The suburban Chicago church plant, launched by a 22-year-old Bill Hybels back in 1975, would dramatically impact the face of American Christianity. What later became one of the nation’s first megachurches, which now draws some 25,000 worshippers each week, Willow Creek Community Church began in a closed-on-Sunday-morning movie theater and was mostly staffed by teenaged volunteers passionate for Jesus Christ. As Willow grew, sharing what it learned with other churches became one of its highest priorities.
In this interview featured in the new Exponential Resources Series eBook MOVE for Church Planters: What Willow Creek and 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth, Hybels shares what he has learned in 37 years of ministry; how his experience might impact his actions were he planting a church today; and what advice he would most like to share with those whose passion is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with unchurched people in a relevant, compelling and successful way.
Welcome to that conversation.
Before we start talking about what you might do the same and differently if you were planting a church today, let’s talk a little about our current environment. What societal factors have changed in the past 40 years that would impact your decisions today?
Bill Hybels: I think that there's even more resistance/cynicism to the idea of the institutionalized church now than there was then. And I think that’s the result of all of the skepticism created as too many well-known pastors — and even some denominations — have broken trust. People who are starting a church today have to present an even stronger argument than we did in the mid-‘70s for "Why another church?"
So I would spend a lot of time coming up with the rationale for why I would be starting another church. What's going to be different? What's going to keep it from becoming like these others? That would be very important, because I think there's a general feeling that there are already enough churches.
In short, if you are going to launch a new church, you have to start with a white hot, differentiated, compelling vision, or why take up more real estate?
With this current environment in mind, can you give us an example of what worked well in your church plant 37 years ago that you would duplicate if you were planting a church today?
Bill Hybels: One thing I really got right is that I started Willow with my friends. The founders are still with me today and we're still best of friends. I had an incredible team of proven people around me, and we had established a loving and joyful community before we held our first service. That I did right, by the grace of God. So if I were starting fresh, the minute I felt I had clarity on the vision for starting a new church I would present that vision to close, trusted friends who I wanted to come along with me on this adventure.
Do you have an example of something you would do very differently?
Bill Hybels: Something that I didn't do well — and this is a common problem all across the world — was to adequately capitalize our ministry. Therefore, the financial pressures were terribly destructive to the life of our church for the first five years. And it didn't have to be that way. Most church planters and church planting organizations these days say you’ve got to raise X amount of money, so you’re sure people can survive — like making sure your rent payment can be made.
That kind of information was not widely known because there weren't many church plants going on in our era. So I rather naively said, “God's leading us to do this, so God will provide. We're going to hold the first service and pass a plate around and it's all going to be good.”
Well, we didn't have a big enough core. We didn't have people who had professional careers and resources to be able to invest, and we sank further and further into debt. All of us had to do things like take on part-time jobs and bring boarders into our homes, which led to a chaotic, unsustainable lifestyle.
Any other practical steps you’d recommend to church planters?
Bill Hybels: I can think of two. The first is how to decide where to locate their church. When I talk with church planters, I always start by talking about vision. But quite quickly after the vision talk, I ask this question: “What demographic do you think calls the best out of you?” When you’re with a certain kind of people, do you get a sense of exuberance — that these are the kind of people you want to do life with?
Some church planters actually think that's an illegal question. But let me give you an example. I was talking with a church planter who was on the verge of quitting. I knew his family background. These were very sophisticated people — grad school trained, excellent educational institutions and all that. And the church planting organization had put him in a blue collar, lower education level, semi-rural setting that was boring this guy to tears.
These were lovely people. It's just that they didn't call the best out of him. He would want to discuss complex subject matters and things that are going to shape the future of the world. But they were not willing to engage in those conversations—the kind that gave him a lot of life and excitement. So I said, “Before you quit and go back into the business world, why don't you see if there's another plant that can be done in an area with a demographic that you actually feel fairly excited about?” And he said, “I couldn't ask for that because that would be arrogant.” I said, “I don't know that you ought to feel like that’s so bad, because a certain environment is going to call the best out of you and in another environment you're not going to feel like such a great fit.”
And I think "fit" is key. God can always overrule it and call you to do anything. But if you have a choice in the matter, why don't you choose to locate where the demographics call the best out of you? I heard from him several years later. He had relocated. It was like talking to a different guy. And he said, “I wouldn't have stayed in ministry in that setting. But this is the group I'm supposed to be with.”
It works the other way, too. Sometimes working with the poor and uneducated calls the best out of very sophisticated people. But they know that it does, so it works. The main thing is, find the fit. You have to have the self-awareness to know who calls the best out of you.
A second practical issue is how to think about using volunteers vs. adding staff. In my opinion, the more a young church can get done through volunteers, the better. The fewer the staff, the better. As I said earlier, when we started Willow, we were undercapitalized and one of the downsides of that was tremendous financial stress. One of the upsides was that every week I told everyone attending the church — we need you! And they knew it was true. We needed everybody to step up — to take care of kids, to help set up and take down chairs, and eventually to help us find a piece of land. That brought people forward. At one point, I think we were dangerously close to having 100 percent of our attendees serving because we didn't have any paid staff.
What you describe sounds like a strategy to Create Ownership, which is one of the four best practices discovered by REVEAL. Can you elaborate on how REVEAL has influenced your thinking about how a church can best fulfill its mission to help people become fully devoted followers of Christ?
Bill Hybels: I’d start by going back to something that was a miss in the early days of Willow, and it's still a mystery to me why it was so much of a miss. It may be due to the fact I was still a fairly recent Christian when we started the church. In fact, I had only been a Christian five years. So when I started Willow, I loved reading God's Word and I loved communicating with Him in prayer and reading good Christian books. I liked that just because of my relationship with God.
But I dramatically underestimated how often my colleagues and the people in the church practiced the classic spiritual disciplines. I just thought everybody spent time with God and surrendered their spirits before Him every day. That everybody worked hard to receive promptings from God, quieting the ambient noise in their lives so they could hear Him. I misjudged that, and the few times that I preached on it, I remember seeing the semi-confused faces of the people in the crowd and thinking, “I must be doing a terrible job of teaching this because they are not getting it or they are not interested. I'm not getting the same kind of feedback that I get when I teach on other subject matters.”
So, I wound up not teaching on the spiritual practices very often. It's hard to do, and I got mixed response. Decades later I found out, primarily through REVEAL, that I should have stuck with that. I should not have been dissuaded by the kind of feedback I was getting. I should have done a major series on the classic spiritual disciplines every single year, whether I saw confused faces or not. I should have just dug in and made that a regular part of the menu.
We also had some feedback that went like this: “Yeah, well, interesting. But I'd really like to know something more practical than this, like how to be a better parent. Why don't you teach this other stuff at a seminar, not on Sunday morning?”
Well, we didn't have the facilities or the teachers to hold those kinds of seminars. So, it wasn't until decades later when we found out—through REVEAL—that you can strip away almost every other thing the church does. But at the core of the core of the core, growing people into Christ followers is all about helping them engage in God's Word and inspiring them to invite God to be at the center of their lives. I did not emphasize that as much in the early days as I do now.
So you would do things differently today?
Bill Hybels: Absolutely. Now at Willow we have what we call the Getting Started Classes. The second movement in the Getting Started Classes is the spiritual practices: how to read your Bible, how to pray, how to surrender, how to confess your sins. We get people on track with these very basic things that will help them walk with Christ as soon as they show any movement. In the early days of Willow, when someone showed spiritual movement we would congratulate them and point them toward a ministry where they could serve or a group where they could get to know other people. But we didn't instill a strong awareness that, more than anything, people need to know how to relate to God through His Word, and how to hear His prompting. How to navigate a day with Him in your head, in your heart, at your side—and all of that. It's a deep regret I carry.
Christ-centered leadership is at the heart of REVEAL’s best-practice findings. How do you keep your passion for Jesus fired up?
Bill Hybels: In Romans 12:11, Paul says: "Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord." He's saying don’t let your zeal burn low, but he’s also saying you're responsible for your zeal. I like to remind myself of that. It's my responsibility to keep my passion hot. It's no one else's. So if mine starts running low, I have to discern what cooled it off and then I’ve got to stop letting that happen. I have to figure out who the people are, what the books and the experiences are, that refresh my spirit—and then lean into whatever works to re-fire a passion for Jesus.
For example, whenever I'm around certain people for any length of time, I feel my pulse rate increasing. They fire me up. I need to be around them a little more. And, besides the Bible, the book I’ve turned to more often than any other for inspiration and encouragement is Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. If I need spiritual refueling, that book works for me. So, who I'm with, what I read, where I go — that’s what keeps me charged up.
To close, do you have a final word of advice or encouragement for church planters?
Bill Hybels: You're one of the luckiest people on the planet — because the most important thing happening on earth is the establishment and building of local churches. God selected you to be able to form a community where this incredibly important work is going to be going on under your direction for perhaps the next 40 years. You won the lottery!
Enjoy it! Every day realize you don't have to stand at a drill press. You don't have to load and unload trucks. You get to traffic in kingdom ideas and work with great people who are pulling with you to try to form this Acts 2 dream of Christ's church. You should fall on your knees and say, “God, what an incredible privilege to be invited by your Holy Spirit to play a key role in the most important thing happening on planet Earth.”
I tell pastors all the time that I've had a ball! We've taken our hits. There are bad days. But I've had an astonishingly blessed ride. And I think God would have that same heart toward every pastor. I think he wants every pastor to love His Word and love the adventure of His work. I don't even know what it's like to lay my head on the pillow and say that today was a waste. Every night, I feel like we moved the ball. We may have only moved it a foot, but we moved the kingdom ball ahead a little bit today. That's good enough for me.
A high percentage of the human race hits the pillow at night feeling like their day was a waste. They didn't move anything eternal ahead. They didn't touch any lives. They didn't do anything that's going to outlive them. So my final word to church planters is this — you won the lottery! You get to lead the coolest endeavor on planet Earth, the only agency God said he was going to predictably bless and favor.
You get to be a part of that!