Faith in Focus

Proclaiming the Good News at Willow Creek

The preaching of the cross is the way of salvation. Paul puts it like this to the Corinthians, "For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Cor. 1:18)

Whenever something new happens in the Church concerning this message of the cross, we naturally are interested. One of the reasons for our interest is that we long to see God moving powerfully in the hearts of men with His gospel. Another reason is our awareness that we need to watch for distortions of the gospel that can undermine the truth and lead people astray.

This is why Biblical Christians have consistently attacked Arminianism and a variety of other 'isms' down through the ages.

But initially when we think of Pastor Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek phenomenon in the United States, we think of the way the gospel is being presented in a new format. On Sundays 17,000 people gather there to attend a "seeker friendly service." To be seeker friendly means to provide an environment that the seeker of spiritual truth will be comfortable with. The elements are a simple chorus, a soloist or choir sing either pop, country, rock, jazz or classical styles - something the seeker is familiar with. Then there is a "Scripture" time. But this is not just the reading of Scripture. The presenter weaves a verse of Scripture into a brief introduction to the problem of the day and tries to show the relevance of the Bible to the problem. Next comes a drama segment that also deals with the subject of the service. This is followed by an offering and announcements. It is explained that the offering is only for regular attendees and not for visitors. Next, the main speaker will speak to the gathered congregation. His aim is not to preach but to talk in a conversational way. This is why there is no pulpit at Willow Creek. The aim of the talk is to show the relevance of Christianity. Humour is a big element as well as stories and illustrations (many of them personal). Hybels' messages are topical and not textual or expository. And they are always aimed at showing how Christianity can make people feel fulfilled. This is the basic order of the seeker service. Obviously the Regulative Principle of Worship, accepted by the Reformed Tradition is not an issue for Willow Creek, but, that aside, how should we interpret this phenomenon?

Willow Creek under the spotlight

Dr G.A. Pritchard studied the Willow Creek phenomenon over a twelve month period and evaluated in considerable detail the messages and the medium. The result is his book 'Willow Creek Seeker Services, evaluating a new way of doing church.' Pritchard, who 'critically accepts' the Willow Creek model and believes we can learn from what is happening there, nevertheless concludes that the gospel message has been severely distorted.

In chapter 13 of his book he shows that the gospel taught at Willow Creek does contain the elements of God's love, His holiness and man's sin. These elements are taught in their impact seminars and also at the weekend services. But as Pritchard goes on to show this is not the whole story. He tries to show that the orthodox elements of the gospel are obscured by other factors.

Different influences

What makes this new way of doing church important for us to evaluate and to understand, is that the way the message is conveyed actually distorts the message of the gospel. Hybels' own theology is Arminian - his theological mentor is Dr Gilbert Bilezikian , the author of one of the Willow Creek key books, Christianity 101. Bilezikian (who calls himself a one and a half point Calvinist ) was very influential in Hybels' theological development. An equally important figure was Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral - a man whose message is very much shaped by contemporary psychological categories. He will not, for example, speak of man being a sinner. Willow Creek officials try to hide the importance of this latter influence because Schuller is so obviously persona non grata in the evangelical world. Schuller's method was to entertain, give inspirational talks addressing people's felt needs and giving a pleasurable and relaxing environment in which to gather. Schuller freely admits that the vehicle affects the message. His advice is "Don't even try to preach the Bible in expository sermons, if the crowd of people you've got would be turned off by all of that. You have got to win them and build relationships with them."

And so we see Schuller redefining theology to reach his congregation who get turned off by the Bible. His definition of sin? "Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem."

Hybels, armed with a somewhat radical Arminianism which did not accept total depravity and the methodology of Robert Schuller, set about to build a church.

In the early days of Willow Creek, Hybels adopted Schuller's de-emphasis of anything perceived as negative by the unchurched. Later he tried to change to a more orthodox gospel. But the question is, "Was he successful in this?" The answer has to be no, because inevitably the vehicle, the seeker friendly service, has built into it certain necessary boundaries that once crossed, will destroy its "friendliness."

A needs based approach

It seems that a needs' based approach to preaching the gospel will emphasise the love of God at the expense of the holiness of God. It will emphasise the grace of God at the expense of an understanding of the holiness of God. And this is what Pritchard discovered in his careful analysis. The stress on the immanent God of love overwhelms the truth of God's transcendence and Holiness. If either of these characteristics of God is stressed at the expense of the other inevitably you end up with a distorted 'gospel.' The good news becomes bad news, because it is no longer the truth. And this is what has happened in the Willow Creek seeker services.

One sociologist, Robert Wuthrow speaking of contemporary America generally, expresses what is happening in this way, "God has, in a sense, become 'subjectivized' rather than existing as a metaphysical transcendent or omnipotent being….God is relevant to contemporary Americans mainly because the sense of God's presence is subjectively comforting; that is, religion solves personal problems rather than addressing broader questions."

God's anger against sin mocked

In the messages analysed by Pritchard only 7% dealt with God's holiness while 70% dealt with God's love. And when God's holiness was dealt with, it was often dealt with in such a way to show how God's holiness could benefit people. Hybels does not regularly teach God's moral law in his weekend services, although he does sometimes. But without a regular emphasis on the law of God, we would expect to see certain results in a church community who lack an appreciation and understanding of the law of God. Pritchard gives an illustration of the lack of appreciation of the seriousness of man's disobedience to the moral law. At an Impact Evangelism training seminar, Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon 'Sinners in the hands of an angry God' was the subject of a joke. Edwards' view of God's anger against sin was considered humorous.

If this is the attitude to God's holiness and wrath we are not surprised to read of the statistics produced by Willow Creek's own survey of its members. Hybels broke the news to the church. In the previous six months 33% of the congregation had lied, 18% stolen, 12.5% committed adultery and 27% of the men had viewed pornography. Instead of rebuking the congregation, Hybels complemented them, " Put out your chest a little bit - we are acknowledging our unrighteousness and we are exposing it to grace and truth. And we are banding together learning how the Holy spirit can help us walk a little differently next week and next month and next year."

But as Pritchard goes on to show, the audience had not repented or confessed their sin, they had just filled out a survey form noting that they had done all these things. The following week Hybels revealed that large numbers of singles had admitted having illicit sexual relationships in the previous six months. There were 25% of singles, 38% of single parents and 41% of divorced individuals in this category. Again Hybels' response was to emphasise God's love and not His dismay at such sin. "We are a love starved people, with broken parts that need the kind of repair that only he can give long-term. We need to bring our brokenness out into the light of his grace and truth."

We must conclude from this that in spite of the sin word and the holy word being used, the failure to cogently stress God's holiness and His law has had a disastrous effect upon the Willow Creekers - and these were overwhelmingly members and long term attendees who claimed to be believers. Clearly Jesus is not Lord in such lives.


Another reason for this negative evaluation is that Willow Creek buys into modern psychology. We would expect this of a needs' centred 'gospel message.' Jesus Himself is characterized by contemporary psychological categories and made to look like a Rogerian counsellor. Hybels describes Jesus like this, "Jesus by all indications, was a picture of emotional and relational and psychological health…His relationships were strong and secure. He was steady in adversity, calm in a crisis. He showed absolutely no propensity for any kind of erratic or psychotic behaviour… There was no basis on which to assess Jesus as being anything less than a healthy, whole, integrated person deserving respect and even admiration." God the Father is also a 'helpful therapist.' "I can almost hear God saying, 'I'm rooting for your wholeness, for your growth for your health -I really am.'"

Hybels' preaching is full of psychological buzz words. Their book shop majors in self-help psychology books and the people attend therapy in their droves. In a single year of Pritchard's study, 1,000 people attended the Willow Creek counselling centre where most schools of psychology are represented. Two thirds of those were referred on to other (often non-Christian) counselling centres. Even 50% of the Willow Creek staff receive ongoing therapy. But what is wrong with this? Perhaps psychology is neutral or harmless. But the point is that psychology influences ethics. We have noticed the lack of emphasis on the law of God and the real problems of serious sin that seem endemic across the whole church. When man seeks to understand who he is and what is required of him to be a complete person, the Bible teaches that we are to look to God and His revelation. But Willow Creek teaches that we are to look to psychology. Pritchard explains that, " when someone starts using psychological categories as basic elements of self-perception, he or she has also accepted a psychological ethic."

What does this mean? It means that instead of having right and wrong informed by the will of God, morality is defined by psychological categories and terms. Instead of seeking to become sanctified in a biblical sense, the Christian who adopts the world view of psychology will seek to conform to that psychological theory's perception of right and wrong. So the desire will be to become less 'co-dependent', for example.

Pritchard gives an example of one `Willow Creeker' who had read a pop-psychology book that listed 5 needs that spouses had in marriage. "He then explained, 'I meet all five of Susie's needs, but she doesn't meet any of mine.' He told me how he was tempted to have an affair with his secretary as a result. Starting with the category of his 'needs,' he had a weak moral framework to resist his temptation."

Psychology has a direct impact on the official church policy on divorce, as we would expect. Hybels has said that hundreds of marriages have broken up over the years at Willow Creek. Pritchard says that another psychological category, 'detachment,' is used as a "justification for why individuals at Willow Creek separated from and divorced their spouses. In fact, Willow Creek's official divorce policy allows individuals to divorce their spouses if 'their spouse is unwilling to be a viable marriage partner.'"


The impact of a needs' based 'gospel' on ethics is tragic in this seeker service environment. But just to reiterate what I said above, the gospel itself is profoundly affected by the desire to embrace the contemporary American pagan culture in the way Hybels does.

In a recent interview in the Challenge Weekly, Hybels' blurb on a cover of one of his senior co-pastor's books was quoted. This shows that his theology is very wide of the mark indeed. He writes, "Lee Strobel is a modern-day miracle. His life, like the apostle Paul's, is a tall trophy of God's grace…and no one is quicker to set the record straight on that point than Lee himself. Lee was the kind of man that the safe, self-absorbed traditional church rails against. Competitive, profane, witty, opportunistic and thoroughly pagan, Lee was the type of person that many pastors warn their sheep to steer clear of if they want to keep their wool white. But Lee, like so many others in our world, had a softness under that protective veneer that made him a wonderful candidate for conversion. He treasures his wife and children; he is a hopelessly curious person; and, most important, he is a sucker for the truth. Watching Lee come to faith in Christ and seeing the transformation of his values, relationships and ambitions has been one of the most remarkable acts of God I have ever witnessed."

He begins by attributing Strobel's conversion to grace, but he then goes on to talk about positive qualities that were in the still unconverted Strobel that made him a "wonderful candidate for conversion." I don't think it is saying too much to say that this reads very much like Pelagianism. The idea of total depravity seems to be absent.

Strobel himself has written material that highlights his distorted 'gospel.' David Hegg, analyses Strobel's views in an article titled the 'Modern Marketing of the Gospel' in a recent 'Reformation and Revival Journal.' In His book 'What would Jesus say?,' Strobel asks the question of a number of well known contemporaries. In these studies, Hegg concludes that Strobel "fundamentally misrepresents the nature of man, the nature of sin, the person of Christ and the nature of salvation." These are very serious charges indeed. But Hegg substantiates them.

Using the example of Madonna (yes the pop star), Strobel teaches that Madonna's outrageous behaviour stems from her wrong view of God, which itself stemmed from the inaccurate and distorted teaching that she got as a child. Madonna's problem is only a lack of knowledge and upbringing and not the radical cancer of sin. God can show Madonna that he does not desire her to feel shame. Instead He wants to help poor Madonna "to constructively face up to your wrongdoing so He can completely forgive you and remove the acid of guilt that can eat away your life." Presumably this constructive facing up will involve therapy. Madonna's problem, Strobel says, is that she is trying to prove she is somebody. But Strobel concludes, "To Jesus, she is already somebody. Like the loving father of the prodigal son. Jesus is frantically scanning the horizon watching for Madonna to return to Him. He is absolutely convinced that she's so valuable that she is worth dying for - and that is what He did for her on the cross." Apart from a wrong view of the extent of the atonement, Strobel gives an appalling view of the Madonna's real condition and God's solution. Our salvation is possible, not because of any intrinsic value in us, but because of the love of God for unworthy sinners. God is still saying to Madonna, as far as Strobel is concerned, "I'll heal whatever's driving you to affirm your self-worth in self-defeating ways. But I can only help you if you let me." Schuller's theology is still alive and well in Willow Creek. Madonna's real problem is one of a lack of self-esteem after all.

Hybels is sincere

There is no doubt that Hybels wants to see people come to Christ. But the self-confessed pragmatism of Pastor Hybels is the Achilles' heel that prevents this happening. The weekday service is meant to involve more solid teaching, but this too is doubtful. And in any event a full two thirds of the congregation settle for the weekend seeker services.

A lesson

What is the lesson for New Zealand? Bill Hybels has recently completed a tour of New Zealand with many flocking to hear this guru of the modern marketing of the gospel. If churches follow his model, they will end up without the gospel or with a very distorted one indeed. And it may be that many who think they are committed to Christ are still unsaved. One of Hybels' staff made this comment to Pritchard, "I don't think Bill [Hybels] really understands that there are as many unsaved people -who think they're saved- around here as there are…"

Darrel Schultz, who was formerly pastor of another seeker sensitive church, gave his impression of the such an approach to doing church. "For the preacher who wants to be seeker sensitive, the list of potential topics goes up and list of usable Bible passages goes down. It is more than likely that many of the areas a church needs to hear about (for example….. sin, repentance, and God's judgement) will fall victim to the preacher's inner censorship board which evaluates all seeker-service events on the criterion of sensitivity to non-churched Harry."

Do we really need this in New Zealand? I think not. God will only convert people through the preaching of the cross, which is foolishness to the non-churched Harry until he is regenerated by the Sovereign God. Our task is to proclaim it clearly and forcefully with the full authority of the Word of God and to include all the elements of the biblical Gospel in their proper balance. If we are not doing this, God cannot and will not use us. But let's be doing that and not keeping the truth enclosed in the walls of our churches. May God use us to that end.

(All quotations from the sources cited.)


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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised June 97 / Copyright 1997