COLUMN ONE : ‘Customer’ Poll Shapes a Church : A minister discovered why people don’t attend. He founded one of the nation’s most successful congregations.


Back in the summer of 1975, an aspiring young minister and a few of his friends went door to door throughout the Northwest Chicago suburbs to find out why people didn’t go to church.

“Boy, did we get an earful,” recalled the boyish-looking Bill Hybels. “Church is boring, church is predictable, church is irrelevant to my life.”

And the No. 1 complaint: “The church is always bugging me for money.”


Based on his marketing study, Hybels decided to found Willow Creek Community Church, a radically different kind of congregation designed to attract alienated, “unchurched” people.

Willow Creek is one of a very few churches in the nation shaped by a targeted “customer” survey. It is also a huge success: From a modest gathering of 125 people who first met in a rented movie theater 14 years ago, it has grown to its current position as the nation’s No. 2 Protestant congregation in terms of weekend attendance, second only to an independent Baptist congregation in Indiana.

Some church analysts look upon Willow Creek as the prototype for successful churches of the 1990s, exemplifying approaches they think will reach an increasingly secular and pluralistic society.

Guideposts magazine, a national religious publication, named Willow Creek its 1989 Church of the Year “for meeting the needs of the 1990s by presenting timeless truths in a contemporary way.”

Hybels, 37, is rhapsodic about the church’s future. “We’re on the verge of making kingdom history,” he proclaims, “doing things a new way for a whole new generation.”

Willow Creek is cresting a high tide of growth that has swept up most evangelical churches--along with fundamentalist, Pentecostal and some sect-like faiths--during the last two decades. At the same time, mainline Protestant denominations have been searching for direction and struggling to reverse a downward spiral in membership and finances.


But Willow Creek’s unusual evangelism philosophy--rooted in the marketing survey--its dynamic pastor, and 4,000 true believers and 1,500 lay leaders have catapulted the independent congregation to the top.

Espousing traditional orthodox Christianity, Willow Creek’s statement of faith asserts the need for a personal conversion experience to Jesus as Savior, the infallible authority of the Bible, and the obligation of believers to tell others about their faith.

But that requires lots of organization.

“It takes almost 1,000 volunteers and staff to produce one weekend service here,” Hybels told a recent visitor.

The church spends $65,000 a year just for traffic control, paying off-duty police to ease cars on and off busy Algonquin Road in this affluent suburb of Northwest Chicago. The church parking lot is so huge that signs marked with letters and numbers--airport style--were installed when members complained they couldn’t find their cars after services.

And there are so many children that nursery facilities just for the 3-year-olds are segregated--those whose last names begin with A through L go to one room while the M’s through Z’s go to another.

Willow Creek’s colorful, precisely planned, multimedia services attract 1,000 new churchgoers each year. Between 400 and 700 adults are baptized annually. And about 2,500 members meet weekly in scores of small groups to study the Bible and pray.

Everything about Willow Creek Church--from the plain but massive sign on the highway to the “neutral corporate setting” of the campus--is designed to “impress . . . seekers with excellence but not ostentatiousness,” says Hybels, who for five years was chaplain to the Chicago Bears football team.

Hybels tailored the church’s program to the needs and gripes people registered in his door-to-door survey. As a result, the congregation:

* Doesn’t have conventional “church worship” on weekends, yet fills its 4,550-seat auditorium on Saturday nights and twice on Sunday mornings.

* Has no altar, cross, vestments or other religious trappings, yet stresses “radical discipleship” to Jesus Christ.

* Has no choir, organ, hymnals or song books, yet produces professional-quality music, ranging from rock and jazz to country and classical.

* Doesn’t use offering envelopes, ask for pledges or hold fund-raising dinners, yet through voluntary giving surpasses its budget and recently built a $10-million complex on 120 acres.

“Our goal is to reach and teach ‘non-churched Harrys and Marys’ who have been turned off by the traditional church and are about to write off Christianity,” explains Hybels.

“Seekers can be anonymous here. You don’t have to say anything, sing anything, sign anything or give anything.”

Church leaders throughout the nation and even overseas are taking notice of the Willow Creek style.

Three times a year, 500 or more of them flock to Hybels’ “how-we-do-it” conferences, where he walks pastors through his seven-step program to bring non-churched Harry and Mary full circle: They themselves go out and recruit “non-churched Larry and Cheri,” as Hybels puts it.

The key to growth in today’s listless church market, observes Lyle Schaller, a parish consultant for Yokefellow Institute in Richmond, Ind., is a creative, imaginative pastor; extensive weekday programming, and “greater emphasis on the teaching ministry of the church.”

Schaller, a longtime watcher of church trends, also pointed to the radical reorientation of traditional Sunday services at Willow Creek as an example that’s typical for many growing mega-churches.

“They are much more attractive, less boring, more visual and less audio. They are more the agenda of the people than that of the minister. This is especially reflected in the music, preaching, skits and attention grabbers,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Willow Creek is an extraordinary example of young adults coming back to church in big numbers,” Schaller added. “These people grew up in old-line (denominational) churches, drifted away and are now back--but not in the denomination or congregation they were in before.”

Indeed, Hybels, who was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, sees the “baby boomers”--25-to-45-year-olds--who “grew up on television” as the primary target for his well-polished topical sermons.

Hybels, who wears natty business suits instead of a clerical robe, delivers his messages from full notes as he stands behind a portable plexiglass lectern on the brown-carpeted Willow Creek stage. There is no pulpit, of course, and his audience sits in comfortable theater seats--not pews. The auditorium’s massive windows look out on a large lagoon graced with willow trees and populated by wild ducks and geese.

After services, Hybels “works the bullpen”--an area just below the right front corner of the stage--where he chats individually with anyone who lingers.

His sermons usually last 30 minutes, and he likes to preach series like a recent one on “Changing Times.” Everything in the service meshes with his theme. One message in the series, “The Changing American Dream”--on the illusory happiness of “having and doing it all”--was preceded by a reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 16, verses 25 and 26:

“For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Layman Gilbert Bilezikian segued into the passage after speaking for several minutes on contemporary examples of “materialism and greed.” Next was a humorous skit called “Confessions of an Ad-aholic,” dramatizing the pitfalls of a consumptive life style.

Though played by church volunteers, the skits--a staple of weekend services--are produced, choreographed and rehearsed under the watchful eye of Willow Creek’s full-time drama director, Steve Pederson. Quality lighting and professional sound equipment back up each presentation.

At this particular service, the music included a prelude by 10 flutists and a violinist, a vocal with three lead singers and a 15-piece combo--and a jazzed-up version of “Down by the Riverside” for the offertory.

Hybels eschews cliches, quotes news and financial magazines, and emphasizes “honesty, transparency” and “real-life problems” in his sermons.

“Hybels is preaching a very upbeat message,” said Stephen Warner, a sociologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It’s a salvationist message, but the idea is not so much being saved from the fires of hell. Rather, it’s being saved from meaninglessness and aimlessness in this life. It’s more of a soft-sell.”

Yet Hybels, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies but is not seminary trained, pulls no punches: The “hidden cost” of the American dream may mean that dream chasers who “live spiritually alienated from God . . . pay the price in hell forever,” he admonished, driving home his point from Matthew 25.

If weekend services are for beginners in the faith (“Christianity 101 and 201,” says Hybels) and not intended to provide worship for believers, meatier fare for “born-again” Christians (“Christianity 301 and 401”) is served on Wednesday evenings.

That service, called “New Community,” plus 75 “subministries”--everything from staffing Willow Creek’s extensive food pantry for the needy to producing Christian dramas for the elderly--make up the “core of the church,” according to the Rev. Don Cousins, 32, Willow Creek’s associate pastor for ministries.

“The weekend services are the front door, but the church inside has to be the real thing,” he told a group of 580 attentive church leaders at one of Willow Creek’s conferences for pastors, “or else people will go right on out the back door.”

Hybels felt the call to the ministry at age 22 and walked out of the family’s lucrative produce business. Becoming a church youth leader, he focused on events to draw in non-believers and quickly built up the group from 25 to 1,000.

Next, Hybels asked three friends to help him canvass the Northwest Chicago suburbs to find out why adults didn’t attend church.

The answers, in order of frequency: They always ask for money; I don’t like the music; I can’t relate to the message; the services are boring, predictable and irrelevant; the pastor makes me feel guilty and ignorant, so I leave feeling worse than when I came.

The follow-up question: What kind of church would attract you?

The survey respondents wanted non-threatening anonymity, elementary-level teaching, excellence, “high take-home value” and “time to decide.”

“Non-churched Harry told us, ‘Don’t turn the screws tighter while I’m trying to find meaning in life and answers to perplexing ethical questions. Give me time,’ ” Hybels remembers.

Deciding they wanted to start that kind of church, Hybels and friends sold tomatoes door to door in the summer of 1975 to raise enough money to rent the Willow Creek Theater in Palatine.

Rousing contemporary-style Christian music, quality drama and low-key sermons lured newcomers--who were studiously let alone and not hit up for money.

Soon, the Palatine theater couldn’t hold the crowds, and the present church was built in 1981. Next spring, groundbreaking is planned for an $18-million ministry center and gymnasium housing three basketball courts. And there is talk of doubling the capacity of the auditorium--already larger than any theater in Chicago--and adding at least 20 more staff members to the present 261.

The initial philosophies still guide Willow Creek, where 1988 revenues were $8.2 million--$150,000 a week--and audited financial statements are made public.

Just before the brown offering bags are passed at services, someone makes an announcement like this: “If some of you came to give monetary thanks, the ushers will come by; if not, and you didn’t come prepared, that’s OK. And if you’re new today, we don’t expect you to give because you’re our guest.”

But the inner circle of followers is taught the biblical principle of tithing--voluntarily giving 10% of personal income to the Lord’s work.

Hybels, his wife, and their two young children live near the church in a posh subdivision where $500,000 homes surround a lake. But theirs, built six years ago, cost $200,000, and they own only one car--a 1985 Chevy suburban.

Hybels has asked the church compensation committee not to increase his annual salary beyond the current $67,000. He said his only other income is modest royalties from seven books he has written, and honorariums from speaking and conducting funerals and weddings. He sets no fees for any of these services.

Once, Hybels said, he turned down a $100,000 gift to the church “because it didn’t fit with Willow Creek’s purposes.”

Keenly aware of the credibility damage many independent church ministries have suffered as a result of financial scandals that snared some television evangelists, Hybels has stayed away from putting his church on TV.

Neither has Hybels felt impelled to plant and staff satellite churches.

“The goal is not to produce Willow Creek clones, but Bible-based churches using spiritual gifts to the fullest,” said Toni Konold, director of Willow Creek’s cassette tape ministries.

Nevertheless, churches with similar formats and philosophies are popping up throughout the country--at least 20 at last count, according to Willow Creek’s church relations minister, Bob Bever.

One in the making in Southern California, Horizons Community Church of Glendora, sent nine of its leaders to glean ideas from a recent Willow Creek conference for pastors.

Saddleback Valley Community Church, a flourishing 9-year-old congregation of 4,000 that recently purchased a 113-acre site for expansion in southern Orange County, has not directly borrowed from the Willow Creek model. But pastor Rick Warren follows a style and outreach that is strikingly similar, reaching many previously un-churched baby boomers.

Hybels urges pastors to do their own marketing surveys and “listen to your people,” rather than simply buying the whole Willow Creek package.

Some former attendees, in fact, have not bought the Willow Creek philosophy and have gone elsewhere because they miss the traditional hymns, rituals and structures of denominational churches. Others have simply found the music too loud or the church too big.

Hybels is nettled by the perception of some critics that Willow Creek is a “lightweight” church: “the assumption that we present entertainment with a convenience-oriented gospel.”

“That’s very unfortunate,” he says, propping his feet atop his desk during an interview. “I would say with a clear conscience that we challenge people to full commitment to Jesus Christ--95% commitment is not enough.”

But there’s a tremendous price to keep what Hybels calls “the edge of excellence.”

Hybels readily acknowledges his high intensity and strict discipline. He usually arrives at his office between 5 and 6 each morning, lifts weights and runs two to four miles a day, fasts several days a week, and eats health foods.

The stress of big-time ministry brought him dangerously close to “flipping out” several years back. Ever since, he has insisted on a regimen of regular rest, physical exercise, spiritual reflection, time off with his family, and personal accountability. He informally reports to three male confidants who, he says, would tell him “in a heartbeat” if he strayed off the track.

He expects high performance from his associates as well.

Willow Creek’s eight elders--three are women--put in eight to 15 hours of volunteer work each week handling church business. The staff, too, feels the pressure of the pace. They understand what church marketing researcher George Barna of Glendale meant when he spoke about “Bill Hybels’ . . . absolute dedication to see that everything must coincide with his vision . . . for a flourishing church.”

What hurts, Hybels avers, is when he’s portrayed as “high profile, dictatorial, heavy-handed.”

“That’s not true,” he says. “I’m an incurable team player.”

His staff agrees--as long as he’s the quarterback.

NEXT: Bucking a downward trend.