Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 1)



This blog is long so I am breaking it up into sections This is section one.


The revelation of sexual abuses by Bill Hybels (BH) and organizational abuses perpetrated both by BH and multiple staff at Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) begs an analysis of how did things evolve to the point at which we find ourselves? Was WCCC a church or a para-church organization that provided a range of Christian products, from evangelism to social services? If it is just an organization providing Christian focused programs, then our analysis of it as a church would be wrong. But it proclaims itself as a church, and as such, declares to the world that this is what the  Church of Jesus Christ looks like. It is against the measure of a Biblical view of the church that a critical analysis can be justified.


Wrong Rock

Was WCCC built on the right rock?

Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it.

Jesus spoke in the language of wisdom, which was often cloaked in parables. The disciples were common men, fishermen mostly, who were grounded in the earthy elements of life, and so were able to follow the often nature based teachings of Jesus. The passage above shows the complexity of how Jesus challenged the disciples to grapple with the way that wisdom is portrayed, always in a process that involves pushing below the surface meaning of things to the deeper revelation of truth. In this passage we see this progression. The earlier verses  (Matthew 16:5-12) discussed bread and yeast. The surface focus was on bread and the disciples struggled with understanding what the meaning of this was.  But as Jesus continued to challenge them, they slowly descended to grasp the deeper meaning of what Jesus was teaching. They came to recognize that they must be aware of the penetration of “yeast” which, on a physical level, activated the process by which bread is leavened, but, on a spiritual level, represented allowing any teaching to penetrate their thinking about who Jesus was, and what His Kingdom was about. As with yeast and and how it causes bread to expand, if the “yeast” of false teaching penetrates the church, it could leverage the growth of the church in unhealthy ways. Jesus challenged them to be on guard and vigilant, so that they could first recognize unbiblical teaching, and then, resist its’ entry into their understanding of truth.

It is in this context that Jesus asks Peter to answer the question of who He was. Jesus was testing the disciples to see if they knew the truth that He had been teaching them. When Peter replied that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus knew that Peter understood the truth. It was upon the rock of his understanding that Jesus declared that His church would be built. It was not based on the biological lineage of Peter, but instead the spiritual lineage of all those who recognized that Jesus and His Kingdom would be the stone upon which the builders would erect the church.

Jesus called the disciples to be vigilant so that they could recognize any teaching that veered from the truth. The “yeast” of false truth could slip so easily into the minds of men that they must be clear first, of what the truth is, and secondly, to combat its’ influence in the church. The disciples so knew who Jesus was and what His character was like and what His vision was, that they could discern if a “church” were to be built that significantly varied from this model. They were, as I believe all leaders in the church are, given the responsibility to discern whether or not the church was progressing consistent with having Christ as the rock and foundation. 

This biblical teaching informs the evaluation of what happened at WCCC. Essentially, WCCC was built on the wrong rock, the wrong person, and the wrong vision of what Jesus’s Kingdom was all about. It was built upon the personality of a flawed human being, and it unfolded around the limitations that were inherent in a broken and sinful humanity. And the cautionary tale is that the leadership, who were essentially like the disciples, did not recognize the “yeast” of untruth. They either did not see or were powerless to alter where this leader was creating a vision that unpacked the brokenness of his life more than the understanding of how Jesus was to be the rock around which all things in the church were erected. They have a level of culpability around their failure to adhere to Jesus’s admonition to be vigilant in order to identify and stand against the “yeast” of false teaching,  If current and past leadership individuals were honest, they would publically repent of their failure to either recognize the false truth of a church built around the personality of a man, or their timidness in confronting the sin that should have been evident in their midst.


Flawed DNA 

Another way of looking at how a church can be formed around the brokenness of a man verses being constructed with Christ as the center, is the example of DNA.

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3:11    

The twin towers have fallen. Although this writing is about Willow Creek Community Church, the same dynamics apply to Harvest Bible Chapel. Two charismatic leaders with deep character flaws have steered the construction of their churches around the pathology of their personality disorders. Two churches  were successful in having  individuals buy into a narcissistic leader driven picture of church and served as the attendants to the deeply flawed vision of celebrity pastors. The falling was inevitable if you believe scripture, which, as the verse above clearly establishes, declares that the church can only last when it is built on its’ founder and architect, Jesus Christ.  

The heavens declare the glory of God… Psalms 19:1. We can see God’s design in nature, where He reveals his awesome creativity. When DNA was discovered, it was like science had peeled back the deep mystery of God’s plan for the unfolding of life.  DNA reflected the way that God shows that life and design occurs before its unfolding, consistent with the blue print of how life gets revealed. DNA determines, with some exceptions due to environmental factors, what the fully unfolded image of life will look like.  

For the most part, DNA as the deep mystery of God’s imprint on life, determines what gets revealed. In the body, the genetic blueprint guides the building process of the biochemical structure of formation. If, for some reason (this is where we understand original sin as having penetrated even the biochemistry process) a person’s DNA has chromosomal damage, the external unfolding of life will reflect the unique mutation of the genes. All manner of characteristics can unfold that veer the manifestation of life from the perfection that healthy DNA would reflect, to the limitations we see in people with physical or intellectual deficits.  

This understanding of DNA can inform one as to how WCCC unfolded. If Jesus Christ was the foundation of the construction of the church, it would unfold as the pure and perfect reflection of all the vision and values that Christ had for the church. Ephesians 2:20 further illustrates the concept of how the unfolding of a building or organization is based on foundational guidelines.  

…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Eph. 2:20 

The cornerstone can be likened to the idea of DNA. It guides the construction of the building that unfolds. Cornerstones set the direction of the building, keeping it level and square, so that what rises above is solidly anchored and strong.  

When it comes to the church, scripture clearly says that Christ alone must be the foundational stone, or DNA, used for the construction of the church. If it is faithfully used as the blueprint, the unfolding of the church will look consistent with the original creative intent of the founder. It will, in a deeply spiritual way, be the incarnation of Jesus, living out publically the character and behavior of Jesus. Interestingly this verse also talks about the apostles and prophets who, as they are faithful to building the church on the Christ centered DNA/cornerstone foundations of the church, will steward the design and construction of the church to be a reflection of the intent of the architect and founder. Those with discerning wisdom, will look at whether the formation of the church is varying from the blueprint, or the spiritual DNA of the architect, Jesus Christ.


Any church built upon a flawed and broken person is destined to fail. Only Christ’s church will prevail. The gates of hell will not prevail against it and a church built on the flawed spiritual DNA of a man or woman will not be allowed by Christ to succeed long term. The church is the most evident concrete manifestation of who Christ is and how Christ followers are to live. Because of this, a church built on the wrong foundation, cannot and should not continue.   

In a nutshell, the spiritual DNA of both WCCC and Harvest, unfolded around the flawed design of broken men.  (continued)

2 thoughts on “Willow Creek Community Church: A Cautionary Tale (Section 1)

  1. Well said and Amen! I’m still part of Willow holding out hope for transparency, but still not seeing it.

  2. I keep thinking how sadly ironic it is that Willow explicitly in its early years wanted to be a safe place for people who had bad experiences in other churches or never been in a church, nor heard anything good. The lack of a cross was to keep from having anyone be uncomfortable or feel it was an “idol” or “icon.” Similar to many Baptist churches, there wasn’t even a dead center aisle, to prevent there from being a large cross in the layout. No stained glass. No robes. Eventually no suits. And yet, we had a living “idol” in the form of Bill. And if we in some form didn’t worship Bill, I, for one, thought more than once how proud and fortunate I was to be part of Willow, part of making church history, part of a global revival. I have also been one of the ones who have protested quietly, and then not so quietly, been in multiple meetings, and been treated badly. I’m still fighting against the darkness and for the light. I do not know if Willow will survive. May God’s highest will be done.

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