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The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Four: The Fall of Bill Hybels

[Preface: This is a submission by Malcolm Nicholson, originally published on his blog. This post fits in with our mission to combat the Popularity Gospel and is a deep dive into its nefarious origins. This is part three of a series we will be featuring weekly. To begin on part one, click here.]


Part Three can be read here

In  a 2007 Willow Creek Repents?  article in Christianity Today Bill Hybels acknowledged that Christians in their church were not growing,

“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to become ‘self-feeders’. We should have gotten people, taught people how to read their Bibles between services, how to do spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

Christians need to read their Bibles between services! I have met some of the people they are talking about. I have found myself wondering how little is it possible for someone to know about the Bible and still be a Christian.

In Part Three I quoted Bill Hybels saying, “Preaching is the core ministry of the church, and lives will not change without powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God.”(Lynne and  Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church, Zondervan, Michigan, 1995, p 149) This does not mean that the “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God” at Willow Creek and other seeker-sensitive churches had failed to result in mature growing Christians. The problem with “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God” in seeker-sensitive churches is that there is so little of it. If there were, as Bill Hybels has acknowledged, lives would have changed.

As I have said, simplistic preaching is the problem in seeker-sensitive churches.  The churched are not being edified and the unchurched are not being reached with the Gospel, and they are surprised to learn that Christians are not growing. Well, duh.

Keeping in mind all the talk about professionalism and excellence in the Global Leadership Network, I wonder if the leaders of these seeker-sensitive churches have a sense of job satisfaction. Do they find it fulfilling to give simplistic messages to a dumbed-down audience, many of whom are just there to be entertained? Is this what they felt called by God to the ministry for?

Willow Creek worked out that the Christians, who were growing, were the ones who were self-feeding, such as reading the Bible and other spiritual practices on their own, rather than relying on what was said on Sunday. They concluded all Christians needed to be self-feeders to grow and become mature Christians.

I agree Christians should self-feed. I can sometimes read 4 to 5 Christian books a week, so I reckon I have grasped the concept of self-feeding, but I have noticed that some other Christians do not read 4 to 5 Christian books a week.

Self-feeding works best for intrinsic learners. In educational psychology they distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic learners. Intrinsic learners are motivated by getting a sense of personal fulfillment from learning. Extrinsic learners need some external motivation, i.e., they will go to university, not to improve their minds, but to get a qualification, get a job and make more money. It is easier for Christians, who are intrinsic learners, to self-feed. Give them a Bible and some Christian books and off they go. It is harder to show extrinsic learner Christians that they need to self-feed and read a book or engage in other spiritual practices. There also appears to be a connection between good preaching and self-feeding. Good preaching can motivate the hearers afterwards to go and study the Bible for themselves. As Bill Hybels has pointed out, “teachers tend to attract learners” (Rediscovering Church, p 149). This presumably means that leaders do not attract learners. Seeker-sensitive churches with an emphasis on leadership do not necessarily attract learners who want to read the Bible and grow.

This is aggravated by the impression, which I have discussed earlier, that some seeker-sensitive churches can give, that you can come to God on your own terms. They have said the magic words, asked Jesus into their hearts, got their ticket to Heaven. They do not see the need to do anything more. Growth seems optional.

It does not appear to have occurred to the Willow Creek leaders that the self-feeders were growing by default. They were not getting any teaching from their ministers so they had to fend for themselves. Instead of repenting of their disobedience and not preaching “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God”, they decided that all Christians should self-feed. The default became the norm. They seem to stumble from one bad idea to another.

Just to make it clear, I am not saying it is a choice between self-feeding and teaching by the ministers. It should be both.

The relationship between the minister and the congregation is sometimes described as a covenant. Covenants work both ways. Both sides have obligations and benefits. The congregation pays the salary of the minister and submits to his authority. The minister teaches and edifies the congregation. For many Christians in seeker-sensitive churches, the covenant must appear broken. They have to give money and do what they’re told, but in return, they get simplistic “sermons for dummies” and expected to grow on their own. They just want someone to teach them the Word of God.

“Behold the days are coming, says he Lord, that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor of thirst, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11)

Three churches in my city were founded or co-founded by Christians who left my former seeker-sensitive church.  They all had better preaching and teaching. (That does not include those who left and went to existing churches.) Christians could go to church with the expectation that they might learn something from the sermon. To use another marketing analogy, if people, who used to support my business, stop supporting my business and support another instead, I would try to find out what I am doing wrong and what the other business is doing better.  How many Christians have to leave a seeker-sensitive church before it occurs to the leaders that they are doing something wrong?

On March 23, 2018 the Chicago Tribune published an article After years of inquires Willow Creek pastor denies misconduct allegations reported that Hybels had been accused of “inappropriate behaviour with women in his congregation – including employees-allegedly spanning decades … The alleged behaviour included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotels rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true.” Hybels had denied the allegations and the elders believed him.

In April 2018 Hybels resigned seven months before he had intended as a result of these allegations. (Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels resigns from Willow Creek after women allege misconduct) Christianity Today reported that more allegations of misconduct had  emerged (Willow Creek Promises Investigation Amid New Allegations Against Bull Hybels)

On August 5 2018 the New York Times published an article “He’s A Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly”  in which a woman said that during the 1980s there “were multiple occasions over nearly two years in which he fondled her breasts and rubbed against her. These incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex.” The two pastors, who had replaced Hybels, and all the elders subsequently resigned. (Willow Creek’s journey from defending pastor to accepting accusations unfolds slowly, ends in mass resignations)

On March 1, 2019, a Washington Times article “Misconduct allegations against Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels are credible, independent report finds” said that the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group had concluded that the allegations of “sexually inappropriate words and actions” by Hybels were credible, that Hybels had also verbally abused male staff members and that there had been reports of “inappropriate language, sexual innuendo, and lax use of alcohol among staff including Bill Hybels.”

“Lax use of alcohol?!” Are they talking about alcoholism? The ministers I know will not touch alcohol and they’re not even Baptists.

Bill Hybels’ conduct disqualified him from being a Christian leader (2 Timothy 3:1-3, Titus 1:5-16). He is not fit to be a Christian leader and he is not qualified to teach others on Christian leadership.

However, we did not need another Christian leader sex scandal to realize that there is something very wrong with the Willow Creek leadership model. The thousands of Christians who left seeker-sensitive churches should have been a clue.  We should not gloat over someone’s sins being exposed, we are all sinners, but Hybels set himself up as being better than “ordinary” Christians. He had a “God-anointed vision”. He could not be disagreed with. Hundreds of Christians leaders blindly followed him and thousands of people have been bullied out of their churches because of his teaching on leadership and vision.

I did not have much hope that a lot of leaders of seeker-sensitive churches would admit that they had made a terrible mistake in following Bill Hybels, repent and acknowledge all the hurt his ideas have caused for their churches.

Nevertheless, in the United States over 100 churches decided to no longer host the Global Leadership Summit. My old seeker-sensitive church still held the GLS that year. When someone wrote a negative review on the church Facebook page for their continuing to host the conference, the church responded by disabling the reviews function.

On the subject of Facebook, I found that at my old church the staff had a policy of unfriending people who leave. Once they leave the church, they are presumably no longer useful to fulfilling the vision and can be discarded. We left quietly and didn’t make a scene. They did not ask us why we left or whether we were alright, none of that seeking out the lost sheep pastoral care stuff. In fact, being unfriended on Facebook was the only sign that they had noticed we had left.

We got it better than some. In How the Church Growth Movement Drives the Gospel out of Churches Bob Dewey writes,

“I have heard from hundreds of people who were pushed out of their churches by the Purpose Driven program. Some of these stories reveal hard-hearted pastors who care more about advancing their careers than the wellbeing of the Lord’s flock. One example came from an old lady whose husband had such a bad heart that the doctors could not operate. He was at home waiting to die. She wrote a hand-written letter telling this story. Their pastor was trying to convert their church into a Purpose Driven one in order to facilitate church growth. They had been in the church for many years and wished it to remain a Bible church. They had expressed that opinion publicly. The pastor came to pay them a visit. the lady thought he was there to visit her dying husband, but instead came to tell them that they should find another church. He may as well have told them he did not care to perform the funeral.”

The underlying problem behind this tension between the leadership and the congregation is a flawed understanding of what the church is and who the church is for. The seeker-sensitive church movement wants unchurched people to feel safe and comfortable in church so they will stay and hear the Gospel. However, they make it so focused on the unchurched that the churched, the Christians in the church, are neglected and sacrificed. They even use the expression “churched for the unchurched”. One cannot have a churched for the unchurched any more than one can have a men’s group for women. Church is for believers. The Church is the Body of Christ, composed of Christians who have been baptised into the Body by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).

This does not mean there is anything wrong with having a non-threatening environment where non-Christians can come along and hear Christian messages. It is just not a church. It is an outreach program.

Back in 1993 Lee Strobel proposed the rather obvious solution to how to reach the unchurched and minister to the churched in his book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary which was co-published by Willow Creek. Do both. Strobel suggested that churches could hold two kinds of services, a traditional service for Christians to worship and be edified and a seeker-sensitive service for non-believers (Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1993, p 98, 180)

Many churches used to hold a worship service in the morning and a gospel service in the evening. However, these gospel services were not really the sort of thing you could a non-Christian to. They were not “seeker-sensitive”. They seemed suited to those from Christian backgrounds.

Seeker-sensitive churches have plenty of resources. They could hold a worship service for believers in the morning and a seeker-sensitive gospel service for the unchurched in the evening. A lot of the problems (not all) of the problems which the seeker-sensitive movement has produced would just disappear. The Christians could hear good sermons. The unchurched could hear gospel messages which they could understand. Everyone would be happy.

My old seeker-sensitive church used to hold two morning services, a traditional service for older Christians, followed by a seeker-sensitive service. Then, they combined them into one service and lots of people left. The seeker-sensitive church movement is often accused of pragmatism, going with what works, rather than what is Biblical. Sometimes, they are not even pragmatic and discard what works for what doesn’t.

Willow Creek realised they could not edify Christians and evangelize non-Christians in the same services. Instead of holding two kinds of services, as Strobel suggested, they focused on the unchurched and neglected the Christians, the ones church is supposed to be for (G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996, p 146-147)

Instead of showing some leadership and acting in the best interest of the congregation which they are supposed to shepherd, a lot of other seeker-sensitive church leaders just copied what Willow Creek did. A follower of Bill Hybels is not necessarily a leader. It feels like some leaders of Willow Creek clone churches would stand on their heads if Bill Hybels told them to, and the only reason they are not standing on their heads right now is because Hybels has not told them to. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

I admit the seeker-sensitive church approach sometimes works. I know of some cases of non-Christians getting involved with our old seeker-sensitive church, having their lives transformed by the Gospel and becoming growing Christians. I am not so sure about others. Our church held services in which people shared their stories or testimonies as we used to call them. They usually spoke about how their lives had become better since they started coming to church. However, in all these services, which I attended, I cannot recall any of them explaining how they understood they were a sinner and their only hope for forgiveness was what Jesus had done for them on the Cross (Romans 10:9). Sometimes, I could not tell from what they were saying if the church’s so-called success stories were actually saved. When they had finished speaking, I would think, “Is that it?”

Seeker-sensitive church leaders claim they received their vision from God. It is supposed to be what God wants for their church. If they are right, God wants churches full of people who cannot explain why they think they are Christians.

Jesus’ real vision for his church is expressed in Revelation when he says to the Laodicean church, which many students of Bible prophecy believe represents the modern evangelical church,

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked – I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in fire, that you may be rich, and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:15-19)

Seeker-sensitive churches may appear successful. They think they are rich, they draw crowds, but Jesus is not impressed. He wants us to repent, be forgiven, restored and revived. This is not going to happen while seeker-sensitive churches are reluctant to preach about the need for repentance because they think the crowd will be offended and leave. The vision of seeker-sensitive church leaders has little in common with Jesus’ vision for his Church, which suggests how little of their vision really comes from God.


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