President Clinton slid to the edge of his chair and clasped his hands together. “Polls can be tricky,” he said, an eager glint in his eye. Finally, the other Bill—the Rev. Bill Hybels—had stopped asking those “tough” questions about Clinton’s “current spiritual condition” and addressed the real reason for the interview: leadership skills.
This, of course, was the media-touted “confession” by President Clinton at the Willow Creek Community Church Leadership Summit, the week before the Democratic National Convention. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community (mega-)Church in Harrington, Illinois, asked the President to submit to a “no-holds-barred” interview on techniques of effective leadership. Since 1992, Hybels has flown regularly to Washington to act as the President’s “spiritual advisor.”
Clinton’s “confession”—in reality, nothing more than an attempt to grant political absolution to Al Gore for his passivity during the Lewinsky scandal-was the icing on the matzo cake of Joe “tough on Clinton” Lieberman. The local press focused on protests by pro-life evangelicals who were stunned that Bill Hybels had invited the man who vetoed the ban on partial-birth abortion to speak to a crowd of 4,500 pastors (and a satellite audience of 11,000) on how to lead their flocks. Hybels claimed that he “received a fax last night indicating unapologetic, intense hatred for the President, and it was signed, ‘Reverend.’ When I read that, the unashamed admission that he was carrying hate in his heart, the thought came to my mind, ‘When did Jesus change the hate rule? Did this guy get an addendum to his Bible that I missed?'” In the world of Willow Creek, leadership is more about style than substance.
“I don’t use polls to decide what mv conviction is,” said the President, “but rather, how I can convince you that what I already believe is right.” Got that? Clinton is not concerned about making an argument; he is talking about manipulation, spin, or “packaging” (as it is called at Willow Creek). You might think that this sort of duplicity would be offensive to Christians—another example of Clinton’s inability to tell the truth. On the contrary, it endeared him to the crowd of Willow Creek disciples because they realized—some, perhaps for the first time—that his style is a reflection of their own. In fact, Clinton seemed to intimate that he learned this approach from none other than Bill Hybels.
Some 25,000 “visitors” pass through the doors of Willow Creek Community Church every weekend. This “success” is the result of years of “programming,” all of which began with . . . a poll. Hybels, a seminary dropout, started a youth ministry at the local Willow Creek Theater in 1972. He was convinced that typical church youth groups were not successful because they lacked “excellence”: rock ‘n’ roll and high-tech theatrics. After a few years of moderate success with a weekly show, new challenges arose: The core teenagers were becoming adults. Hybels and his colleagues, eager to convert their rollicking youth ministry into a church for young adults, decided to poll the residents of the affluent Chicago suburb of South Barrington about why baby boomers don’t go to church.
The poll showed that boomers don’t want to be asked to contribute money; they want to remain anonymous; they don’t like “irrelevant” sermons; they like rock ‘n’ roll, not pipe organs and choirs. Thus, Willow Creek was born. Today, at their sprawling, $100-million campus, they have “seeker services” on weekends designed to “package” the Gospel based on poll results. There is no sanctuary at Willow Creek—only a large modern theater with professionally designed sets for the weekly dramas (mini-plays with tides such as “What Would Jesus Say to Madonna,” “Sex, Money, and Power,” and “The God You’re Looking For”). A band jams on popular Christian rock songs and Top 40 tunes that are vague enough to fit the day’s theme. (I once heard “Cat’s In the Cradle” and “In the Living Years” on the same occasion.) Hybels paces back and forth across the stage behind a large glass podium, often delivering his sermon in khakis and a polo shirt.
The seeker service is designed to get you in the door. Then, you can be introduced to the cultural life of Willow Creek—the food court, the health-and-fitness center, the singles groups, and the “New Community.” The “New Community” is the “real” church service for “fully devoted followers.” There, you will be expected to sing (though still with a rock band), and the sermons are slightly less “relevant.”
This may sound like a weird cult that meets just 50 miles from The Rockford Institute. But the Willow Creek vision has moved beyond the plexiglass walls of the theater and now seeks religious hegemony through the trans-denominational Willow Creek Association. Pay $249 per year, and Hybels will help you transform your dying Methodist, Baptist, or Evangelical Free Church into a Willow Creek clone. There are now over 2,000 churches in the Willow Creek Association, and many evangelical seminaries offer credit for attending leadership seminars at Willow Creek.
“I met Bill Hybels at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock when I was president-elect,” boasted Clinton. “I was impressed with the way Willow Creek got started, and I applaud the work Willow Creek is doing to revitalize churches across America.” Since becoming President, Clinton said, “I have learned a lot about what I do by watching what [Hybels] does.” Indeed.
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