Interview by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins
The year was 1975 and a then-22 Bill Hybels and his wife, Lynne, were navigating the financial woes and leadership struggles of their new church. What later became one of the nation’s first megachurches, which now draws some 25,000 worshippers each week, Willow Creek Community Church began in a closed-on-Sunday morning movie theater and was mostly staffed by teenaged volunteers passionate for Jesus Christ. In this interview, Hybels shares what he has learned in 37 years of ministry, specifically the early days; how his experience might impact his actions were he planting a church today; what he calls one of his deepest regrets; and why he believes church planters have won the lottery.
Before we start talking about what you might do the same and differently if you were planting a church today, let’s talk a little about our current environment. What societal factors have changed in the past 40 years that would impact your decisions today?
I think that there’s even more resistance/cynicism to the idea of the institutionalized church now than there was then. People who are starting a church today have to present an even stronger argument than we did in the mid-‘70s for Why another church? So, I would spend a lot of time coming up with the rationale for why would I be starting another church. What’s going to be different? What’s going to keep it from becoming like these others? In short, you have to start with a white hot, differentiated, compelling vision, or why take up more real estate?
With this current environment in mind, what would you do very differently?
Something that I didn’t do well was to adequately capitalize our ministry. The financial pressures were terribly destructive to the life of our church for the first five years. And it didn’t have to be that way. Most church planters and church planting organizations these days say you’ve got to raise X amount of money, so you’re sure people can survive—like, making sure your rent payment can be made.
That kind of information was not widely known because there weren’t many church plants going on in our era. So I rather naively said, “God’s leading us to do this, so God will provide. We’re going to hold the first service and pass a plate around and it’s all going to be good.”
Well, our core wasn’t big enough, and we sank further and further into debt. All of us had to do things like take on part-time jobs and bring boarders into our homes, which led to a chaotic, unsustainable lifestyle.
In my opinion, the more a young church can get done through volunteers, the better. The fewer your staff is, the better. As I said earlier, when we started Willow, we were under tremendous financial stress. One of the upsides was that every week I told everyone attending the church, “We need you!” And they knew it was true. We needed everybody to step up—to take care of kids, to help set up and take down chairs, and eventually, to help us find a piece of land. That brought people forward. At one point, I think we were dangerously close to having 100 percent of our attendees serving because we didn’t have any paid staff.