In a recent episode of her podcast the Chicago-based journalist Julie Roys interviewed two people, Jim and Theresa, who have a long history with the Willow Creek movement. It is a fascinating but troubling interview. The reader should listen to the interview for himself but I found it illuminating about the nature of the “mega-church.”

In April, 2018 Christianity Today reported that Bill Hybels had resigned as the teaching pastor at Willow Creek, one of the USA’s premier “mega-churches” and one of the first such churches since the rise of the modern “church growth” movement. He resigned amidst charges, according to the report in CT, of behavior “including inappropriate comments, private meetings with female staffers in his hotel room and at his home, intrusive hugs, and, in one case, an unwanted kiss.” The first person to make these charges was a female pastor on the Willow Creek staff. In 2018 the elders were defending Hybels and rejecting the charges. A March, 2019 report, however found that charges of “sexually inappropriate words and actions” were credible. One aspect of the scandal that received less attention is this sentence from the Washington Post: “The Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group’s report concluded that Hybels also verbally intimidated both male and female employees. Neither the church nor the association did enough to stop him.”

It is this aspect of the story on which Roys interview with people with extensive experience Willow Creek (Crystal Lake) and the Willow Creek Association focuses. Roys notes that there was a “reconciliation service” at Willow from which those who made the original allegations were excluded. In that light, one might even regard it as a public relations event rather than a service of reconciliation.

Symptom Of A Built-In Problem

What I hope that you will notice is how Jim and Theresa were each treated by Willow Creek. My argument is that their stories are indicative of the nature of so-called megachurches and they illustrate why Christians ought to be cautious about attending and joining mega-churches.

Before we continue let me anticipate an objection. Mine is not a brief for small churches. To be sure, in the providence of God, much of my ministry has been conducted in the midst of smaller congregations. Statistically, however, in the USA, most churches are about 100 people. With the rise of the megachurch, as with the rise of the big-box stores, there is natural concern for the future of the traditional small to medium-sized congregation in North America. Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently holy about a micro-congregation. My intent is to challenge attenders to and members of megachurches to think carefully about what they are doing and to count the cost of being in a megachurch.

What is a megachurch? According to one survey published by Hartford Seminary, it is a congregation of 2,000 or more weekly attenders. At the time of the survey they found 40% of Protestant megachurches to non-denominational and 16% to be Southern Baptist. As of 2015 71% of them were said to be “evangelical” in their theology. The main Willow Creek Community Church campus is in South Barrington, IL and their weekly attendance is reported to be more than 20,000.

The Church-Industrial Complex

In a famous 1961 speech President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the danger of a “military-industrial complex.” He was warning about those who have a vested interest in an ever-expanding military and keeping military conflicts going. There are other such complexes. There is also a megachurch business. The culture of the megachurch business has mostly been appropriated from, well, business. Since its rise the church-growth business has been awash in appropriated business-derived axioms. Think of church-growth consultants like business consultants. Revenues and cash flow down? Sometimes small businesses call in a “consultant,” an ostensible expert who will analyze the business and suggest strategies and tactics that will lead to growth. There are “vision-casting” sessions are held, strategic planning sessions are led, and “best practices” are implemented. The buzzwords change but of the making of buzzwords there is no end. When I was in seminary we had a teacher who had been to the Harvard Business School. This was before email so we were taught techniques such as responding to a letter by jotting a note on the back of the original letter and returning. It had the dual function of saving time and demonstrating to the correspondent how important one is. We were given to think that a truly important person cannot be bothered to write or type a separate letter. In the real world, however, really important people do that sort of thing all the time. It is one of the ways they became important, by valuing (rather than demeaning) others.

The church-growth literature that flooded my (postal) mail in the late 80s and early 90s was all about how I, as the pastor, needed to “take charge.” The experts told that, in effect, I need to turn my Reformed and Presbyterian congregation, which was led by ruling elders, deacons, and pastors, into a functional episcopacy where I surrounded myself with “yes men” (elders who agreed with me, who “shared my vision”) and where there would be a decisive meeting in which the rest of the congregation would be informed of the “vision” for the church and everyone would be told to “get on the bus or get run over” as one notorious, vision-casting, megachurch leader (in good conscience I cannot call him a pastor) put it.

In short, the culture of leadership in the megachurch movement tends to focus on a single individual. Name a megachurch, now think of the pastor’s name. Willow Creek = Bill Hybels. Saddleback Community Church = Rick Warren. Potter’s House = T. D. Jakes. Lakewood Church = Joel Osteen. The list could go on but, to paraphrase the former special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, you take my point. It is effectively monepiscopal leadership. It is hierarchical. The megachurch pastor is nominally accountable to some kind of board but the reaction of the Willow Creek leadership to Hybel’s accusers was like that of a Romanist Synod after Unam Sanctam (AD 1302) Under that papal bull, anyone who defied the pope is eternally condemned.

Big Church Is Big Business

According to the EFCA, as of 2018, Willow Creek (assuming that the EFCA report covers the eight Chicago-area campuses) had $59 million in cash donations and $232 million in assets. There is some debate about what constitutes a “small business.” Some define it as taking in $100,000 annually in revenue. The Small Business Administration allows as much as $7 million in annual sales for small businesses. Willow certainly has substantial revenues and substantial assets. Willow Creek’s revenue and assets dwarfs those of my employer, which is considered a mid-sized organization for business purposes. The Willow Creek Association, which a congregation joins for a nominal fee of $300 includes about 13,000 congregations.

Willow Creek may or may not be a “big business” by secular standards but it is certainly a power broker of sorts. Just as President Obama made news by pledging to Rick Warren, Pastor of the megachurch Saddleback Community Church, in 2008, that he was opposed to same-sex marriage so Bill Clinton, T. D. Jakes (apparently Christian orthodoxy is not a prerequisite) Rick Warren, and U2’s Bono have each spoken to the Willow annual Leadership Summit (https://globalleadership.org/global-leadership-summit/). 

Willow’s impressive website fairly reeks of business-speak and the upwardly mobile professional culture. One header on the South Barrington’s site says, “Policy Governance: Optimizing Elder Direction and Staff Leadership.” A site search does not reveal the word “creed” (as Apostles’ Creed). We may be thankful that the word “sin” does appear with some frequency as does the word grace but religious language is conspicuously absent. This is part of the church growth model of which Willow is a shining exemplar.

No Way To Run A Business

In theological terms, business is a covenant of works. This is not to say that business people are licensed to be less than gracious but business, by nature, is the exchange of something of value (e.g., money) for goods and services. This is a covenant of works. The business gets paid for providing a good or service. To charge a fee and not deliver that good or service may be a criminal offense. It is a legal transaction, again a covenant of works.

The church, by contrast, is an administration of the covenant of grace. In the covenant of grace, God gives to sinners what they cannot earn or buy. He freely gives to them what Jesus earned for them. Sinners are freely given new life (regeneration). They are freely given the gift of faith (knowledge, assent, and trust) in Christ. Through faith alone they are justice and the Spirit unites them to Christ. God graciously adopts his people as sons. He graciously forgives sins and imputes righteousness. He graciously sanctifies and finally glorifies his elect. We obey him not in order to be justified or saved but because have been justified and saved and because we are being sanctified and shall be glorified.

The church is the opposite of a business. She does not operate to make a profit or compile assets or to accumulate power in this world. She is commissioned to distribute and die, as it were, not to grab and grow. In business, a bad employee is fired. In the church, sinful members, who are penitent, are forgiven freely for Christ’s sake.

As a covenant of grace, as the embassy of the Kingdom of God, the church is a terrible business. Our CEO died (but he was raised!). His disciples were scattered and eventually martyred. The whole thing did not “take off” as a social enterprise for more than three centuries and even that came at no small cost to the church’s original message and mission. As the Reformed understand the way the Lord organized his church, authority and power are decentralized. Our Lord intentionally instituted inefficiency. He commissioned two visible symbols and promises: water is the first and bread and wine together make up the second. Neither are flashy. Both were misunderstood originally. He also commissioned the advance of the organization through detailed and sometimes lengthy speeches (sermons) based on  complex and sometimes difficult text (the Bible) by some who may not be the world’s most interesting public speakers. This is no way to run a business.

As a pastor, the stories of Jim and Theresa were hard to hear. Before his death, our Lord said to Peter,

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me” (John 21:15–19; ESV)

Our Lord did not use business metaphors and images as often as he used agrarian figures. He did so deliberately. Church attenders and members are not clients nor customers. They are lambs. Pastors are shepherds. The word Pastor is Latin for Shepherd. They are not CEOs. They are not “thought leaders.” They are ministers, servants of Christ, his gospel, and his church. Their message is not their own. Their authority is not their own. Their purpose is not their own glorification but the glory of Jesus and the salvation of all of those whom he obeyed and died.

Theresa, Jim are symbols of the many who have been crushed by the megachurch system. They were been run over by the Big Church bus but Jesus does not own any busses. He has commissioned no bus drivers—only servants and shepherds.

A Golden Parachute

Christian, there are doubtless many wonderful groups and programs in your megachurch but is Christ there? How would you know? Is the gospel there? Are the sacraments reserved for “spiritual emphasis” Sunday? Does your minister know your name? Has he been to your house? Were you ill would anyone call you? Does he catechize your children? Does anyone? If you strayed in your doctrine (does your church have a confession of faith?) or life, would anyone love you enough to hold you accountable?

What does it profit a family if everyone is entertained and thrilled but never hears the law or the gospel? Cotton candy at the fair is great fun but it is no diet and will only rot one’s teeth. Just as there is more to life (IRL) than Facebook so there is more to church than the megachurch. AGR urges you to check into your local, confessional Reformed church. We have supporting churches in our broadcast area. Look for a congregation that confesses the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Standards. Check out the church website. Is there any evidence that they take these things seriously? Are the law and the gospel preached faithfully? Are the sacraments administered regularly? Is church discipline administered? It might take a while to find such a congregation. Depending upon where you are, There may not be a confessional Reformed church in your area. Here is some help.

I am confident that Jim and Theresa are not the only ones who have experienced what they did. If you are being crushed by a megachurch, there is hope. Jesus is for sinners. Please do not despair. There are faithful congregations that love Christ’s lambs.

R. Scott Clark

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