Wednesday, June 11, 2008

planet willow

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking at Willow Creek this past weekend. It was their “ministry fair” weekend where they hope to get people plugged into serving opportunities. They asked me to speak on servanthood. That’s like crack to my soul. They even used The Outward Focused Life book cover for their program.

I think the talk went well. People seemed really engaged…and they laughed a lot. Bill Hybels seemed particularly pleased. I took a couple of videos: the $1 Car Wash and The Good Sam Run footwashing. Both were hits.

For what it’s worth, here are my quick observations as an outsider.

First, the obvious: this is an extremely focused church…in everything they do. Bill Hybels and team have created an environment that has a high regard for excellence. But it’s not excellence for excellence sake, like some cranky perfectionist. They clearly are not about putting on a good show for the “church”; it’s to shake the preconceptions that not-yet-believers often have of Christianity and Christians. They’ve been at it for twenty-eight years and have never moved off their core mission of “turning irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus” and a key component to that has been the way they use the weekend service. What a great credit to your organization to stay true to your mission over several decades. I love intentional and missional churches.

Second, they are way unappreciated for what they do for the under-resourced with both charity and systemic justice stands. A lot goes on behind the scenes; it’s easy to take potshots about brick-and-mortar and make assumptions, but Willow doesn’t trumpet all the massive good they do. I’ve never understood the raking they take in cyberspace…while rarely hearing about all the good that’s been done by them globally. Not to mention the huge resource they’ve been to the church-at-large, simply in the area of leadership alone.

Third, I experienced extremely warm hospitality. Heck, I’m a nobody—and yet I was treated royally. It was easy to sense a servant-attitude in the staff and tech folks. My respect goes through the roof when any organization treats outsiders well. When I’m getting to know someone who may be a potential hire for VCC, I like to take them to a restaurant to talk and watch how they interact with servers. It can be a deal-breaker for me. It actually fascinates me how little eye-contact people make with their servers. It must be a subliminally Victorian hangover: don’t acknowledge the servants. That’s a tell-tale clue that I won’t work well with them. I want a servant-hearted staff. Period.

Last, it seemed as though a number of changes were being experimented with. I love that in churches. When honest effectiveness trumps methodologies, I get excited. “We’ve-never-done-it-like-that-before” is the death-knell for churches. It’s not about scrapping routine for the sake of scrapping routine. But it is about questioning your current effectiveness as it relates to your bottom-line mission. Author Daniel Schaeffer tells the story of a young couple with a new pup who chased and barked at a baby squirrel trapped in a tree. When the squirrel jumped to another branch, it missed and fell right into the mouth of the very happy dog. The couple reported that for the next fifteen years, the dog would sit underneath that same tree looking up waiting for another squirrel to drop out of the sky, which, of course, never happened. Psychologist Gary Oliver’s definition of crazy is “to find out what doesn’t work and keep on doing it.” Sometimes I think we function like that in churches.

I don’t know how long they’ve been experimenting with this, but Willow did a full 20+ minutes of worship in the front end of the service. That’s a move away from more performance-oriented message-themed music presentations. Their midweek New Community (believers gathering) is going away to be replaced by classes that fit different spiritual lifestages. Most of what we do in churches runs in cycles; but hopefully because we’re exploring new avenues for spiritual development and evangelism. I applaud them for trying different things.

And don’t even go to: “Gee, we’ve been doing that for years.” How effective have your outreach efforts been? How many people have found Christ through your church’s services? Maybe we need to challenge the status quo of our own methodologies regularly.

Anyway, it was quite a weekend. My wife and I had a spirited talk on the six-hour drive home, comparing notes and thanking God for opportunities that sneak up on us.

Hats off to Bill and the gang for being fearless, taking the heat when the rest of us slip under the radar or are still staring up at the tree branches, and for displaying big-time missional, personal and organizational integrity over all the years.

Keep the faith, Creekers.


  1. How does one preach without a Bible in the pulpit?? Is that effective?? What has happened to expository preaching??

  2. Dave: I would love to watch your talk at Willow - do they do an online version of their services? Thanks

  3. anonymous #1: Don't understand your comment. I've heard very solid Bible teaching from Willow.

    anonymous #2: I'm afraid they don't stream or podcast anything on their website. Sorry!