Bill Hybels is a Man You Should Know

Week 21 of 52 Churches in 52 Weeks:

Unwavering at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois


“Some of you veteran Willow Creekers might recall that during the eight years that President Clinton was in office, I went to Washington DC nearly every single month…to meet privately with him. He asked me to be his spiritual adviser. This was at his request…
“Now I know what some of you are thinking…
“I didn’t do a very good job.”

With a tongue-in-cheek grin and a chorus of chuckles from the congregation, this was how Bill Hybels kicked off the start of a five-part series called Unwavering at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Bill Hybels is to Christian leadership what Luke Skywalker is to Star Wars spaceships.

Bill Hybels leading a sermon at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois on March 1, 2015. He served as a spiritual adviser to President Clinton from 1993–2001.

Inspired by a college lecturer who had Yoda-like wisdom, Hybels was a young man who dropped his humble business aspirations to seek an adventure of modernizing an Empire of “boring” churches. Applying the lessons bestowed in class, Hybels co-piloted a new generation of church-goers to form Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. The inaugural turn-out was 125 at the rented Willow Creek Theater (where it’s name originated). Between theatrical releases of Rocky and Star Wars, attendance flew to 2,000 in two years. Not since Han Solo was piloting the Millennium Falcon had the galaxies seen such a cosmic rise.

Combining modern music, dramatic skits and Christian-based messages, the church laid the groundwork for a New Republic of contemporary worship service that has revolutionized churches today. 40 years later after various expansions, Willow Creek Community Church continues to benchmark it’s services to a community that currently averages 24,000 per week. It ranks as the largest megachurch in the Midwest. May Christ be with you.

Throughout his four-decades in ministry, Hybels has penned approximately 50 books, served as chaplain for the Chicago Bears during the Super Bowl Shuffle heyday, and launched Willow Creek Association (WCA) to link 14,000 churches through leadership conferences. During a luncheon to discuss the spiritual condition of the country in 1992, his insights at a roundtable caught the ear of then-President Elect, Bill Clinton. During a private meeting, Clinton personally requested Hybels to serve as his behind-the-scenes spiritual adviser.

Just imagine being in Bill Hybels shoes. What would you say if you had the ear of the President of the United States and he looked to you to discuss his faith?

Willow Creek Community Church should have it’s own zipcode. That was my first thought as I drove through a landscape that was a sprawling panorama of white snow, brown brick and curvature architecture. The scenery resembled more of a corporate building than a church. At first, I was surprised at the lack of religious symbols to be found, neither inside nor out. After some thought, the church’s success was built on contemporary means to attract the average non-church-goer. It shouldn’t be surprising the building reflected the same framework.

March 1, 2015–11:15 am Sunday Worship Service: Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois

What do you think so far?”, a smiling lady asked less than a minute after I stepped through the doors. She introduced herself as Saray, and upon learning I was visiting during our chit-chat, she invited me for a close-up seat. She encouraged me to join her section for refreshments after the service before passing me off to a stand-by usher who guided me to a vacant seat near the front. It’s interesting. At the start of this journey, I had a poor misconception about the Walmartization of today’s megachurch. Now after 21 weeks, the best first impressions have actually been the megachurches I’ve come across.

The worship service was already in full swing inside the impressive three-tiered auditorium. From what I’ve read, the theater is double the size of the Oscar-hosting Dolby Theater. The front stage was wide-open, with neon light fixtures and hanging lightsaber-ish chandeliers. On each side of the stage were giant crystal clear LED screens that you’d expect to see at a Cubs game rather than a church service.

The Unwavering sermon series was prefaced with a trailer that had better production value than most Hollywood studios.

After his tongue-in-cheek joke, Hybels began Unwavering with how close he got to know several Senior Secret Service agents during the eight years he served the President. Despite the relationships he formed with them, not once did an agent waive him through. Every time he was asked for identification, patted down, and briefcase checked. The life of the President meant no exceptions.

Unwavering overhang in the entrance lobby of Willow Creek Community Church.

Hybels transitioned this precaution to Nehemiah, who served as sort-of-a Persian “Senior Secret Service agent” for King Artaxerxes in the 5th century BC. During those times, the easiest way to kill a king was to poison his food or drink (which was shocking to learn, as I always envisioned it required Gerald Butler 6-pack abs like in 300). Kings would select their most trusted advisor to taste-test food. What’s odd is the king passed over his own Persian people in favor of Nehemiah, who must have had a stellar track record if he was chosen as a Jew. One day, his brother arrived to tell Nehemiah that the holy city of Jerusalem had been burned to the ground. The news wrecked his heart.

Hybels mentioned his book Holy Discontent, with the core idea that whatever wrecks the heart of a Christ follower is what God uses to fire up someone to join the playing field and fix something broken in the world. He mentioned his favorite cartoon character was Popeye. Other than his forearms, he had an average physique with mild manners. But when someone would do Olive Oil harm, he would watch and wait until he would finally snap by saying:

“That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.”
Willow Creek features a Compassion & Justice ministry to fight poverty and injustice. U2's Bono has attended Willow Creek to advocate global aid.

Popeye would get up and “duly pulverize” the villain to save his girl. Hybels reflected that Nehemiah had a similar reaction to his frustration. Hybels related several stories where God tapped someone on the shoulder. His friend Bono from U2 fame was on a surfing trip in Ethopia when he saw unworldy poverty that caused him to snap and create philanthropic programs to fight global injustice. David saw Goliath mocking the Israelites, leading him to run like a madman and slay the giant. When Paul learned the apostles wanted to confine Christ’s message, he camel-tripped to different cities to spread the Word. Martin Luther King reached a boiling point for racial discrimination and led revolutions, a cause he felt so strongly about that led to his assassination. Candy Lightner was a California mom who saw two of her children get killed by drunk drivers, harnessing her frustration to create MADD to create new traffic laws against drunk driving. All these people were Unwavering in which their wrecked hearts were harnessed with a “firestorm of frustration to get off their couches and into the boxing ring to fight for something that should have been fixed a long time ago.

Hybels asked Willow Creek to identify your “Holy Disconent”, have a Popeye moment, since we were designed by God to find something that He wants us to do. Hybels then coached what Nehemiah did when he prepared himself, first fully reflecting on the pain, secondly praying with a clear-mind, and thirdly to obey God for our spiritual spinach strength.

But what Hybels did at the conclusion of his sermon was really where he set himself apart. He essentially challenged Willow Creek to stir up their hearts by identifying three different groups, then outlining the next steps to take action, rather than chew on his message and spit it out.

Reflecting on my day at Willow Creek, the thing that struck out about Hybels’ sermon was how intelligent and polished he made his message. It was relevant, relating modern stories with Biblical stories. What was most telling was how precisely Hybels identified the holy discontent that preceded the vision of the Nehemiahs, Davids, and MLKs. It made me wonder what was going through the mind of Hybels when he identified his own holy discontent and setting out to modernize several aspects within American Christianity as it is today.

As I identify my own holy discontent of seeing my millennial generation get jaded from today’s dated religious standards, I’m realizing that my writing (although gonzo at times) will require a commitment if I want to make a lasting change. In the past, I failed to get much from the arena of life because I didn’t want to identify a problem or be a risk-taker. I feared getting knocked down or being dropped to my knees. But what’s interesting is we’ll get dropped no matter what, whether it’s on the field or on the sidelines. Getting knocked down and getting back-up is a part of life. It teaches you how to keep going so you know how to hold your position.

I’m a Christian. I’m going to take some wrong steps. That’s okay. Doing this 52 Churches in 52 Weeks journey has required me to fall flat on my face at times, get criticized, and I often feel awkward, stupid, and dumb (happens a lot).

But my reasons drive me, they no longer cement my faith but rather stir it by creating something better from within. If I can inspire others to think more progressively about their faith for a worthy ideal. I may not be a spiritual adviser for the President, but maybe my writing can serve as a spiritual adviser for someone who’s looking for one.



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