The Willow Creek Leadership Summit Post 1 – After 20 Years, Willow Is Growing On Me

Grace Chapel was a host site for the Willow Creek Leadership Summit that took place August 9-10. They’ve been part of this for a number of years and it’s a great development opportunity for our staff, our attenders and many pastors and lay people in the Greater Boston area. I kept hearing how people were really looking forward to the Summit and by the time it rolled around, I found myself getting excited about it too. But as I was sitting in our sanctuary, I couldn’t help but reflect on my evolving impressions of Willow Creek.

I remember one night back in high school my dad and I were watching tv and a feature on Willow Creek came on one of those Nightline or 20/20 shows. I remembered thinking a church that looked more like a theater was a great idea, incorporating drama was cool and Hybels came off looking much better than most evangelicals/televangelists tend to do – I was interested. Willow was huge by then but in the early 90’s, it was just coming on the national scene (or at least on my personal radar). They became the thing but like all big things, there was a flip side.  It was half-way through being an undergrad that I could no longer handle the term “seeker-sensitive” and about where I got off the WC/Hybels boat. Between the celebritism of Hybels/Ortberg, the hype created by the countless other churches that were now Willow-like, the Association and a couple of friends I knew from college who had various experiences there, I got “Willowed-Out.”

Then I got John-Maxwelled-out and read Hybel’s Courageous Leadership, went to a couple a simulcasts of the Leadership Summits and while I enjoyed parts/aspects of them, I couldn’t really do any more. During my first few years of ministry, I was leery of just about everything. There was the Purpose-Driven Life books, resources, calendar, mugs, coasters ,and … ;) There was also the Prayer of Jabez merch line, the Left Behind series was the fundamentalist Hunger Games. I avoided the CBD Catalog the way I avoid mall on weekends.

Now some of this was where I was personally, some of it was the sub-culture, some of it was bad marketing but I identified Willow as a part of all that. I’m not sure I knew enough to take issue with Willow and while it would take some time to learn this language, I would now say “they” represented the attractional model that so many churches wanted to imitate and my feeling was, “That’s great for them, you/we are not them …”

That started to shift for me a few years ago when I attended a Summit in Wyckoff (thanks for hosting Cornerstone). Then even more so, I started paying attention to WC when they put out their Reveal series as I found myself appreciating their humility and was very interested in their findings. The Post-Christian culture caught up with them and their insights are helpful to the North American Church as a whole. It’s been since the Reveal series that I’ve been most interested in the Summit and again, I found myself excited for this year.

Bill led off with a long, semi-self-depracacting story of him grilling the Thanksgiving turkey and accidentally leaving the grill on for 7 weeks. This opening illustration served as a fairly accurate microcosm for the rest of his presentation. He incorporates great story-telling features (context, the problem, the proposed solution, complication, suspense, etc.) reveals his strengths (all leaders have some), his weaknesses (all leaders have some), he’s both relatable and unrelateable but he’s being himself so that’s good, and then finally offers a conclusion that is both satisfying, humorous, and for the most part, insightful. I think it’s fair to say that’s how the remainder of his hour went and I was happy to listen.

I found myself warming up to Bill, talents, faults, humor, wisdom and all. Scattered between his main points were context fillers like when he admitted that Willow Creek is finally using Alpha and that the tongue-and-cheek reason they hadn’t before was because they hadn’t created it – so they didn’t use it. I don’t know how Alpha people felt about that, I thought it was funny, a bit sad, but revealing.

I also loved the story of the guy who lived so close to Willow Creek that he lost his cat on the church property and told Bill that he mistakingly thought it was a community college campus. I’m not exactly sure why Bill decided to include these points in his message, I don’t believe they were birthed out of any false sense of humility. Instead, I think this is very consistent with the background context of the Reveal study (and I speculate that this story actually happened quite some time ago). It’s the perfect illustration for the short-comings of a strictly attractional model and the need for the church to be missional – the community simply doesn’t care to know who you are – you might as well be a local community college.

Hybels spoke for at least an hour (no countdown clock like Q Ideas ;), shared Willow’s plan of succession with candor and openness (not specifics but the process), gave a couple of his classic leadership insights and themes (like his 6X6 plan) and got the Summit off to a solid start.

I’ll mention more later but I did love the diversity of the presenters, ethnically and the different organizational sectors they represented. While Willow is not the most natural environment for me, I did appreciate so much of what they’ve been doing and couldn’t help but think how much this ministry has grown on me these last few years. Grateful that our church could be a part of this, hoping to post more soon.

If you are interested in attending the Summit next year and live near Lexington, MA – join us – the date is August 8-9, 2013.  In the meantime, you can learn more at