glad Bill had a good week. Maybe having the larger part of the American emerging church give him kudos in orlando was the wind in his sails?
    funny – a few years ago the EC was distancing itself from megachurch and its seeker targeted varieties. But Bill is appreciated and thats good.

  • I remembered something a professor (different professor!) described the meeting the needs and encouraging growth in a church she used to work/teach at. I think this model would be something helpful for the Willow Creek Association to look into.
    The model that was set up was to maximize the use of gifts (and growth of gifts) within the congregation, but also to tap into local resources. The church set up a series of classes about 4 weeks long (they found people would commit to the short-term easier than 3 months). They were held during weekdays/nights that worked best (surprising to me, Monday was the most popular), and the students paid a minimal fee ($5-15? because people would show up more consistently to things they paid for), and at the end of a class, were given a certificate (people like that, too). The teachers? mature church members, local ‘experts’ (i.e. some classes were about finances, weight loss, etc.), and seminary professors! (I like the last one. 🙂 at the end of the class, if someone wanted to continue the class, they could for a discounted tuition at the local seminary). In this manner, they ministered to people in different situations and trained their Sunday school teachers and the ‘next generation’ of leaders. as far as I know, this model is still in place at this church.
    (I had written more, but decided, this is the golden nugget that would add to the conversation, all else was unnecessary opinion 😛 )

  • Response to Jinny – When I used to attend Willow Creek back in the 80’s and 90’s, when I lived in Chicago – they actually held a series of “Seminars,” I believe they called it the Willow Creek Institute – each Wednesday they would have a 30 minute “New Community” worship service and then people would disperse through the building for classes in different subjects like “Budgeting,” “Inductive Bible Study Skills,” “Effective Listening” and topics like this. It was very effective – I’m not sure why it was discontinued. It was a lot of work for the volunteers I remember…

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  • I will say here what I perhaps should have said elsewhere: that even though I was there for the Driscoll/Hybel’s thingy…And was offended, I still really appreciate Bill…He wants to reach people for Jesus and has done it so in that I think one must salute him.