I am convinced the American church has an upside-down understanding of a Biblical church. A large part of the American church culture has bought the lie that a healthy Biblical church=big church and a biblically healthy leader=a strong, put together leader. Those are unbiblical definitions of both church health and Biblical leadership. According to Scripture, a healthy church is a faithful church and a healthy leader is a wounded healer who leads from their brokenness just as much as their strengths. A Biblical leader’s chief call should be the words of St. Paul, “Jesus Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”*
I write the words above because I was at the bastion of big church/strong leader from 2005-2008; Willow Creek Community Church. And, after all the heartbreaking and evil news that has recently been revealed about Willow, I’ve had to internally wrestle with a lot of what I learned from that church. My wrestlings have centered around two questions, “Does a healthy church require a strong charismatic leader?” And, “Does a healthy church have to be a big church?” I’ve always held to the answer of “no” for both questions, but after Willow’s recent hard fall, there is a freshness of evaluation in my heart and mind.
Does a healthy church have to be a big church?
Absolutely not. There was a church growth movement in Acts 2 when “about three thousand were added to their number that day.” But, many of the three thousand ended up in house churches that resembled the American church’s definition of Sunday School class or small group. We’ve got to divorce The Church from the idea that bigger is better. God does not call the church to be bigger. God calls the church to abide in him, love its neighbor, care for the poor, serve the immigrant, and ultimately, share the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Does a healthy church require a strong, charismatic leader?
Absolutely not. What makes a church so beautifully powerful is her people. A pastor can only be successful if they see themselves as a fellow saved-broken-sinner who grasps the mantle of leadership reluctantly and humbly. Leading a church is a holy terrifying task. A reluctant leader sees herself or himself no more important than the church nursery worker, groundskeeper, Sunday School teacher, Sunday morning greeter, or weekly tither. May God crush me as a pastor if I ever see myself differently.
Defending Willow Creek and Feeling Duped
I’ve had to defend Willow often over the years from pastors that judged Willow’s theology as “light” or even unbiblical. Sadly, my guess is that a few pastors are quietly celebrating Willow’s downfall. If you are one of those pastors, please don’t. If you are celebrating the log in Willow’s eye, please also see the log in your own eye. As recent failures within many non-denominational churches and the SBC teach us pastoral brethren, all of our churches are susceptible of the same ugly and evil behavior produced at Willow Creek. Don’t create, through your pride, the same type of no accountability culture that Willow created with Bill Hybels. Allow his downfall to shake you to the core, like it has me. Any structure, especially a leadership structure, that gives too much unchecked power to a single leader or group of leaders is setting itself up for a major fall.
I guess one of the reasons I have had to wrestle with my time at Willow is that part of me feels duped. Was I wrong in defending Willow all those years when I heard pastors criticize her? I’ll respond by saying this: the power of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is bigger than Bill Hybels’ ability to lead, it’s bigger than his pride, and it’s definitely bigger than his ugly sin. The salvations that happened at Willow for thousands of people were due to God, not Bill Hybels. Those salvation experiences are still true and eternal. God has, and I believe, will continue to work at Willow Creek. But, it won’t be through a charismatic leader that leads Willow to large growth. It will be through reluctant leader-pastors who hold to Biblical teachings on church growth and leadership.
When we are tempted to embrace a pastor or church due to charisma or style, or even worse, when we embrace ourselves as pastors who lead big churches with charisma or style, may we immediately repent and realize that our true shepherd is a slain lion-lamb who led through sacrifice. Let that slain lion-lamb be our symbol for what a healthy church looks like. Allow that slain lion-lamb to set the bar for what type of pastor we desire to follow or be.
*See Dan Allender's, "Leading with a Limp" or Henri Nouwen's "The Wounded Healer" for more insight on being chief sinner and leading as a wounded healer.
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Hardinsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.