The Willow Creek Implosion!

The mailbag was full this week, and Brad and Wayne kick-off with some wonderful insights by fellow free-rangers, before turning to am unbelievable announcement from one of America's flagship congregations. After 30 years and millions of dollars sunk into their seeker-sensitive model, Willow Creek, outside of Chicago, admitted last week that there is no correlation between participation in their expensive programs and someone's personal growth in Christ. Watch them explain it all here. You would think that would make them reconsider whether human systems could ever replicate the life of Jesus in the world. Think again! That's what they're going to do!


  1. hello wayne,

    i am really struggling with this “free-rangers” thing. if i am understanding you correctly – you are using “free-rangers” to refer to apprentices of Jesus who are unattached from any form of formal congregational life. they are not involved in “conventional congregations”, “emerging congregations”, or “house congregations”. they merely hang out with friends and friends of friends as the opportunity presents itself.

    i take no issue with any apprentices of Jesus walking in such a manner. i am totally open to the Spirit encouraging one to walk in such a manner for a season or even for their entire pre-resurrection earthly journey. but why turn it into some type of status: “free-rangers”? when one places such a label on walking in such a manner it might possibly produce a barrier to being open to the Spirit guiding one to participate in something of a more formal nature in the future.

    why can’t we all just be Jesus-apprentices endeavoring to follow the Spirit of Jesus? why can’t we all just give one another the liberty to by led by the Spirit with regards to sharing the apprentice journey together? if one senses they are led to participate in a conventional congregation – why must we pooh all over it? if one senses they are being led to pursue Jesus in a very informal manner – why can’t that just be what is and not framed into some elevated status along the lines of: this is what Jesus really intended for all His apprentices?

    i respect you wayne – and i really don’t think you intend to communicate that following Jesus in a very informal manner is some elite status – the God intended status – but things like “free-rangers” and “this journey” consistently come across that way.

    sharing what is on my heart brother.

  2. Rob,

    Thanks for your comment. The last thing I’d want is to turn the term ‘free-range believer’ into an elite status of some kind. Nothing could be further from my heart or comments on the subject. Do I think others, might want to do that? Of course. What isn’t? I don’t know how to protect anything from being abused by others who seek some kind of external validation for their life in him. But if you’re feeling ‘poohed all over’ it isn’t by me.

    To begin with free-range believers has nothing at all to do with what someone is doing on Sunday morning and is not a contrast between formal meetings and an informal relationships. That’s your definition of it, not mine. To me free-range deals with liberty from the system of religious obligation that turns the life of Jesus into a practice of religion and puts the focus on rituals, rules and doctrines, rather than on a growing relationship with the Father through the Son.

    Thus ‘free-range’ believers can be found in conventional congregations, the emergent conversation and in ‘house churches’. It does make room for people to follow God as best they see him and not try to fit into the expectations of others. But if there is a problem here, I think those who are in more regular gatherings of believers are a lot harder on those who aren’t, than the other way around.

    So you’re misreading me, Bro, or reading into my words some of your own issues. I have great respect for you in what little chance we’ve had to cross paths and in every way make room for how Father might be leading to engage this glorious family!

  3. wayne,

    thanks so much for your timely response. and thanks for unpacking “free-rangers” for me some more. kent and i just had a chat about the challenges of communication. i love a couple of things you sayed above: “free-range deals with liberty from the system of religious obligation that turns the life of Jesus into a practice of religion and puts the focus on rituals, rules and doctrines, rather than on a growing relationship with the Father and the Son.” that kicks serious axx!!! and i love this: “thus ‘free-range’ believers can be found in conventional congregations, the emergent conversation and in ‘house churches'” – wayne that is the kind of Jesus following that i want to be a part of.

    thanks again for helping me better understand what you are endeavoring to communicate.


  4. Brad & Wayne:

    I watched the Bill Hybels and Greg Hawkins videos and was not surprised by what they said. I used to live in the Chicago area and attended Willow Creek for a few years.

    They do a great job of reaching “seekers” which is what their whole experience was created to do. However, they have little to offer for more mature Christians who want to walk closely with the Lord. The Sunday services are more like a gospel concert with a speaker than a worship service. I sat through some Sunday services where the group on stage sang quite nicely but the congregation was only invited to listen. The midweek services are more like you would expect an evangelical church service to be with worship and good Bible teaching. As a result, most regulars prefer the mid-week service over the shallow weekend seeker service. Some years ago, that resulted in attendance being down on the weekends so Bill Hybels made an announcement that everybody at Willow was expected to attend the weekend services – even if they were going to the mid-week services. I would have thought that he should be excited about having extra seats available on Sunday to accomodate more seekers…oh well.


  5. Wayne,

    My wife and I met you in Hershey about a month ago. After personally working through a great deal of anger at the church, it was refreshing to me to experience your kind and gentle spirit. Thank you for that.

    Greg Hawkins outlined five groups of people that they recognized. The group that was completely missing was the group of those committed to Jesus, but who have already left and have no intention of ever going back, to anything that remotely resembles what we have left. My wife and I, and a good number of our friends are in that category. Recently we have quietly walked away from the church where we were very long and deeply involved.

    If they were to interview us, what would you recommend we say to them? As long as their focus is on propping up and growing the building, the institution, and on protecting the leadership, and on preserving the bylaws, the doctrinal statement, and worst of all, the budget, there seems to be no counsel that they would receive.

    All of the men in the community, who were previously involved as elders, frequently get invitations to meet with, and to give input to the board. Attendance and resources are falling hard in the midst of a building campaign, and they are really “grabbing for straws”.

    I have never responded to the invitations. If I were to respond, I am really at a loss as to how I may help them, other than to challenge them for their homage to the golden calf. Can you offer any insight?

  6. Dear folks, a few of us here in Victoria, Australia watched the Greg Hawkins video together this morning.

    We were saddened, but not surprised by the conclusions we were hearing. From our own experience, when you are wrapped up in the system, it is impossible to see that the foundations are rotten, without getting outside of it, and kneeling down, to see what is holding all this up. In other words, you can’t see it unless Father Himself brings revelation to you, opens your blind eyes and gets you to begin to see.

    Unless the foundations are right, everything on top will be a disaster, and the more _we_ build, the more disastrous it will get…hence, 30 years and millions of dollars later….

    So, what are the right foundations ? Nothing other than Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
    * What is the Church ? – nothing but Jesus Christ. Where Christ is, there is the Church, and where Christ is not, there is no church there. “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
    * What is a Christian ? – any one who has given their whole lives up (their very self) to follow Him. (Luke 9:23 NIV) “Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 14:27 NIV) “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

    I guess there is a lot more that we could say about getting the foundations right, but Jesus pretty well sums it all up.

    With reference to Dale’s post above, this is a question I have pondered a lot as well. In this case, I think it comes back to Jesus’ story in Matthew 7 – “The Wise and Foolish Builders”. The key is “anyone who hears these words of mine _and puts them into practice_ is like a wise man who built his house on the rock”. The truth is that leaders in the system are not putting Jesus’ words into practice. They are ignoring significant chunks of what Jesus said, so they can continue to build the organisation.
    Under these conditions, the foundations can never be right, and eventually what is being built WILL be washed away.

    Blessings in Him,
    Gordon H.

  7. I have just found your site and started checking it out. I saw these videos the other week and had many of the same thoughts you did I am recently escaped from the traditional church and am still trying to see how everything works on the outside. This must be what it is like when you have been in jail for years and are suddenly thrust back into the real world and it is entirely new. I look forward to hearing more from you both.

  8. I remain very cynical of any “new insights” that Hybels or anyone at Willow Creek comes up with as they, “rethink all our old assumptions.” Hybels’ Seeker-Driven Church Philosophy of Ministry has been so devastating and destructive over the past decades that his mere claim of “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing” findings from this new “multiple year study” does little to ease skepticism. I rejoice when any person, group, or church for that matter, leaves a lifestyle of ungodliness and returns to a Biblical Christ-centered walk of obedience. But is this what is/has happened with the Willow Creek way of thinking? Or, could it simply be that they’ve realized their “customers” are “valuing” something new and so the “business” needs to change accordingly? God knows, and time will reveal.

  9. Hey fellow followers,
    Let’s not be unloving toward those who dared to lead in some very important ways. And, let’s not be critical but rather dialog with these same ones who once again dare to lead. Yes, seeker sensitive has a downside as even its progenitors freely admit. But, multiplied thousands of people who were kept from Jesus by church formality and exclusivity (if only in our language), have come into a real relationship with Him. We’ve had no way better to offer. Now, Lord, what would you hve us do to get some balance again? House churches? I think we all know what can breed in those small places, sometimes hidden away from those who might offer correction along the way. G-12? Sounds like gospel multi’level marketing. We never seem to get it right and that is something we maybe need to get comfortable with so that we drop this driving need to have some perfect system. Thankfully, Jesus will build His church and makes all things work together for good, even when we are trying too hard to help Him out. BTW, please know that God is very fond of you; i hope you enjoy Him very much today.

  10. Hey Wayne & Brad, The link takes me to Reveal website but no video or study results. Is there some place I can still find it? I’m very curious! I’ve got some connections here that make this fairly important to me. Thanks!

    • Unfortunately web links do grow old when other sites change their structure or simply eliminate articles they think no one has an interest in. But I entered “reveal willow creek” into Google and found a host of articles that may give you what you’re looking for. Try that.

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