A Tale of Two Churches: Willow Creek and Saddleback
Over the last few weeks, two of the most influential churches in America’s history have made headlines. But for very different reasons.
At Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area, after the departure of founding pastor Bill Hybels, his pastoral successors and the elder board have also announced their resignations. It has been painful to watch. Meanwhile at Saddleback Church in the Los Angeles area has just celebrated having over 50,000 baptisms.
While in college and seminary, professors, pastors, and evangelical pundits told me that these were the two most innovative churches in the country. I read and studied their methods. Willow Creek invented the idea and coined the term “seeker service.” Saddleback, led by the indomitable Rick Warren plowed forward in Southern California with the “purpose-driven model.”
They were revolutionary churches to watch. Through the years, each church found a multitude of ways to reach more and more people with the gospel.
Along the way, many people – and I mean many – have disagreed with the methods and language of both churches. I remember the mocking terms of Willowback and Saddlecreek tossed about as if they were clever. And then came the outcry. “People are not seekers! Have you not read Romans 3:11?!?” Or… “People don’t need to be purpose-driven. They need to be Gospel-driven. Glory-driven. Jesus-driven!!!” But despite the hullabaloo from those who disagreed with the methods, these two congregations plugged ahead. They introduced people to Jesus and made disciples. Whether you liked how they did it or not, they kept looking for the lost and kept finding ways to disciple the saved.
But now, a weekend has come and gone that is a painfully defining moment for one and a celebratory marker for the other. What should we do in light of what’s happened?
1. Intercede for the people of Willow Creek. It’s patently obvious that the leaders made many mistakes along the way to get to this point. But rather than gawk and gossip, we need to choose a better path. I am a brother in Christ to the members of Willow Creek and a fellow church leader to those who serve the Bride of Christ. As such, my responsibility – and, I’d propose it is yours as well – is to offer intercessory prayer for the congregation and her leaders. We should especially pray for Steve Gillen, the acting senior pastor for Willow Creek.
2. Celebrate with Saddleback. If you’re a pastor, let’s be honest for a moment. Sometimes it is hard to celebrate with those who are having a roaring success when your church is struggling. But celebrating the work of God in another place is a Bible-kind of thing to do. Just read Paul’s letters and you’ll see it plastered throughout. Our friend Rick Warren has his faults that he freely and openly admits. I’ve heard him do it. But God has done an astounding thing through Rick and the rest of the saints known as Saddleback Church. They are not perfect but they are striving to be faithful. Let’s lift up a shout of praise with them that God has done this great deed.
3. Pause to learn. No other church should attempt to be Saddleback or Willow Creek. Those churches operate in those neighborhoods. They work to be contextual missionaries where they operate. The thing that might benefit you and me is to pause for a moment and ask what we should learn about our own hearts. Both the good and the painful is on display at the moment.
I’d especially like to say thanks to Rick Warren. I’ve been around him on several occasions. He’s always been attentive to the person in front of him and always kind to me. Thanks, Rick! You are a popular guy in the church world so thanks for caring for all of the rest of the people who are working at being faithful to Jesus.
4. Commit to finish well. Perhaps it’s because I’m not far from 50 any longer. Maybe it’s because my sons are now in their twenties. It could be that I’m just shocked by the contrasting moment between two pastors that seemed to be on a never-ending meteoric rise. No matter why it’s happening, this is a moment for me – and likely for you – to recommit ourselves to finishing well. Let’s live so that we can say with the Apostle Paul,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. – 2 Timothy 4:7
My prayer is that repentance and restoration will be found in hearts and lives of church leaders; those laboring in obscurity and in the spotlight. I hope that we will hear the rumblings of revival in the church and a great awakening in our nation. For all believers, I trust that God has guarded us well and intends to use us in His great mission to reach the world with the gospel. May we understand this moment and use it well for God’s glory.