Online Extra: Supersizing Salvation

No cross, no hymnals, and a strong appeal to the unchurched -- that approach has helped Bill Hybels build one of the country's megacongregations

Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church, which became one of the nation's best-known megachurches, when he was still in his early twenties. Hybels' vision back in 1975 was to create a so-called "Acts 2" church -- a reference to the second chapter of the Book of Acts in the New Testament, which talks about the original vision for the Christian Church.

His aim was to attract "seekers" -- people who weren't churchgoers and who might not even believe in Jesus Christ. He dubbed the person he was trying to attract "Unchurched Harry." Hybels has been successful beyond his wildest dreams. Willow Creek, located in South Barrington, Ill., attracts more than 20,000 people to its weekly services, a good number of whom are "seekers."

Hybels hasn't stopped there. He has also helped drive church growth globally by founding the Willow Creek Assn., which has ballooned into a group of more than 10,000 churches from some 90 denominations all over the world.

If Hybels was looking for the "unchurched," you might call Willow Creek the "unchurch." There are no hymnals, Bibles, or stained-glass windows where services are held. There's not even a cross in its cavernous auditorium, which looks more like a modern concert hall than a place of worship. Nor does Hybels ask newcomers to give money, shake hands with other churchgoers, or stand up and be identified as a newcomer. His goal is to make people who haven't been to church in a long time, if ever, feel comfortable at Willow Creek.

Hybels recently spoke with William C. Symonds, BusinessWeek's Boston bureau chief, from Willow Creek's main campus in South Barrington. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: Why are megachurches growing so rapidly?

A:

I think it is mainly due to what the average family is looking for. Take a family of a mom, dad, and two kids. They're hoping the worship services will be relevant, and that the children's ministry will be done in a safe and excellent way, and that there will be a student ministry that will capture the affections of high school students.

If the mom is a professional, maybe she'd like a professional women's Bible study. And maybe the dad would like to get involved in a men's group. [And all that leads them to a megachurch], because larger churches have broader inventories of ministries to offer.

Q: What about the unchurched -- the seekers -- who come to Willow Creek? What are they looking for?

A:

They may be unchurched, but they are just as concerned [as the believer] about what their child will experience when they come. At the same time, they are evaluating our belief system.

We also have a lot of seekers who will come to Willow and ask, "What are you doing about AIDS, how are you responding to the tsunami? How do you care for the poor?" And our answer to those questions weighs into their decision-making process.

Q: Why have more than 10,000 churches joined the Willow Creek Assn.?

A:

They are churches from all over the world who believe they can be more relevant to their community and that they can grow from whatever stage they're at now. So they believe the church has a lot more potential [than it is realizing].

We also get a lot of well-intentioned pastors who have not been trained in basic leadership-development skills, so they may not know how to raise up volunteers, how to unleash the arts in their church, etc. A lot of what we do is to serve these pastors and church leaders.

Q: Where is evangelical Christianity today?

A:

I think this is the single most exciting era for evangelicals in the last 100 years. And we're just at the front end of an explosion curve. We are going to see more examples of thriving ministries in the next five to ten years than we've ever seen before.

Q: What impact will the growing clout of evangelicals have on the U.S.? A: I have great hopes that we will do even better in the future in regard to serving the poor, bridging the racial divide, engaging in the AIDS crisis, and taking a stand for the oppressed. Community engagement will rise to a higher level than it has in the past.

Q: You and many other evangelical pastors are using business techniques to help grow your churches. How does that square with Christianity, which has at times been skeptical of wealth and capitalism?

A:

Most evangelicals who are of the entrepreneurial bent see their risk-taking and experimentation with new ministry models as an appropriate response to the mandate of Scripture to go out and do what is necessary to spread the Word to as many people as possible.

There are certain passages in the New Testament that emphasize the importance of having an appropriate sense of urgency about getting the message of the love of Christ out to as many people as possible and as compellingly as possible. So much of what you see [in these entrepreneurial activities] is driven by a deep theological belief in getting the message out.

Q: Willow Creek is now a big business, with annual revenues of around $50 million. How do you ensure that this money is used appropriately?

A:

For 30 years, I have advocated that the books of all ministries -- large or small -- should be open to any and all. And I've taught for decades that there should be no secrets. So we provide audited statements to anyone who seeks to know.

And I'm hopeful on this front. Increasingly, church leaders understand there is a higher degree of accountability for those of us who steward funds. We have an enormous responsibility not just to the donors, but to God as to how we use these funds. So I am a strong advocate of the highest levels of accountability.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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