The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Four The Fall of Bill Hybels

Part Three can be read here

In  a 2007 Willow Creek Repents?  article in Christianity Today Bill Hybels acknowledged that Christians in their church were not growing,

“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to become ‘self-feeders’. We should have gotten people, taught people how to read the their Bibles between services, how to do spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

Christians need to read their Bibles between services! I have met some of the people they are talking about. I have found myself wondering how little is it possible for someone to know about the Bible and still be a Christian.

In Part Three I quoted Bill Hybels saying, “Preaching is the core ministry of the church, and lives will not change without powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God.”(Lynne and  Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church, Zondervan, Michigan, 1995, p 149) This does not mean that the “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God” at Willow Creek and other seeker-sensitive churches had failed to result in mature growing Christians. The problem with “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God” in seeker-sensitive churches is that there is so little of it. If there were, as Bill Hybels has acknowledged,  lives would have changed.

As I have said, simplistic preaching is the problem in seeker-sensitive churches.  The churched are not being edified and the unchurched are not being reached with the Gospel, And they are surprised to learn that Christians are not growing. Well, duh.

Keeping in mind all the talk about professionalism and excellence in the Global Leadership Network, I wonder if the leaders of these seeker-sensitive churches have a sense of job satisfaction. Do they find it fulfilling to give simplistic messages to a dumbed-down audience, many of whom are just there to be entertained? Is this what they felt called by God to the ministry for?

Willow Creek worked out that the Christians, who were growing, were the ones who were self-feeding, such as reading the Bible and other spiritual practices on their own, rather than relying on what was said on Sunday. They concluded all Christians needed to be self-feeders to grow and become mature Christians.

I agree Christians should self-feed. I can sometimes read 4 to 5 Christian books a week, so I reckon I have grasped the concept of self-feeding, but I have noticed that some other Christians do not read 4 to 5 Christian books a week.

Self-feeding works best for intrinsic learners. In educational psychology they distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic learners. Intrinsic learners are motivated by getting a sense of personal fulfillment from learning. Extrinsic learners need some external motivation, i.e., they will go to university, not to improve their minds, but to get a qualifiaction, get a job and make more money. It is easier for Christians, who are intrinsic learners, to self-feed. Give them a Bible and some Christian books and off they go. It is harder to show extrinsic learner Christians that they need to self-feed and read a book or engage in other spiritual practices. There also appears to be a connection between good preaching and self-feeding. Good preaching can motivate the hearers afterwards to go and study the Bible for themselves. As Bill Hybels has pointed out, “teachers tend to attract learners” (Rediscovering Church, p 149). This presumably means that leaders do not attract learners. Seeker-sensitive churches with an emphasis on leadership do not necessarily attract learners who want to read the Bible and grow.

This is aggravated by the impression, which I have discussed earlier, that some seeker-sensitive churches can give, that you can come to God on your own terms. They have said the magic words, asked Jesus into their hearts, got their ticket to Heaven. They do not see the need to do anything more. Growth seems optional.

It does not appear to have occurred to the Willow Creek leaders that the self-feeders were growing by default. They were not getting any teaching from their ministers so they had to fend for themselves. Instead of repenting of their disobedience and not preaching “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God”, they decided that all Christians should self-feed. The default became the norm. They seem to stumble from one bad idea to another.

Just to make it clear, I am not saying it is a choice between self-feeding and teaching by the ministers. It should be both.

The relationship between the minister and the congregation is sometimes described as a covenant. Covenants work both ways. Both sides have obligations and benefits. The congregation pays the salary of the minister and submits to his authority. The minister teaches and edifies the congregation. For many Christians in seeker-sensitive churches, the covenant must appear broken. They have to give money and do what they’re told, but in return, they get simplistic “sermons for dummies” and expected to grow on their own. They just want someone to teach them the Word of God.

“Behold the days are coming, says he Lord, that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor of thirst, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11)

Three churches in my city were founded or co-founded by Christians who left my former seeker-sensitive church.  They all had better preaching and teaching. (That does not include those who left and went to existing churches.) Christians could go to church with the expectation that they might learn something from the sermon. To use another marketing analogy, if people, who used to support my business, stop supporting my business and support another instead, I would try to find out what I am doing wrong and what the other business is doing better.  How many Christians have to leave a seeker-sensitive church  before it occurs to the leaders that they are doing something wrong?

On March 23, 2018 the Chicago Tribune published an article After years of inquires Willow Creek pastor denies misconduct allegations reported that Hybels had been accused of “inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation – including employees-allegedly spanning decades … The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotels rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married women who later said her claim about the affair was not true.” Hybels had denied the  allegations and the elders believed him.

In April 2018 Hybels resigned seven months before he had intended as a result of these allegations. (Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels resigns from Willow Creek after women allege misconduct) Christianity Today reported that more allegations of misconduct had  emerged (Willow Creek Promises Investigation Amid New Allegations Against Bull Hybels)

On August 5 2018 the New York Times published an article “He’s A Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly”  in which a women said that during the 1980s there “were multiple occasions over nearly two years in which he fondled her breasts and rubbed against her. These incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex.” The two pastors, who had replaced Hybels, and all the elders subsequently resigned. (Willow Creek’s journey from defending pastor to accepting accusations unfolds slowly, ends in mass resignations)

On March 1, 2019, a Washington Times article “Misconduct allegations against Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels are credible, independent report finds” said that the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group had concluded that the allegations of “sexually inappropriate words and actions” by Hybels were credible, that Hybels had also verbally abused male staff members and that there had been reports of “inappropriate language, sexual innuendo, and lax use of alcohol among staff including Bill Hybels.”

“Lax use of alcohol?!” Are they talking about alcoholism? The ministers I know will not touch alcohol and they’re not even Baptists.

Bill Hybels’ conduct disqualified him from being a Christian leader (2 Timothy 3:1-3, Titus 1:5-16). He is not fit to be a Christian leader and he is not qualified to teach others on Christian leadership.

However, we did not need another Christian leader sex scandal to realize that there is something very wrong with the Willow Creek leadership model. The thousands of Christians who left seeker-sensitive churches should have been a clue.  We should not gloat over someone’s sins being exposed, we are all sinners, but Hybels set himself up as being better than “ordinary” Christians. He had a “God-anointed vision”. He could not be disagreed with. Hundreds of Christians leaders blindly followed him and thousands of people have been bullied out of their churches because of his teaching on leadership and vision.

I did not have much hope that a lot of leaders of seeker-sensitive churches would admit that they had made a terrible mistake in following Bill Hybels, repent and acknowledge all the hurt his ideas have caused for their churches.

Nevertheless, in the United States over 100 churches decided to no longer host the Global Leadership Summit. My old seeker-sensitive church still held the GLS that year. When someone wrote a negative review on the church Facebook page for their continuing to host the conference, the church responded by disabling the reviews function.

On the subject of Facebook, I found that at my old church the staff had a policy of unfriending people who leave. Once they leave the church, they are presumably no longer useful to fulfilling the vision and can be discarded. We left quietly and didn’t make a scene. They did not ask us why we left or whether we were alright, none of that seeking out the lost sheep pastoral care stuff. In fact, being unfriended on Facebook was the only sign that they had noticed we had left.

We got it better than some. In How the Church Growth Movement Drives the Gospel out of Churches Bob DeWaay writes,

“I have heard from hundreds of people who were pushed out of their churches by the Purpose Driven program. Some of these stories reveal hard-hearted pastors who care more about advancing their careers than the well being of the Lord’s flock. One example came from an old lady whose husband had such a bad heart that the doctors could not operate. He was at home waiting to die. She wrote a hand-written letter telling this story. Their pastor was trying to convert their church into a Purpose Driven one in order to facilitate church growth. They had been in the church for many years and wished it to reman a Bible church. They had expressed that opinion publicly. The pastor came to pay them a visit. the lady thought he was there to visit her dying husband, but instead came to tell them that they should find another church. He may as well have told them he did not care to perform the funeral.”

The underlying problem behind this tension between the leadership and the congregation is a flawed understanding of what the church is and who the church is for. The seeker-sensitive church movement wants unchurched people to feel safe and comfortable in church so they will stay and hear the Gospel. However, they make it so focused on the unchurched that the churched, the Christians in the church, are neglected and sacrificed. They even use the expression “churched for the unchurched”. One cannot have a churched for the unchurched anymore than one can have a men’s group for women. Church is for believers. The Church is the Body of Christ, composed of Christians who have been baptised into the Body by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).

This does not mean there is anything wrong with having a non-threatening environment  where non-Christians can come along and hear Christian messages. It is just not a church. It is an outreach program.

Back in 1993 Lee Strobel proposed the rather obvious solution to how to reach the unchurched and minister to the churched in his book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary which was co-published by Willow Creek. Do both. Strobel suggested that churches could hold two kinds of services, a traditional service for Christians to worship and be edified and a seeekr-sensitive service for non-beleivers (Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1993, p 98, 180)

Many churches used to hold a worship service in the morning and a gospel service in the evening. However, these gospel services were not really the sort of thing you could a non-Christian to. They were not “seeker-sensitive”. They seemed suited to those from Christian backgrounds.

Seeker-sensitive churches have plenty of resources. They could hold a worship service for believers in the morning and a seeker-sensitive gospel service for the unchurched in the evening. A lot of the problems (not all) of the problems which the seeker-sensitive movement has produced would just disappear. The Christians could hear good sermons. The unchurched could hear gospel messages which they could understand. Everyone would be happy.

My old seeker-sensitive church used to hold two morning services,  a traditional service for older Christians, followed by a seeker-sensitive service. Then, they combined them into one service and lots of people left. The seeker-sensitive church movement is often accused of pragmatism, going with what works, rather than what is Biblical. Sometimes, they are not even pragmatic and discard what works for what doesn’t.

Willow Creek realised they could not edify Christians and evangelize non-Christians in the same services. Instead of holding two kinds of services, as Strobel suggested, they focused on the unchurched and neglected the Christians, the ones church is supposed to be for (G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996,p 146-147)

Instead of showing some leadership and acting in the best interest of the congregation which they are supposed to shepherd, a lot of other seeker-sensitive church leaders just copied what Willow Creek did. A follower of Bill Hybels is not necessarily a leader. It feels like some leaders of Willow Creek clone churches would stand on their heads if Bill Hybels told them to, and the only reason they are not standing on their heads right now is because Hybels has not told them to. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

I admit the seeker-sensitive church approach sometimes works. I know of some cases of non-Christians getting involved with our old seeker-sensitive church, having their lives transformed by the Gospel and becoming growing Christians. I am not so sure about others. Our church held services in which people shared their stories or testimonies as we used to call them. They usually spoke about how their lives had become better since they started coming to church. However, in all these services, which I attended, I cannot recall any of them explaining how they understood they were a sinner and their only hope for forgiveness was what Jesus had done for them on the Cross (Romans 10:9). Sometimes, I could not tell from what they were saying if the church’s so-called success stories were actually saved. When they had finished speaking, I would think, “Is that it?”

Seeker-sensitive church leaders claim they received their vision from God. It is supposed to be what God wants for their church. If they are right, God wants churches full of people who cannot explain why they think they are Christians.

Jesus’ real vision for his church is expressed in Revleation when he says to the Laodicean church, which many students of Bible prophecy believe represents the modern evangelical church,

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked – I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in fire, that you may be rich, and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:15-19)

Seeker-sensitive churches may appear successful. They think they are rich, they draw crowds, but Jesus is not impressed. He wants us to repent, be forgiven, restored and revived. This is not going to happen while seeker-sensitive churches are reluctant to preach about the need for repentance because they think the crowd will be offended and leave. The vision of seeker-sensitive church leaders has little in common with Jesus’ vision for his Church, which suggests how little of their vison really comes from God.



The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Three Unbiblical Leadership Principles

Part Two can be read here

Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was the author of over 30 books on leadership and management. He was not an evangelical Christian (Bob Burford, Drucker and Me, Worthy Publishers, Tennessee, 2014, p 150), yet his non-Christian management ideas have helped shape the seeker-sensitive church movement. Bill Hybels has described him as a mentor (Drucker and Me, p 183,Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan, Michigan, 2009, p 171).

In Drucker and Me, Bob Burford writes about the influence of Drucker’s ideas,

“His influence was widespread. By the 1980s, about three-quarters of American companies had adopted a decentralized model that Peter had championed in his 1946 book, Concept of the Corporation.” (Drucker and Me, p 133)

When I think of American corporations in 1980s, I think of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street saying, “Greed is good.”

As this clip from the 2003 documentary The Corporation explains, corporations have the characteristics of a psychopath.

Applying leadership principles which produce institutional psychopaths to churches – what could possibly go wrong?

Churches and corporations are not the same. The purpose of a corporation is to make money. Some might find it hard to believe , but the purpose of a church is not to make money. It is worship God and edify and equip Christians. Nevertheless, the seeker-sensitive church movement assumes they can just take the leadership and management principles of profit-centred corporations and apply them to running churches. They do it in such a way that benefits them. In a secular business the boss or leader pays the salary of the employees. They work for him and must do what he says. In a traditional church the congregation pays the salary of the minister. He works for them. In a seeker-sensitive church the congregation pays the salary of the minister, but they work for him and have to implement his vision.

Jesus said that Christian leadership values and non-Christian leadership values are different, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.” (Matthew 20:25-27)

What God looks for in a leader is not the same as what the secular world does. When  Samuel had to anoint David as the next king, God told him, “Do not look at his appearance or his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as a man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at his heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Those, who God wants as leaders, are not necessarily those who are impressive and successful according to the non-Christian world’s values. God may choose those who are weak and inadequate, so that His grace and strength can work through then and empower them to do what they otherwise could not (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

In an essay “When Leadership and Discipleship Collide” Bill Hybels acknowledges that in the Gospel of Mark he “noticed several occasions when Jesus seems wilfully to violate well-known, widely accepted laws of leadership.”(Bill Hybels, “When Leadership and Discipleship Collide” in Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, Dan Allender, The Call to Lead, Zondervan, Michigan, 2008, p 11) Hybels also acknowledges that there have been occasions in his ministry  that the Christian thing to do was to violate the supposed laws of leadership (The Call to Lead, p 19).

I would have thought that the logical conclusion for Christians here is that if Jesus did it differently, then the so-called laws of leadership must be wrong.

If someone were to say they were the leader of a church, I would think there is something wrong with them and their church is on a slippery slope to becoming a cult. “Leader” is not a Christian term. “Leaders” of evangelical churches are usually called ministers or pastors because their role is to minister to and pastor the congregation, teaching them the Bible. The emphasis is on service to others, rather than leading them.

Nevertheless, in his 1995 book Rediscovering Church Bill Hybels argued in the next seven paragraphs that the church should have leaders who are not the same as teachers to fulfill the traditional role of the minister or pastor,

“Unfortunately, there has been some confusion about leadership in recent Christian history. Local churches generally haven’t been directed by leaders but by teachers and these two species have distinctively different behaviour patterns and areas of emphasis. As a result, a lot of churches are well taught; very few are effectively led.

Please don’t get me wrong. The church needs great teachers. Preaching is the core ministry of the church, and lives will not change without powerful and Spirit-led teaching from the Word of God. Without gifted teachers, we might as well close shop, because they’re critical to fulfilling God’s vision for biblically functioning communities.

And yet there are distinctions in the way teachers and leaders operate. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that their approach to ministry is different. For instance, when teachers stand in front of people, their chief desire is to accurately and compellingly communicate biblical truth in the hopes of impacting lives. But when leaders have the microphone, there’s another agenda. Usually, they have a purpose, mission, or cause, that they want people to get fired up about.

Over a period of time, teachers tend to attract learners who agree that, yes, the communication and understanding of Scriptural truth are crucial for believers in order to change their lives. Teachers educate and edify, which are both very necessary. Yet leaders inspire and motivate. They tend to pull people into action and involve them in the mission that they’re spearheading.” (Lynne and Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church, Zondervan, Michigan, 1995, p 149)

“Also, it’s common for teachers to become so immersed in their biblical studies and message preparation that they don’t pick up on subtle kinds of corrective steps that should be taken in the church. programs may be starting to deteriorate, the financial base can be slightly eroding a congregation’s morale could be slowly sagging, but teachers might not quickly discern the need to take prompt action.

But when a person with a leadership gift walks around the church, mental warning buzzers go off all over the place. His or her mind is racing with thoughts like We need to pay more attention to this and We need to resolve that and We need to get his back on track and We’ve got to figure out why we’re still doing this when it’s no longer working and We’ve got to start a new program to accomplish something else.” (Rediscovering Church, p 150)

“Yet for the most part, teachers don’t gravitate towards strategic allocation of resources. While they know this is an integral part of ministry, it generally isn’t an exercise that they’re passionate about. On the other hand, leaders look at the church’s finite pool of resources and enthusiastically envision it  as kingdom capital that can make the difference between a church stalling out or taking the next hill. As a result, teachers and leaders look at the church budget from an entirely different perspective. To a teacher, the budget is sheer drudgery: to a leader, it’s laden with opportunities.” (Rediscovering Church, p 150)

These passages suggest that Bill Hybels does not appreciate the difference between the minister/pastor/teacher and the deacons. In Acts the Jerusalem church appointed deacons who took on the administrative roles so the apostles did not have to  and they could focus on “prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts :1-6). If ministers are going to take on management and leadership  roles, they will have less time to put into pastoral care and sermon preparation. And it shows in many seeker-sensitive churches. The day-to-day administration and management of a church, including its resources and budget, is not the responsibility of the minister/pastor/teacher. There should be other people in the church, the deacons, treasurer and other staff, who take care of all that, so the minister/pastor/teacher can focus on preaching and teaching. If there are people in the church, who believe they are “leaders” and want to manage things and ensure that the church is running smoothly, perhaps they should think of themselves as deacons rather than ministers and let the minister preach and teach, but I suppose being a deacon is not as glamourous as being the leader of seeker-sensitive mega-church.

At my old seeker-sensitive church we did not have leaders walking around the church with their minds racing about identifying and fixing problems.  When my wife tried to talk to the ministers about a problem, they ignored her. She tried to speak to the elders about it. She was told she would not be allowed to the elders because there was no problem. When I tried to discuss another problem about conflict and competition between ministries in the church, I was also told there was no problem. For all the talk about leadership, even hosting the Global Leadership Summit, there was a lack of leadership when it was needed in dealing with problems and managing people. If they want to be leaders, I wish they would lead, rather than just expect people to agree with them

To be continued in Part Four

The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Two The Vision Problem

Part One can be read here

Many of the problems which seeker-sensitive churches experience are a result of the emphasis on the vision of the leader.

In Courageous Leadership Bill Hybels defines vision, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.” (Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan Michigan, 2009, p 32) The leader, the minister or pastor, has a vision of the future, which usually involves being bigger and attracting “seekers” and he passes his vision on to the congregation to inspire passion in them to help achieve his vision.

This is not Biblical. As Christians, what motivates and inspires passion in us should not be what we as a church are going to do. It should be what Jesus has already done for us. In spite of all our sin, God still loves us, His Son Jesus suffered and died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven and have eternal life. That is what inspired passion in and motivated the early church in Acts. What they did was inspired by what Jesus had already done.  What many Christians need today is not a passion for what their church plans to do, but a deeper understanding of the Gospel, what Jesus has done for them.

In Transitioning, Leading Your Church Through Change, Dan Southerland says that the leader’s vision come from God,

“Vision is the picture of what God wants to do. Vision is a picture of what God will do in His church if we get out of His way and turn Him loose to do it. So the process of vision is the process of joining God in what He is doing and wants to do in His church.” (Dan Southerland, Transitioning, Leading Your Church Through Change, Serendipity House, Colorado, 1999, p 22)

In The Power of Vision George Barna also says that the leader’s vision comes from God,

“Vision for ministry is a clear mental image of a preferable future imparted by God to His chosen servants and is based upon an accurate understanding of God, self and circumstances.” (George Barna, The Power of Vision, Regal, California, 1992, p 28)

Barna says that because the leader’s vision is really God’s vision, it is perfect (p 72), it is inspired and conceived by God (p 73), it cannot be wrong (p 74) and different interpretations of the vision are impossible (p 181). This suggests that the minister and his vision are infallible. It is really God’s vision. To disagree with the minster’s vision is to disagree with God.

In Part Three I will discuss how the seeker-sensitive church movement has been influenced by secular management principles. Nevertheless, the seeker-sensitive movement’s concept of vision fails to take into account the policy/administration dichotomy. Suppose a community wants to build a bridge across a river, but they cannot agree about the design of the bridge, i.e. a suspension bridge or one with pylons. Their policy is that they want a bridge. The administration is how they implement the policy, what kind of bridge. There is clearly more than one way of implementing the policy. Often in politics, both sides have the same policy, i.e.,  they want better health care and education, but they disagree on how to implement it, the administration.

The same distinction applies or should apply to the church leader’s vision. The vision is the policy. The vision sounds good. They want to reach the community around them, they want non-Christians to come to church, feel safe and welcome, hear the Gospel and become growing Christians. What Christian would not want this? The problems begin when they implement the vision, the administration.

The seeker-sensitive church model fails to differentiate between the vision (policy) and the implemenatation of the vision (administration). It is not open to the idea that there are different ways of implementing the vision. George Barna says this is impossible (The Power of Vision, p 181).

At my old seeker-sensitive church the leaders decided they wanted to appeal to the unchurched and young people by playing loud music. It was too much for many of the elderly. When they complained, they were told they were disagreeing with the vision and if they didn’t like it, they should leave. This is a common occurrence in seeker-sensitive churches. They were not disagreeing with the vision. Of course, they wanted to reach the unchurched. They were disagreeing with how the vision was being implemented.

Playing loud music is not the only way to appeal to the unchurched and young people. They could have compromised, turned down the volume, had a second service with more traditional music. There is more than one way to implement the vision. The irony was that after many of the elderly had been driven out, many of the young people, whom the loud music was supposed to appeal to, also left. Seeker-sensitive services are intended to appeal to baby-boomers, rather than young people who are more likely to be disillusioned with both consumerism and Chrisitanity. As the population ages, the seeker-sensitive church movement, which is trying so hard to be relevant, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Bill Hybels also describes the leader’s vision as a weapon, “That’s because God put in the leader’s arsenal the potent offensive weapon called vision.” (Courageous Leadership, p 31)

I thought the Christian leader’s offensive weapon was the Bible, “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), but I have never been to a Global Leadership Summit, so what would I know?

If the leader’s vision is an “offensive weapon”, who is he supposed to use it against?  It looks like the answer is, his congregation. The vision is used to bully the congregation and silence any criticism and questioning. The leader believes his vision comes from God. Any decision, even the smallest ones, which the leader makes can be said to be part of implementing his divine vision. If anyone questions their decisions, like suggesting that the music is too loud, they are challenging the vision which comes from God. To question the minister’s decision is to question God’s will. This attitude is evident in Bill Hybels’ book Courageous Leadership when he describes how his church staff were hesitant about the changes he wanted,

“At a critical point, after several months of talking through the staff alignment process, I finally said to the staff, “I’m done being cool, calm and collected about this alignment process. The whole future of Willow is hanging in the balance. I am resolved that we are going to align ourselves with the God-anointed strategic plan for this church. Do you understand?

If any of you feel disinclined to get on board with this plan, feel free to find another church ministry that you can fully support. No hard feelings, but it’s a new day here.” (Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan, Michigan, 2009, p 64)

I do not believe that the Willow Creek  staff disagreed with the vision and they did not want to reach the unchurched. They disagreed with the steps he was taking to implement the vision. Hybels did not differentiate between his vision, which he believed was from God, and the implementation of his vision. He regarded the staff and their legitimate concerns as challenging his God-anointed vision and challenging God. Their opinions and expertise counted for nothing. They had to agree with God-anointed Bill or leave.

I am surprised that Hybels thought his behaviour was normal enough to include in a book on Christian leadership. It sounds like bullying, reminiscent of a cult leader. Quite frankly, Hybels strikes me as an insecure person who cannot take criticism or advice (Proverbs 12:1).

On the subject of seeker-sensitive church leaders, who do not like it when you disagree with them, there is this response by Steven Furtick of Elevation Church to his critics.

Again, is this normal behaviour for a Christian leader? This is not throwing a tantrum in private. He thought it was appropriate to get the church production team involved and put it on the Internet.

What exactly do Bill Hybels, Steven Furtick and other seeker-sensitive church leaders think their critics are objecting to? It is usually more than just the loud music, or the minister doesn’t wear a suit and tie. These are side-issues. The real objections to the seeker-sensitive church are the way the leaders ignore, neglect and exploit the congregation and have watered-down the Gospel. But if you try to raise these issues, you can be called a “hater”.

In another post There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel,  I have discussed the Gnostics. They were  an ancient Christian heresy  which believed they had the secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about the true nature of God and Jesus. They believed they were superior to the ordinary orthodox Christians who “only” had the Bible. Some leaders of seeker-sensitive churches are reminiscent of the Gnostics. If someone tries to tell them what the Bible says about leadership, church and the Gospel, they will not listen. They know better. They have the superior knowledge (gnosis) about these things which they got from Bill Hybels.

Some seeker-sensitive churches, such as Elevation Church, Lifestyle Church, and Church of the Highlands  say in their vision statement that they will “aggressively defend” their vision.  How exactly does a church “aggressively defend ” its vision? What do they do to little old ladies who think the music is too loud? I feel like doing my Winston Churchill impersonation here, “We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on the streets. We will defend our vision. We will never listen.”

It is a pity they will not aggressively defend “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), assuming they knew what that means.

In Willow Creek Seeker Services Gregory Pritchard writes that there is a “deep fear of being labelled disloyal” at Willow Creek (G.A, Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996, p 43). This is presumably a result of Hybels’ “agree with my God-anointed vision and everything I say or leave” attitude. Pritchard continues,

“Virtually any time staff members told me something about the church that could be interpreted negatively, they would quickly try to qualify their remarks, ask me not to use their comments, or request that I not identify them as the source. They wanted to avoid the earmark of disloyalty. One of these individuals admitted, “I don’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon.” The only dissatisfied staff member I found remarked, “They [church leaders] value loyalty more than honesty.” (Willow Creek Seeker Services, p 43)

Disagreeing with the minister on the implementation of the vision is not necessarily the same as disloyalty. A good example of this is Shakespeare’s King Lear where the old king decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Two agreed with him. The other said he was wrong, so she was banished. The two daughters, who had agreed with their father, betrayed him. The daughter, who had disagreed with him and had been right, turned out to be the loyal one.

When staff or lay people in the church disagree with changes in the church, the implementation of the vision, they are not necessarily being disloyal or challenging the vision. It is more likely that they believe there is a better way of implementing the vision – keep the vision, just change a few things. However, the  Willow Creek seeker-sensitive church model does not differentiate between challenging the vision  and suggesting there is a better way to implement the vision.

If the staff, who have concerns about the implementation of the vision, are bullied into silence or into leaving the church, what sort of staff are the church left with? People who lack the knowledge of the Gospel to understand what the problems are and “yes men” who go along with whatever the leader says, often to advance themselves.

The Holy Spirit has given some Christians the gift of discernment (1 Corinthians 12:10), This is not the gift of being able to criticize people on the Internet. It could be defined as the ability to differentiate between right and almost right. The seeker-sensitive church movement is almost right. It has good intentions. We must reach the unchurched, but it needs reforming.

The seeker-sensitive church leader and his vision is at enmity with the Holy Spirit and His gift of discernment. If someone with the gift of discernment is part of a seeker-sensitive church and tried to explain to the leader that some changes need to be made in the implementation of the vision, they would be seen as disloyal and disruptive, challenging the vision. In truth, they are using the gift which the Holy Spirit gave them, to keep the church on track. When some members of the church are ignored and silenced and are not allowed to use the gifts, which the Holy Spirit has given them to use on the church, the whole church suffers (1 Corinthians 12:20-26).

In 2009 Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York spoke at the Global Leadership Summit. Around the 37th minute he made the comment . “Really dysfunctional churches don’t have arguments, people just leave.” Most Christians do not want to get into nasty confrontations with other Christians, so when the ministers will not listen to their concerns, will not give an inch and tell them to put up with it or leave, they leave. It sounds like Tim Keller was hinting that seeker-sensitive churches are dysfunctional. Everybody’s smiling, everything seems fine, while hundreds of people are leaving.

Ministers know that they adopt seeker-sensitive church and Willow Creek leadership practices, many people will leave the church (Transitioning, p 127-128, Courageous Leadership, p 42, The Power of Vision, p 149-150). This is sometimes referred to as the “blessed subtraction”. In spite of all their talk about communicating the vision to the congregation, they keep the known consequences of implementing the vision secret from them.. They do not explain to them that if they implement these changes, a lot of people are going to leave the church. Many of those, who leave, are older church members who have built and sustained the church for decades. They are discarded. I knew one person from my old seeker-sensitive church, who had been part of the church for 70 years, but he had to leave because the music was so loud. This is just wrong.

When church leaders plan to go seeker-sensitive, they often renovate or expand the church or buy a new building. They encourage the congregation to pledge money to fund their projects and fulfill their vision. It may take a few years between when the congregation starts to give money and the seeker-sensitive services properly begin. Many of those, who gave money to support the vision, find the music too loud, and they are told they do not support the vision and they should leave. The leaders of the church knew many people would leave the church but they tried to get as much money as possible out of them before they left. Seeker-sensitive churches are often built on a foundation of deception. Christian leaders, who think they are doing God’s will and fulfilling God’s vision for their church by behaving like this, are deluded.

To be continued in Part Three