Willow Creek Community Church is a large church with its main campus in South Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago; Willow Creek has several other locations in Chicagoland that feature live worship music and either live or video-fed teaching. Sunday morning attendance at all sites is approximately 24,000 each week, making Willow Creek one of the largest churches in the U.S. The church was a pioneer in the seeker-sensitive church growth movement.
Beyond its locations in the Chicago area, the Willow Creek Association links a network of churches following the same innovative, seeker-sensitive model. The association is thousands of congregations strong, and it oversees the Global Leadership Network, founded in 1992, whose focus is Christian leadership development around the world. The Global Leadership Summit, held every August in Chicago, is simulcast to over 1,000 locations in over 135 countries.
Willow Creek was started by a team headed by Bill Hybels in 1975. Hybels’ goal was to start a church that would be a comfortable place for unbelievers to hear the gospel. At Willow Creek, believers are encouraged to share the gospel with their friends and then to invite them to church. Every aspect of the church service is geared toward making unbelievers or “spiritual seekers” feel comfortable and accepted. The messages address relevant topics such as marriage, parenting, and finances from a biblical perspective without sounding “preachy.” Religious language and traditional religious symbols are avoided. The Bible is referred to but not preached from in an expository manner. The music, drama, child care, youth programs, special events, technology, and facilities are all of excellent quality. The primary service for believers is the midweek “New Community” service.
Willow Creek Community Church’s doctrinal statement is solidly evangelical, and there can be no question that many have come to faith in Christ as a result of their seeker-sensitive approach. The conversion of Lee Strobel, a former journalist for the Chicago Tribune, is a prime example of this success. Strobel’s wife first came to faith through a group of women at Willow Creek. He saw the change in her and began to investigate the claims of Christ himself. And he began to attend Willow Creek with his wife, even though he was an atheist. Strobel eventually came to faith himself and later joined the pastoral staff. Today Lee Strobel is a pastor and well-known apologist, author of The Case for Christ and a host of other books.
Most of the criticism of Willow Creek is due to its methodology, which inevitably leads to a focus on people and their needs—although the church would probably counter that people are what matter the most to God. For instance, the “worship music” at Willow Creek is carefully designed to appeal to those in attendance. Willow Creek also employs women as teaching pastors. Another problem that has been documented is that, although the Sunday service is supposed to be for unbelievers and the midweek service is designed to feed and teach believers, the majority of those who attend Sunday morning already consider themselves to be believers, and they don’t attend midweek service. As a result, many who are involved with the church are never exposed to significant biblical or theological content; rather, they are taught nothing beyond the practical application of Scripture to meet felt needs. Many attenders who feel the need for more biblical teaching seek out other churches to provide it.
In 2007 Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek, alongside Cally Parkinson, released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of Willow Creek’s philosophy of ministry. The study’s findings are available in the ebook Reveal: Where Are You? In summary, Willow Creek’s methodology was failing miserably at producing dedicated followers of Jesus Christ. Hybels himself lamented that Willow Creek was failing to truly help people grow and develop spiritually. Since their discovery, Willow Creek has placed a greater emphasis on Bible study and the teaching of God’s Word; although this emphasis is primarily applied outside of their main church services.
In 2018 Bill Hybels and much of the leadership at Willow Creek resigned due what seem to be credible accusations against Bill Hybels for sexual misconduct and the leadership’s failure to deal with the accusations appropriately. In February 2019 the church issued this statement: “While we cannot change the events of the past, we grieve what has happened, ask for forgiveness, and commit ourselves to pursuing healing and reconciliation.”