Sexual Misconduct at Willow Creek: Why We Must Bid the Business Model of Church Goodbye

 A recent Quick to Listen Christianity Today podcast reacted to the latest Hybels accusations as well as the subsequent resignations of the pastoral leadership and the board. The guest, Marshall Shelley, was careful to affirm the good Hybels and Willow Creek have done by altering church culture and structures. Willow Creek sought to encourage a “user friendly” mentality of church in order to communicate in the current cultural language. According to Shelley, Willow Creek’s legacy should continue in that:

Willow Creek said we need to communicate in a way that is going to get people’s attention—not say it the way we’ve said it thousands of times before, but say it in a way that they’ve never heard it before. 

With all due respect, as a former Willow Creek Association church staff member, I strongly disagree with Shelley. Now is not the time to reflect upon Willow Creek’s strengths, benefits, and legacy; now is the time for soul-searching. 

Something(s) went very wrong for a long time, and those mistakes paralleled a host of similar problems in the business models Willow Creek consciously emulated. The most inaccurate lesson we could learn from Willow Creek is that one morally failed person made some mistakes—but everything is generally fine. Yes, Hybels sinned, but we do not simply need a more moral leader and better accountability. If the only thing keeping senior leadership from committing sexual abuse and getting away with it for decades is if our senior leadership decides not to commit sexual abuse and get away with it for decades, then we have serious structural, cultural, and ideological problems. 

We need to prayerfully examine our churches’ structures, cultures, and ideologies that might be enabling abuse. We need to prayerfully examine our churches’ structures, cultures, and ideologies that might be enabling abuse. Click To Tweet

How Emulating the Culture and Ideology of Businesses Contributes to the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Church

My goal is not to tear down Willow Creek—please hear me say that the people of Willow have contributed to the good of God’s Kingdom and done much to serve and love their surrounding neighbors. However, when sin is revealed, as it has been here, it is an opportunity for self-examination. 

It is no secret that the leadership of Willow Creek consciously imitated corporate business practices to build its influence. Arguably, Willow Creek’s leadership and business mentality opened them up to the same mistakes and errors in sexual abuse as many corporations, and these problems must be addressed at Willow Creek as well as the churches it has influenced.

I’ll highlight two of these problems here.

1. In a corporate leadership and business model, sometimes certain people are valued more highly than others.

One problem, from my perspective, is that Willow Creek has tacitly endorsed a culture where leadership and church members have different values assigned to them. 

I remember my shock when a top Fortune businessman spoke at the Global Leadership Summit and told the crowd that he sorted his workers into “A” and “B” level players each year; the “B” levels were eventually removed or fired. I remember being disturbed that Willow Creek would give a tacit endorsement to such a person and such views by letting him speak. I was appalled when everyone around seemed enthralled and gave the speaker a huge ovation. I was horrified when my church started putting this idea into practice so it became part of our church culture. 

When leadership and members of the church start being given grades, it confers greater or lesser value on that person. You want to keep the “A” players, and you want to get rid of the “B” players. Staff members would even fight over who got “A-level” volunteers. Possibly the worst part was that these gradings seem to be solely based upon performance standards; spiritual maturity markers like the fruits of the spirit were simply not counted. 

We need to repent of placing different values on people in the church based on their job performances and roles.

2. In a corporate leadership and business model, the end often justifies the means.

Ideologically, many businesses are often guided by the philosophy that the end justifies the means, and that message can seep into the church and influence it. In the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the end never justifies the means. God never morally compromises—not in any way or degree—to do anything. God never has, and God never will. Since our Lord is omnipotent and omniscient, God is able to accomplish his will without evil. 

As those in service to God’s kingdom, what we do and how we do it must be guided by the values of that kingdom. If we can be sure of one thing in this life, we can be sure that God’s redemptive plan will be accomplished for every single person. If we really believe in God’s sovereignty, we never have to conceal or minimize abuse in order to build God’s true church. We must remove any concept of the end justifying the means in our churches, and we must be particularly alert to this lie when handling allegations of abuse.

For decades, American churches have handled sexual allegations with a baseline assumption: the brand of the church is the most important good, not individual church members who are abused. A recent investigative report of the Catholic church’s abuse of over 1,000 people stated: 

All of them were brushed aside by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all.

The church needs to stop prioritizing their institutions and uncritically imitating business practices when investigating abuse. 

The Renewed Church

In God’s kingdom, we are all equally valued as we grow in Christ and serve empowered by the Holy Spirit. There are no “A” and “B” players. Leaders and pastors do not hold more worth than the Sunday morning attendee. We are all sinners saved by grace and made in His image. 

As Jason Upton says in On the Rim of the Visible World:

In the Kingdom of God, there are no experts; there are only beginners and necessary followers.

As we grow, we should only attain a deeper knowledge of our need for Jesus and a deeper reliance upon Him. 

When sexual abuse or abuse of power is reported, it is all too easy to classify a person the moment he or she complains as a “B” level player who has hurt the culture of the church or interferes with the latest goals and vision; thus, the language we use to describe them justifies ignoring them or forcing them out. The way we treat each other and the way abuse accusations are investigated must reflect our equal value before God.

We need a new, biblical ideology: In God’s church, the means is the end. The means, discipling people to follow Christ, is also the end: discipled people who follow Christ—the beautiful bride of Christ, radiant and pure, a temple made of living stones. Pick your metaphor; to God, no one is expendable. 

Let’s Move Away From Protecting Our Institution and Surrender Instead to the Larger Kingdom God is Bringing

Let us change our structures for handling abuse to one that prioritizes truth, justice, repentance, and sanctification in order to build God’s true church. It is by living out the commands and character of Jesus Christ that we build His true church inside us and around us, not by maintaining attendance through silencing abuse reports. Sin never produces the righteousness of God. 

The Nicene Creed includes the line: 

I believe in one holy Catholic (universal) and apostolic Church.

Often, we confuse God’s Church (uppercase “C”) with our local church (little “c). In many cases of abuse, our local church is the foremost concern, and we start to think if our local church is hurt in any way, God’s Church is in danger. It’s not. The two are not the same, and no person or principality is going to endanger the true Church. God does remove the lampstand of local churches, and that is very painful, but all will be well.

[Editor’s Note: Read more here on how the idol of self-preservation in churches too often allows abuse to be ignored or covered up.]

Recently, I was very impressed by Eugene Cho’s resignation interview. He says:

Over the years I’ve told people two things consistently. First, Quest Church will die someday … While we honor and love our local church, ultimately we need a theology of the greater kingdom. Ten years ago, a 65-year-old church closed its doors and gave us its land and building, worth seven million dollars, for free. That’s the kind of kingdom mindset I want Quest Church to have.

Here, Eugene Cho demonstrates a crucial humility and Kingdom perspective for the little “c” church.  In many cases of abuse, the survival of our local church is the foremost concern. We think that if our local church is hurt in any way, God’s Church is in danger. It’s not. Click To Tweet

When handling allegations of abuse, let us practice the character of Christ and prioritize the values of truth, justice, repentance, and sanctification in order to build his true Kingdom.