Willow Creek Community Church- “It’s The Culture, Stupid!” (Sorry, Too Harsh)


“So every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produces good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew 7:17-19

The concept of the “Fruit of The Poisonous Tree” , which the above verse refers to, began as a legal principle that stipulated that any evidence that came from a compromised source could not have legal validity, and so could not be used against a defendant. The idea has expanded to include the notion that anything that is produced from an unhealthy environment will be tainted. Unhealthy environments are the cultural context from which sickly things are produced. Culture can be healthy or corrupt, and the fruits of this context will follow suit. The tree, in this verse, represents the culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A quip attributed to Peter Drucker.

As I look at months of my (and others) blogging about the dysfunction of my church, Willow Creek Community Church, and its founding pastor Bill Hybels, the question that comes to mind is “has it made much difference?”. Truthfully, my conclusion is that it has not had a substantial impact on anything going forward in terms of real organizational reform. The same hiding of truth exists even now post-Hybels-crisis. The same elitist mentality of leadership seems unaltered. The same failure to let people know what is going on financially at the church is intact. The same image management strategy remains the intact modus operandi of the church. The same failure to admit sin and compensate victims of its nefarious ways continues unabated. 

Why does this seem to be the case? As I write this, I know the answer. I knew it all along, but hoped against hope that it was not true. But it is. And what is it? Culture. Culture is the answer to why there has been no substantial change. Culture operates like a boa-constrictor to squeeze out and kill anything that opposes its need to dominate whatever organization that it controls.

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Boy to his talking goldfish: “How do you like the water you’re swimming in?”

Goldfish: “What is water?”

This is the crux of what it is to understand culture. It is something that we swim in, surround ourselves with, operate and direct our behaviors from. If you asked the average person to describe the culture he/she lives in, he/she would not be able to articulate what a culture is, what it is composed of, and how it influences one’s life. It is in fact like a fish in water. It is the unconscious and invisible, while at the same time powerful medium, in which we move and live and have our being. Cultures can be understood at a micro, all the way up to a macro level. Marriage and families are the clearest microlevel of culture, while being a member of the global earth community would be the highest macro culture. There are many cultures in between and we are all nested in multiple cultures.

What Creates A Culture?

Cultures are the glue that holds any kind of organizational system together. Chaotic cultures do not last long. Cultures must have a predictable process based on a number of underlying structure-creating elements. Every culture contains at least the following components:

            Public Mission/Vision-  The mission of any organizational culture defines the goals and objectives of that entity. These are large general descriptors of the organization, such as what we will create and what we will look like. Using a family culture as an example, the overt mission of the family might be “we will look like a perfectly put together family to the world”.

             Shadow Mission/Vision- This is often the non-articulated driving force behind an organization that operates at a deep and unconscious level. It can live in opposition to the public mission of an organization. This is where a competing set of needs are in conflict with the stated public mission/vision. In the family example, the shadow mission might be the “we will not let anyone on the outside see the out of control, raging tyrant father who dominates his household”. This is where the public mission is that as a family we will look good, but the deeper shadow mission of not revealing the brokenness on the inside is what informs the culture with its shadow mission supporting values and strategies. 

              Values-This defines what the organization will value and promote. These are sub-components of the larger mission/vision. In a family, for instance, one of the underlying values supported may be the “we value privacy”.

                Strategies- These are the active elements of a culture and define the behaviors and problem solving processes that are active in implementing the larger mission/vision of the organization. These are often culture protecting and perpetuating actions that do not let the organization deviate from the deep mission values.  Rules provide the sub-structure that inform strategies. Rules, mostly unwritten, in the above shared family example, could be codified as “in this family we do not share private information.” The family exercises a powerful influence and will punish any deviance from the cultural mission, values, rules, or strategies of the family. Anyone in the family that shares family secrets will be systematically shamed and punished for breaking the rules and potentially exposing the shadow core of the family. 

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Cultures

Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) reflects the dualistic split of an organization that promotes a public mission, while it  has been dominated by a shadow mission agenda for a long time. This is because the architect of the culture is driven by a shadow mission of brokenness that unfolded the church culture around his results oriented focus on numbers, programs, looking good, building income and buildings. Its public mission may be about inclusive involvement of all members of the body of Christ, while its shadow mission culture values top-aligned concentration of power and the exclusion of any true ownership by the common laity. 

Although I could go into a detailed analysis of the culture of WCCC, one specific area that is clear to me,and has resulted in the frustration of any attempt at change, is the strategy of hiding truth. Many people have appealed to the elders and leaders to reveal a long history of treating anyone that threatened the exterior image of WCCC with expulsion and shame based rejection. Although it is clear in scripture (I Timothy 5:20) that there is a redemptive value in publicly exposing sin, and particularly the sin of those who have a greater influence in the church (pastors/elders), the culture of repression has trumped every effort. In a culture of truth and transparency, sin gets exposed, not to shame individuals, but to purify the church of all the hidden works of evil.

A Jesus-based culture would have a profoundly different true mission, with Biblically validated values and strategies that are loving, redemptive, and restorative. A Biblical culture lives in the light of Truth and exposes the works of darkness. The culture of WCCC has been more about staying in the darkness and protecting the image. Calling those who have been so immersed in the culture of WCCC to see the unhealthiness of the “tree” seems to elicit the response “what tree?”. Culture is so powerful and self-sustaining. 

The Self-perpetuating Nature of Culture

The disappointment that I have felt with WCCC’s response to the revelation of sin by Bill Hybels and the wounding of multiple people in the service of maintaining a culture of image management, has slowly evolved into  reality. WCCC is not going to alter its way of presenting itself to the world because the core change agents are disciples of the culture, and therefor do not appear to be concerned about the years of behind the scenes purging through repression and expulsion of any threat to the image of the church.  Here is how the culture of WCCC has perpetuated and stubbornly resisted any effort to change its fundamental core strategies. 

If WCCC comprehended that the problems at the church are not just a “one off” crisis of one man’s pattern of sexual predation, but in fact are a reflection of a broken culture, they would have focused on this first. Because they do not comprehend the powerful way that culture shapes behavior, WCCC has gone about things in the reverse of what would be appropriate. The people that remain at WCCC have been groomed to accept the culture as the normal way that the church should operate.

If the leadership had recognized that Bill Hybels behavior was the rotten fruit of a sick tree, they would have focused first on the culture. They would have done a deep dive into how the culture of WCCC exists as a significant departure from the culture of Jesus. They would have focused first on cultural transformation, so that the tree gets healed and can start to produce good fruit. The elders would then be selected out of this new healthy culture, and finally the search for a senior pastor would be guided by finding someone who is in synch with this new, Jesus-centered culture. 

Instead, this was the progression. First, after the exposure of Hybels behavior, the executive pastor, who was groomed, and like the fish metaphor, probably thought that the culture she swam in was healthy, put an interim head pastor in place. That person, who as well had been swimming in the murky waters of the WCCC culture, then served essentially as a game manager, to preserve the essential elements of the culture. He worked to minimize the losses of the core shadow mission culture of WCCC. Then, a long time disciple of the Hybels-generated culture, was instrumental in selecting a selection committee who were themselves fish that had been swimming in the polluted culture of WCCC. These people then were key to selecting elders who had also been swimming in the culture for years. It is like an inbred system.

To be fair, all of these individuals probably believed that they were doing the right thing. They just did not comprehend that the rules and the strategies of a broken culture were the abnormal “normal”. No one  recognized the need to stand outside the systemic culture to critique it, so naturally, the actions of the leaders were confirmatory of the mission and values of the culture. Of course, the elders are not going to call out Bill Hybels in any meaningful way. They endorse, in the marrow of their souls, the vision, values, strategies, and rules of the culture that he created. And they may have signed a non-disparagement agreement as part of his retirement package. This would be a strategy consistent with the value of hiding truth. I could be wrong, but how do you find out the truth in a culture that hides the truth so tenaciously?

Voices Crying In The Wilderness

It may be that WCCC will not fundamentally turn from its ways. The elders and leaders may not have ears to hear. The take away for the rest of the church world is that of seeing what has happened as a cautionary tale. Return to Jesus. There can be no other foundation to build the church upon than Christ. The culture of the church must be reflective of the vision and values and behaviors of Jesus. Grow a healthy tree first, and the fruit will naturally flow out in righteousness and love. A big and shiny megachurch may be impressive to the outside world, but as Jesus said, if it is a big white-washed tomb, it cannot survive because it is not Christ’s church. 

2 thoughts on “Willow Creek Community Church- “It’s The Culture, Stupid!” (Sorry, Too Harsh)

  1. I am considering giving up on Willow, though it pains me through and through. The comment I hear most often, if anything is said at all (other than,
    “Yay , we’ve turned a corner, let’s move on”) is people who know very little of the inner workings of Willow, even if they attend, saying with some dismay or anger, “Well, I really hope people at Willow heal soon,” as if they are trying to understand why anyone is still concerned. Rotting doesn’t stop rotting without medical treatment. Willow is “sick” at its core and most don’t even know they have an illness. As anyone who has been through trauma and worked diligently towards healing has learned, others who do not feel impacted have little motivation to understand, empathize, enter the fray on behalf of others or risk “getting into trouble.” I’m still fighting for Willow at Willow and still love Willow, but don’t know much longer I’m willing to give of my heart, soul and health to a fatally flawed organization. It doesn’t need to be fatal, but leadership seems completely, irrevocably unwilling to talk truth. So sad.

  2. Such good insights that ring true in my own situation, but it’s disheartening to see how entrenched and prevalent this is in christendom. The lack of truth is truly grievous.

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