“In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first.” Jimi Hendrix
In May, I read the following article from Religion News Services: Willow Creek announces major layoffs amid post-COVID struggle.
Willow Creek Community Church, a Chicago megachurch that was one of the largest and most highly regarded congregations in the nation, will lay off 30% of its staff due to post-COVID-19 declines in attendance and giving.
“Willow is about half of the size we were before COVID, which is right in line with churches across the country,” Dave Dummitt, Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor, told his congregation in a video announcing the cuts. “But as you can see, and as you can imagine, that has fiscal impactions.”
Was WCC a church following Jesus, or was it following something (or someone) else?
I contemplated the following “…(Willow Creek) was one of the largest and most highly regarded congregations in the nation.” The first thing I noted was the word “was.* Obviously, the alleged sex abuse, the abuse of power along with meticulous control by Hybels, changed things. Suddenly, the respect for the church went from “is” to “was” almost overnight.
Then the word “respect” and “large” were used in the same sentence. Being large, having lots of programs, mega attendance at gazillion worship and training services, and an annual star-studded “Global Leadership Summit” led to a supposed national “respect” for the church. And how in the world is “national respect” measured and how does the guy living in Bangor, Maine, know enough to “respect” WCC?
But, folks, the church, and its programs were rotten to the core because WCC’s celebrity pastor was a debauched (IMO) leader with no apparent sense of what constituted a follower of Jesus Christ. Hybels had this glorious idea of learning how to lead the flock by applying standards from the business world. How Willow Creek Is Leading Evangelicals by Learning From the Business World. Who in the world was Hybels choosing for role models? Bernie Madoff? Was this because he didn’t think much about the servant leadership of the humble rabbi from Nazareth? Jesus wasn’t running multinational cooperation that oozed success. He wasn’t the guy who had a vision for Tesla and the conquest of the Red Planet. Musk-now that’s a guy we should emulate. He gets things done. But has anyone checked out his personal life? Don’t get me wrong. I think Musk is a genius, but Musk is not Jesus, and he isn’t building the church.
Did Hybels and his leaders understand what or Who they were serving? I bet you can guess what I’d say. I bet even Elon Muck could answer that question.
Was Hybels emphasizing the people of the leadership?
The RNS article handily answered that.
Before the layoffs, staff costs made up about 72% of the church budget, according to an update released by the church earlier this month. The layoffs will save $6.5 million, bringing staff costs closer to half of the current budget.
IMO, this enterprise was focused on the leaders. What about the members whose money paid for this behemoth? I spoke with several people during the implosion. They called me, looking for someone to listen to them. One lady told me how she was chosen to help with transportation. Can you imagine trying to move all those people to and from the massive parking lot? It was a nightmare, yet she enjoyed helping. Until one day, she was relieved of her duties with no explanation whatsoever. The more she tried to get an answer to her questions, the more she was isolated. She never learned what she did wrong, although she tried. I suggested that maybe she didn’t do anything wrong. Perhaps someone changed up the dynamics and thought someone else should do it. Of course, they didn’t tell her what had happened. This was a vast enterprise, and the system was what was important. No one had time to speak with a brokenhearted woman who faithfully served. They didn’t have time. She was slowing down the important “stuff” that had to be accomplished.
WCC now, as well as under Hybels, plans to change the world.
From the RNS post, we learned that WCC has a new motto.
Last fall, the church announced plans to rally around a theme: Love God, Love People, Change the World.
I believe they used to spend more time loving the leaders than the people. I hope that’s changed. Hybels had this plan to present the Bible pleasantly, nonthreateningly. It didn’t work out so well. In 2007, the Gospel Drive Blog posted Bill Hybels: “We made a mistake.”
“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
…The article concludes with Greg Hawkins, the Executive Pastor stating,
“Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.”
Notice how quickly the emphasis went from teaching folks how to read their Bible to transforming the planet. Hybels had a nice idea, but he went straight on back to changing the whole wide world. And, may I say, he didn’t.
Is it God’s purpose for each of us to change the world?
If you were to tour all the little startup churches that rent storefronts, you would find the following motto oft-repeated on their signage or website. “Changing people and changing the world.” I get exhausted just thinking about it. Many of these churches fail. I live in the shadow of SEBTS, and Raleigh is a pretty nice area in which to settle. Lots of trees, nice weather, and close to mountains and ocean. Many seminary students might choose this area in which to settle and from which to change the world. But JD Greear already got the corner on the Baptist market.
I like my church. It has a disaster response team to help folks in areas hard hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. There is a group of people who faithfully pick up trash on a designated street. It has a clothes closet, distributes food, and makes lunches for kids out of school. It has a preschool (it’s excellent from what I hear) and has kids make valentines for those in nursing homes. My church isn’t “changing the world” but is making a difference in a non-flashy way to some in our community and areas devastated by weather, etc. People are nice to one another. Everyone seems to enjoy the “Let’s greet one another” and “Let’s share the peace with one another.” Sometimes it’s hard to get people to stop shaking hands. The pastors are so gosh darn nice and seem to learn names so quickly. That is not one of my skills. I forget names all too easily, no matter how hard I try.
We are helping some in our community and some elsewhere in the world. We change a part of the world in a small way. In the meantime, we know Who we serve. We remember what we are about as we say the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed each week. We listen to three readings from Scripture each Sunday, which rarely happened in my Baptist church. We confess our sins and remember that we are sinners and forgiven. We have a sermon that is relevant to the Scriptures we read. And we share in Communion and music.
My goals are to love the Lord with all my heart and my neighbor as myself. I hope to leave grace behind with those I meet along the way. Maybe, I can lend my voice to the abused and help to bring light to some dark corners of the church.I believe I will go home helping in some small ways. But I will not have “changed the world.” I leave that to God.
So, do you think every little church is tasked with “Changing the world,” or is that a meaningless meme?