Tim Keller vs Bill Hybels on Vision Part Two


This is the second of two posts comparing Bill Hybels and Tim Keller’s understanding of a vision of a church and its implementation. In Part One I looked at Bill Hybels’ version as outlined in his book Courageous Leadership and some of the problems which could arise from it. In this post I will discuss Tim Keller’s views from his book Center Church (Zondervan, Michigan, 2009).

There are some general similarities between their views. Both believe that the vision has to be implemented in the church. However, Tim Keller uses the term “theological vision” to describe the link between a church’s doctrinal foundation, what it believes, and its ministry expression, the practices and activities of the church.

He writes that “a theological vision is a vision of what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” (Center Church, p 18)

As mentioned in Part One, a church’s passion should not be based on what we plan to do, but on what Jesus has already done. Our knowledge of the Gospel, what Jesus has done, is our doctrinal foundation. If this does not motivate us, we do not understand it well enough. I am sure Bill Hybels and Willow Creek-inspired churches still have a doctrinal foundation …. somewhere, but Courageous Leadership does not emphasize how the Gospel is the foundation of our vision and passion and motivates what we plan to do.

The way you present the gospel in one cultural setting is not necessarily going to be received as well in another cultural setting. A church must understand the culture (or combination of cultures) around it and how to communicate the Gospel effectively to that culture, but contextualizing the Gospel message does not mean changing it.

Both Tim Keller and Bill Hybels agree on the need to understand the wider culture and community around the church and what is going on in their heads. However, Bill Hybels’ approach has been referred to as church marketing. Marketing is about giving consumers what they want. Church marketing can make the mistake of giving people what they want, but not necessarily telling them what they need to hear – about the solution to their problem of being under God’s judgment.

Tim Keller draws a distinction between successful churches and faithful churches. Church marketing inspired mega-churches may appear successful, with lots of people attending and hearing non-threatening messages, which do not challenge or offend them, but one wonders how many of them are really saved or show signs of spiritual growth. The messages tend to consist of good advice on how to improve their lives. The advice is not necessarily wrong, but it is not the good news that their sins are forgiven and they can have a new life, not an improved current life (Center Church, p 29). If they tell them they are sinners who need to repent, many will simply leave.

At the other end are churches which are faithful. They are smaller. Their preaching is more Biblical and deeper. The Gospel is presented, but virtually no one outside the church is coming along or can understand them.

There is not much difference between a church where lots of people come but do not hear the Gospel, and a church where they could hear the Gospel but nobody comes. Both are ineffective. I find it frustrating that so few churches seem interested in achieving the best of both and present the Gospel in a way that the people, who need it, can hear and understand it.

Tim Keller’s third model is churches which are fruitful. ( I suppose there is a fourth model – churches which aren’t even trying). Fruitful churches use their theological vision, which is based on their situation, to present the Gospel, good news, not just good advice, in a way that he people they are trying to reach can understand. The doctrinal foundation will remain the same, but the theological vision will vary and will result in different ministry expressions.

Center Church is not concerned with getting others to go along with the vision and dealing with “difficult” subordinates. Maybe Tim Keller still has these problems, but he does not mention them here. Nevertheless, I would find myself much more willing to follow Tim Keller and his theological vision  because it feels like he is about advancing the kingdom of God, rather than someone’s “God-ordained vision”.


Tim Keller vs Bill Hybels on Vision Part One



Tim Keller and Bill Hybels are two contemporary evangelical leaders. Bill Hybels is senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Tim Keller is senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. This post will explore their different understanding of the leader’s vision for their church as expressed in Center Church by Tim Keller (Zondervan, Michigan, 2012) and Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels (Zondervan, Michigan, 2009).

The King James Version says “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18a).  Christian leaders should have a vision of what to do in their church or any organisation.

Bill Hybels writes, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.” (Courageous Leadership, p 32) His definition of vision is focused on what the church is going to do and motivating the congregation to get it done.

The problem is that true Christian vision looks backwards, not just forward. As Christians, our passion, what motivates us, is not what we are going to do. It should be what Christ has already done for us (Romans 12:1, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 1 John 4:10-11, and pretty much the rest of the New Testament). There is something wrong with a vision that takes our eyes off what Jesus has done and puts it back on ourselves, what we plan to do.

Bill Hybels’ leadership ideas are based largely on the management theories of Phil Drucker. There is nothing necessarily wrong with adopting secular ideas and applying them to the church, but we need to use discernment to determine what we can use because the Bible supports it and what we must reject. After all, Jesus had very different ideas about leadership than the secular world did (Matthew 20:25-28).

A pastor in a church is not the same as  the manager of a business or corporation. The congregation of a church are not the same as the employees of a business. The same principles do not apply. In a business the manager pays the salaries of the employees. They work for him. In a church the congregation pays the salary of the minister. He works for them.

Bill Hybels further writes that “people need more than vision. They need a plan, a step-by-step explanation of how to move from vision to reality.” (Courageous Leadership, p 55) This is partly true. There is no point in having a vision if you have no idea how to make it happen. However, there is a difference between a vision and its implementation or in secular terms, the policy administration dichotomy.

Suppose a community wants to build a bridge. This is their policy. The administration is the implementation, the building of the bridge and what kind of bridge they want. Different members of the community may want a different kind of bridge (administration), but they still want the same thing, a bridge (policy). A lot of the time in politics both sides basically want the same thing (policy), but they disagree and argue about how to do it (administration).

If we apply this to the church, the vision is the policy. Bill Hybels’ step-by-step  plan to implement the vision and make it  a reality is the administration. The two are not the same.

It should be possible for two churches to have the same vision (let’s be honest, most church visions are basically the same), but the implementations of their vision could be very different, resulting in very different  churches.

A lot of the conflicts in churches, which follow Bill Hybels’ ideas, which result in people leaving the church, are not because people  have a problem with the vision, although this is often how the conflict is portrayed. They have a problem with the implementation of the vision. If some in the congregation challenge the implementation of the vision, they are not necessarily opposed to the vision. They just believe there are better ways to implement it.

I am not sure if some Willow Creek churches get this. Instead, the vision can be used to justify every decision made by the leadership. Any disagreement or suggestion that “Maybe we could do it better this way” is interpreted as challenging the vision.

Bill Hybels writes how some of the ministry heads in his church were less than enthusiastic and he told them, “I am resolved that we are going to align ourselves with the God-anointed plan of this church … 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.” (Courageous Leadership, p 64)

Well, my Holy Spirit imparted gift of discernment says there is something wrong here. When Bill Hybels talks about his “God-anointed plan”, he is basically saying that anyone, who disagrees with his vision, is disagreeing with God. This is reminiscent of cults and abusive churches where the leader claims his authority comes from God so it is a sin to disagree with him.

What about the Christian pastor’s God-anointed commission to feed the sheep (John 21:15-17)? Bill Hybels believes mature Christians should “self-feed”. I admit I grow more through self-feeding than from what I learn through sermons, but is this really the “God-anointed” way or is it a problem with the preaching in many evangelical churches? Do our churches need better managers or better preachers?

Instead, this model would mean that Christian leaders enjoy the benefits of leadership, an obedient congregation, and if they don’t like it, they can leave, but they abdicate the responsibility of a Christian leader to preach, teach and build up the congregation.

I agree that a senior pastor should not have to put up with divisive and disruptive subordinates who try to undermine him. But just because someone disagrees with the leadership does not mean they are disloyal or disruptive. In the Old Testament there were the false prophets who told the king and the people what they wanted to hear and there were the true prophets who told the king he was wrong. The true prophets were the loyal ones but I doubt there would be a place for them in a church based on Willow Creek leadership principles.

The alternative is in danger of being a leaders who surrounds himself with “yes men” who tell the leader what he wants to hear. Yes men are not necessarily more loyal. They are attaching themselves to the leader to advance their own agenda.

An illustration of this is Shakespeare’s King Lear ( I prefer Akira Kurosawa’s version Ran with samurai) where the king proposes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Two of them agree. One says this is a dumb idea and is banished. The two daughters, who agreed with the king, betrayed him, while the one, who disagreed and was banished, turned out to be the loyal daughter.

A good leader should be secure enough to listen to dissenting opinions and consider whether they are right and their way is a better way off implementing their shared vision. This is especially true when the dissenting opinions come from other leaders in a church who, if they really are leadership material, should have original and innovative ideas of their own. If they leave, it would result in brain drain on the church.

The senior pastor does not know everything. In earlier posts here and here I discussed some of the problems with church singles ministries and how singles can be overlooked. If a leader in a church has forgotten what it is like to be single and is focused on ministering to families and does not think about singles, his vision and its implementation is going to ignore singles and other marginalized groups in the church.

Clearly, a vision for a church cannot be the creation of one person in the church. The whole church must contribute to it.

This post has focused on one problem with Bill Hybels’ leadership ideas. I do not want to give the impression he is wrong about everything. Courageous Leadership has its good points. In the next post I will look at Tim Keller’s alternative understanding of the vison for a church.