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For the last couple of decades Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago and Saddleback Church in Southern California have been the twin towers of influence in American evangelical circles. Thousands of churches have sought to emulate their success by adopting Willow Creek’s seeker church model and Saddleback’s purpose driven church model.
But in the last several year’s Willow Creek’s and Saddleback’s influence has begin to decline. Pastors and Christian leaders have been looking elsewhere for ideas, resources, and leadership. More and more of them (especially those in their 20s and 30s) are being influenced by churches like North Point Community Church in Atlanta, led by Andy Stanley, and LifeChurch.tv in Edmond, OK led by Craig Groeschel.
There are some obvious reasons for this, but there are also some not-so-obvious reasons.
I Heart Bill and Rick
Let me start by saying both Willow Creek and Saddleback have been very influential in my own life. The church where I’m a member and serve as an elder uses Willow’s seeker model, I’ve participated in numerous Willow Creek conferences, and I’ve read several of Bill Hybel’s books. I’ve also not only read both Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life but taught classes on PDL.
I have a ton of respect for the way God has used Bill Hybels and Rick Warren to shape the Christian church in the U.S. from one that was a few decades ago largely stagnant, inwardly focused, and losing relevance to one that is… well, ok, so it’s still largely stagnant, inwardly focused, and losing relevance. But there are thousands of churches and millions of Christians in America who are not content to hide from the world inside the walls of the church and I believe that is in part because Bill Hybels raised the value of being culturally relevant and Rick Warren raised the value of being purposeful in what we do.
So, if you were hoping for a hit piece on Bill Hybels or Rick Warren, you’re going to be disappointed.
Willow Creek on the Rocks
Willow Creek and Saddleback are still hugely influential in American evangelical circles but not like they once were. From what I hear, the Willow Creek Association is in financial turmoil. They have been laying off staff. This year they are not hosting conferences for student ministry, children’s ministry and small group ministry. Those conferences are only available via satellite. I’m not as up on what’s going on at Saddleback, but the 40 Days of Purpose campaign has pretty much run its course and Saddleback no longer offer the Purpose Driven Church conference.
Mediums of the 80s and 90s
I believe one of the biggest factors that determines which people and organizations rise to prominence is their mastery of the primary mediums of communication of their day. Most of you are probably familiar with the story of the Nixon/Kennedy debate – those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon won, those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won. Eventually Kennedy went on to win the election, in part because he was more effective in his use of the rising medium of his time – television.
Bill Hybels and Rick Warren rose to prominence in part because they are masters of the mediums of communication that were most influential in the American evangelical church in the 80s and 90s.
First, they are exceptional orators. Many pastors view the Sunday message as the most important part of their job description. So, nothing stirs a desire in a pastor to emulate someone like seeing them deliver a powerful sermon the leads people to commit their lives to Christ or take bold action in their walk with Christ.
Second, they are fantastic authors. Warren and Hybels have sold tens of millions of books each. Pastors and Christian leaders love to read influential books, and it would be hard to name any Christian writers – pastors or otherwise – in the last 2 decades who wrote more influential books than Warren and Hybels.
Third, they put on great conferences. Pastors and Christian leaders spend almost all their time giving and serving others. Leadership conferences are some of the most uplifting, filling days of a pastor’s year. Willow Creek and Saddleback are well-known for putting on some of the most inspiring and thought-provoking conferences in the world.
I’m sure you could point to lots of factors in the rise of Willow Creek and Saddleback. Hybels and Warren are very intelligent, they’re gifted leaders, they appealed to a felt need, and they surrounded themselves with top-notch staff. You also can’t deny God’s influence in their lives and their ministries. But from a purely technical standpoint, I think it’s clear they are master communicators.
Mediums of the 2000s
In the last decade we have experienced a revolution in communications technology. Sermons, books, and conferences are still important, but today online communication is shaping the way people think and act even more. Other churches have taken the lead and become masters of the new mediums of communication, churches like North Point and LifeChurch.tv, which now has 14 campuses in 6 states.
First, they’re multi-media masters. We have become a media-saturated, ADD culture. Few people can stand behind a pulpit and hold people’s attention for a half hour, much less inspire them to real life change. Churches are making increasing use of media, specifically video and LifeChurch.tv and North Point have been leading innovators in this area. LifeChurch.tv was one of the first churches to video-cast their services and one of the first to create an online campus.
LifeChurch.tv also broke the mold when they decided to make all their media and creative work available for free at http://open.lifechurch.tv Now, thousands of churches are reusing LifeChurch.tv’s media.
Second, they’re exceptional bloggers. Blogs have become the preferred medium for discussing new ideas, creating movements, and inspiring action. A blogger can write an article and it’s instantly available to millions of people around the world. Those readers can comment and interact. The author can reply and continue the conversation.
LifeChurch.tv’s blog Swerve is a must read for any Christian leader. Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel and other staff post there almost daily. Not only that, but many of LifeChurch.tv’s staff like Tony Steward, Terry Storch, and Scott Williams, have their own forward-thinking, highly-trafficked blogs.
North Point’s influence in the blogosphere is different, but perhaps even greater. North Point itself doesn’t have a blog (though the Buckhead campus does) and neither does Senior Pastor Andy Stanley. But North Point’s current and former staff include some of the most influential Christian bloggers on the planet like Carlos Whittaker (Ragamuffin Soul), John Acuff (Stuff Christians Like) and John Saddington (Church Crunch) These guys are not only creative, authentic, and fantastic bloggers, but they support and encourage others within their sphere of influence to blog and so their influence continues to grow.
Third, they’re superior social networkers. LifeChurch.tv and North Point have been innovators in helping people to connect and share their news, events, and content through Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Their staff are at the center of the Twitter universe when it comes to issues of church and Christian faith. Here are some of the influential Twitters from North Point and LifeChurch.tv
- Scott Williams (@ScottWilliams) – 19,000+ followers
- Andy Stanley (@AndyStanley) – 15,000+ followers
- Bobby Gruenewald (@bobbygwald) – 8,600+ followers
- Carlos Whittaker (@loswhit) – 8,600+ followers
- John Saddington (@human3rror) – 5,900+ followers
- Terry Storch (@TerryStorch) – 5,100+ followers
- Tony Steward (@TonySteward) – 4,300+ followers
Willow Creek and Saddleback have been slow to adopt to blogging and social networking. I don’t know if the churches themselves have blogs, and I don’t know if any of their staff have blogs or Twitter. They just never come up in the conversations (blogs are tweets) I follow. Sure, my perspective is limited to the blogs and people I follow on twitter, but chatter about Willow Creek and Saddleback is surprisingly quiet.
What does it mean?
The fact that chatter about Willow Creek and Saddleback is surprisingly quiet doesn’t mean they’re doing less or wandering off the right path, though they could be. Nor does the fact that LifeChurch.tv and North Point have gained immense influence mean that they are better at doing church than anyone else, though they could be.
What it means is that right now LifeChurch.tv and North Point are more effective at communicating than other churches. Their staffs get today’s media better than anyone else.
Update 8/17: Read the follow-up article More on Why Willow Creek and Saddleback and Losing Influence while North Point and LifeChurch.tv are Gaining Influence