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My Visit to Willow Creek: I Gargled but Didn’t Swallow!

Published Oct 9, 2005
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People were walking toward the impressive auditorium from every direction. I got the impression of a crowd going to a sporting event. Everyone was dressed as if they were. Out of thousands of people I saw one man wearing a suit; most people were in shorts so I saw lots of leg. It was a very causal event. I did see five or six women carrying what seemed to be Bibles, although surely not a KJV! But then I’m making an unsupported judgment.

Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL is having an incredible impact on “evangelical” churches as thousands of copycat congregations have been organized in recent years and many others have revamped their traditional services with a motive to replicate their success. Bill Hybels, the senior pastor is more of a CEO than pastor. He was one of Bill Clinton’s counselors and defenders! He had Clinton in his church for a “no holds barred” interview in front of thousands of pastors on August 10, 2000, but Hybels only threw him “soft balls.” He did not ask about the many other allegations of sexual sins, even rape, by Clinton nor did he bring up the massacre at Waco. Zero, zilch. Yet it was a “no-holds barred” interview! Hybels told the crowd, he thought Clinton’s confession in September 1998 was “an honest one, but that he never got credit from the American public for admitting his mistake.” Hybels told the pastors that the president’s “confession” and “apology” was worthy of King David himself who committed adultery and murder! Clinton, he said, gave one of the most contrite and complete confessions he said he had ever seen! Astounding!

And to compare Clinton’s confession with that of King David is close to blasphemy. Hear David in Psalms 51 as his body shakes with weeping contrition, head bowed as he cries: “Have mercy upon me, O God….Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin….Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in they sight….Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow….Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” Worthy of King David, indeed! That interview is one of the most despicable things a preacher has ever done!

You might think Hybels would learn from his Clinton fiasco but he is a slow learner. On October 2, 2001, Hybels invited a local Muslim leader, Faisal Hammouda, to speak about Islam to his congregation, no, that is his “audience.” “Congregation” is not seeker-friendly.  Hammouda was provided this huge forum to spread lies about his false and dangerous religion. The Muslim leader said, “We believe in Jesus more than you do, in fact.” Did Bill point out that the Jesus they believe in is not God nor did He die on the cross and rise from the dead? No, that would be confrontational! Hybels has forgotten that he is to preach the gospel to false religions, not dialogue with them. He would do well to follow the example of the Apostle Paul  who boldly preached  against false gods at Mars Hill and proclaimed God’s command that all men everywhere repent of sin and by faith rely on the finished redemptive work of Christ at Calvary. Hybels is another example of a weak, wimpy, worldly preacher who should be elected President of the League of the Willfully Blind.

As I entered the Willow Creek Church that Sunday morning, I was looking for inspiration, information, and instruction. I got some information, and one out of three isn’t bad.  To be honest, there were some positive things that impressed me. Numerous men helped with the massive job of getting everyone parked, and a huge number of people greeted us in a very friendly manner. They seemed to be very pleased that we were there. Many  Baptist pastors should take note!

The building was very impressive, comfortable, and “user friendly.” The sound system was excellent (not purchased at a local discount store) and had plenty of volume.  The service (concert) started on time with very loud music performed by a well-known Latin band. They were not well known to me but then I haven’t known much about bands since the days of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.  So what do I know?  Anyway, I was assured that they were famous having played for Billy Graham and Promise Keepers. Since I’m not a music expert, I can’t say they were “good,” but I can say they were loud, very loud. And raucous. The young, talented, handsome leader seemed to be convinced that he was young, talented, and handsome, but then I am making a judgment. I don’t know their hearts but I do know that they convinced me that they were aping the world in dress, music, attitude, etc.

The band did seven or eight numbers and I realized that I could never again say, “I have never been to a rock concert.” I was informed that what I heard was not rock music, but I repeat, what do I know? It sure sounded like rock. I will say that I really need to apologize to Elvis Presley. At least he did his thing in concert halls, not in church. (Although he started singing in church.) I finally realized that I was in “church” when the offering was taken and someone prayed mentioning the name of Christ.  This took place one hour into the “service.” To their credit, the offering was “soft sell,” not “hard sell” as in many fundamentalist churches.

During the “song service” they sang a chorus repeating more than 40 times, “You are good, all the time.”

There was a lot of movement during the “music.” A young lady four rows in front of us, was almost always the first one to shoot straight up in her seat throwing her arms into the air, rotating her hips as she snapped her fingers. Of course, the herd mentality took over and soon most of the congregation was standing except for my wife and me and a few others. It was obvious that rather than the church taking the Gospel message into the world, ambitious pastors have brought the world into the church.

While the preacher did not say anything offensive, he never mentioned sin, repentance, judgment, conversion, regeneration, Calvary, the blood, the New Birth, the cross, confession, etc. He gave a nice, little talk that might have stirred some interest in someone who had some knowledge of Biblical things. And of course, there was no invitation to make a decision for Christ.

I did note that every piece of literature was of superb quality, not done on a mimeograph machine! (Is there any church out there that still uses a mimeograph machine?) I discovered that I had the option of playing softball, going to the movies, or to a dance, attend a weight loss class, go rock climbing, go to a class for my “healing,” help clean the building, help paint the new building, work on their ground crew, help and cut pizza after the service, help in the kitchen with baking needs, learn to help those with marriage problems, coach basketball, football, and volleyball teams, attend divorce recovery groups, donate tomatoes and zucchini to their church pantry, help in finding a new job, attend a class on how to manage money, attend a seniors’ outing, attend an Alzheimer’s support group, learn how to lead seekers to Christ, or help fill students’ backpacks for kids in “under-resourced areas,” (or low income areas).  That means poor areas but we don’t call them that since that would stigmatize them. Not good for self-esteem. 

So what lessons did I learn from gargling at Willow Creek? The church is known, as are others, to be seeker friendly. “Seeker” is a euphemism for “sinner” but we don’t call them sinners because it might tend to offend them. However, the Bible teaches Christians to be the seekers since lost, unregenerate men will not seek God.  What did Paul mean when he told the Romans in 3:11 “There is none that seeketh after God.” Men are searching but they don’t know for what! While sinners have often been saved in church services, does the New Testament teach evangelism as the main motive for having church? (Eph. 4:12, II Tim. 2:2, Acts 20:28.) Maybe if our churches were really in the business of making disciples of Christians, then those Christians would be making more converts.

Whether Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, or one of their clones, all have made their services man-centered rather than Christ-centered and therein is the major problem. How can sinful man be comfortable in a Christ-centered church? He can’t, so church leaders often eliminate the cross, the old hymns, the blood, repentance, judgment, hell, and any pressure to conform to Godly living. The “seeker” feels more secure, less threatened, unintimidated, comfortable, etc. However, those leaders have cut themselves from their Scriptural moorings and are adrift on a wild sea and shipwreck is ahead.

Christians come to church where they hear from God and continue in the daily process of being conformed to the image of Christ. They learn self-control as they submit to Spirit-control and they consistently, constantly get closer to spiritual maturity. It is usually a long process. They are encouraged to daily kill the desires of the flesh (Col. 3:5) or as Lester Roloff used to say, “I jump into the grave every morning.” (Or something similar to that.) Such teaching is not quickly accepted by lost people or shallow “touchy feely” Christians. And “it just won’t work today.”

The lost man is a rebel from God. He naturally moves away from anything Biblical, so ambitious pastors have revamped Christian church services to make lost rebels feel comfortable. A boyhood friend of mine now serving in Wisconsin, Pastor Brad Canterbury, wrote: “The rebel against God cannot be comfortable in a God-centered atmosphere, so we will have to create a man-centered environment, indeed one that is tuned to the sensitivities of the unregenerate man. And when we have done that, we have departed from a biblical philosophy of ministry.” Right on target!

What incredible arrogance for pastors to remake a church service according to human model rather than the New Testament! But pastors read the numbers and saw the graphs go off the page—downward! Something had to be done. It is interesting that out of 325,000 “Protestant” churches in the U.S. about 7,000 are closing every year! Only 4,000 are being started. The average “Protestant” church has 100 adult members, and in 1780, the average “Protestant” church had 75 adult members. That is a long-time trend that will not change. Likewise, church income is down from $120,000 per year to $105,000 according to Barna.  Many pastors discovering that their churches had stopped growing and were losing members (and income) made desperate trips to Willow Creek, Camelback, and Schuller’s California Glass House. They returned home with grandiose plans to replicate what they had seen rather than taking home some good ideas and discarding the silly, worldly ideas. In other words, they didn’t eat the fish and throw away the bones. They ate the whole thing: flesh, bones, head, and entrails! No wonder many pastors are sickly!

Pastors who have drunk deep and long from the waters of Willow Creek have drunk a poison potion that has destroyed many historic Baptist churches turning them into interdenominational worship centers. The gullible pastors chased out godly members who sacrificed time, talent, and energy to establish those churches, and those churches are now standing in the vestibule of God’s impending judgment. Only about 10% of the members of megachurches are new “converts” while the rest have been pulled from existing churches, many from Bible-preaching churches. Can we assume that most of those people have major personal problems either in their doctrine or their personal lives? What drives so many people from Bible-preaching churches anyway?

Let me suggest some reasons people are looking for greener pastures: some honestly disagree with a particular doctrine being taught at their church so they go to a megachurch where no doctrine is taught! Others are offended by a dictatorial pastor who feels no accountability to the members. Others don’t like major decisions being made without their input yet they are pressured to buy bonds or give in response to a fund-raising appeal. Some don’t like to be yelled at for an hour each service especially when the preacher doesn’t really say anything. Too many preachers seem to think that volume is a good substitute for content. Others find it offensive that there is more politics in the pulpit than Bible preaching. Others want to hear the Bible expounded and explained verse by verse rather than hear topical sermons in every service. There are others who are weary of the guilt trip if they don’t participate in every church activity that is announced. While many pastors preach family values, they demand partici-pation so frequently the family doesn’t have much time for family.

Others are frustrated when they see little or no demonstration of real Christianity in the lives of fellow members especially when difficult times come as they do to everyone sooner or later. They have heard that Christ is sufficient for every need yet discover that He does not seem to be sufficient down where the rubber meets the road.

Still others have observed that Bible-preaching churches are often not Bible-practicing churches. Very few churches obey the command to care for orphans, widows, and others who need support, succor, and sometimes sustenance. Frankly, most Bible-believing Christians are so selfish (they would say, “busy”) they can’t take time and energy to really care about hurting people sitting on their church pew. So off to a megachurch where they can get lost in the crowd and can “worship” without the pressure and problems of the average fundamental Baptist church!

Yes, I waded into Willow Creek and I gargled, but I didn’t swallow. I didn’t even sip. 

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1 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Samuel H Kennedy
Nov 13, 2017 5:43am [ 1 ]

I wrote you a mail on this phenomenon attributed by Willow Creek right here in South Africa and it has gained traction, like you cannot fathom. Seeker friendly, don’t talk about sin; or hell or repentance, No Bible…just a few quotes! Make people feel good. Church services are entertainment. Some fplk smoke right at the church doorstep and the pastor says don’t write me emails about people smoking on the premises. Unbelievable!!The senior Pastors and executive/s have just been exposed for earning R1m+ each per annum while a fair number of the flock battle to make ends meet.Unbelievable,….but it’s happening!!

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