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Why Willow Creek and Saddleback are Losing Influence While North Point and LifeChurch.tv are Gaining Influence

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Written by Paul Steinbrueck

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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

Bill HybelsLet 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.

Rick WarrenFirst, 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.

Craig GroeschelFirst, 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.

Andy StanleyNorth 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

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

 

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About the author

Paul Steinbrueck

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck.

102 Comments

  • I think that for the most part, most of you have missed the point that was being said. It’s not about who is being followed, other than Christ, or what church they lead, or how many books they’ve written. And on that last point let me say that as a grad student, writting is a necessity, not only of papers but of books also! Now, the point being made is that just as Jesus did, the church must go where the people are in order to bring the message of Christ into their lives and if this means Twitter and blogs, so be it. Yes, many of us grew up in traditional churches, but who do you see attending ‘traditional’ services? Mainly the older folks…of which I’m one. No, Jesus did not have Twitter, neither did he use blogs to get responses to his message; he went to the people using the only media of his time…himself. It may seem ‘unChristian’ to some, but it’s really making use of the message that Pastor Warren believes in, use the media that’s available to reach out to the Lost.

  • Mr. Seaman, I completely agree that we should use all the media that’s available to us to use to get the true gospel of Christ out. I’m just concerned about the message of these two messengers. (I didn’t bring them specifically up, the article did.) I have seen too my instances of both Mr. Hybles and Warren taking their flocks into a “modern” worship. That modern type of worship seems to be leading to many “new age” types of worship including contemplative spirituality and the like. So, it’s not the messanger (or the media of the messanger) it’s the message.
    Furthermore, what’s wrong with “older folks” and “traditional” services? Books like, “The Cross of Christ” by John Stott should be taught in our Bible studies instead of PDL. Just because it’s old, doesn’t make it wrong or out of date. By the way, how many “older folks” have you seen texting during Sunday morning worship lately?
    The message of Christ does not need to be “New”. The message that the blood of Christ is the ONLY way to the Father must be taught. Not some watered down “feel good” inspirational message.
    Again, I agree that we should use ALL means to get the word of God out. One of those means includes the old fashioned kind…face-to-face.

    In Christ…Alone!

  • I think in consice tweets and sound bites.

    Methods are many, principles are few
    Methods may change, principles never do.

    I hear people complain of churches going high tech which is simply method.

    Telephone, tv, radio, electricity, internet, the printed word, fire, a pointy stick and the wheel are all high tech depending upon the observers perspective.

    Jhn 14:12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

    Jhn 14:13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

    Jhn 14:14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

    Jhn 14:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.

  • I’d like to steer the conversation away from a debate about the ministries philosophies of the 4 churches mentioned in the article and refocus on the main points of the article:

    – An organization’s influence is closely tied to how well the organization utilizes the most important modes of communication of the time.
    – Willow Creek and Saddleback were exceptionally good with the communication modes of the 80s and 90s.
    – North Point and LifeChurch.tv are exceptionally good with the communications modes of the 2000s.

    Agree or disagree? Why?

  • Interesting comments and insights. Some questions come to mind. Does it matter? How do you define & measure influence? Good conversation. Here’s a few disjointed ramblings.

    WillowBack-style churches find ourselves coaching, mentoring, and learning from young leaders like those at Life-Point style churches (pardon the name combos to be brief). And then there is stuff happening that will make all this look pre-historic in 5-10 years. I have travelled on 6 continents training leaders for group life, community, vision, infrastructure and church strategy. Monday I am hanging with an emerging hyper-missional church plant in Chi-town. I see all kinds of new forms and expressions out there. Amazing stories.

    Certainly a younger generation utilizing technology is a big part. Makes total sense. We are far from being first to the party. But though we are arriving late, we hope to bring a big present that will help many take next steps. Hope to add big value there in the coming months. And, church/leader age is a factor. A church of 34 years is not like 12 years. Been around, not the “new kid” any more.

    Will Life-Point style churches have the same influence in 20 years? Right now some 17 year-old kids are dreaming of stuff that will transform the planet but we won’t even see it for 5 more years.

    We have also become more like “coaches” — like Tiger Woods will be someday. Will his influence be less or just different when he is 55? Dr. Bilezikian mentored Bill Hybels — few people know Dr. B but look at the impact he has had through Hybels. So who has more influence; Bill H or Dr. B.?

    The WCA Global Leadership Summit is another mind-blowing example. This fall it will be experienced by 58,000 leaders in 160 cities in 57 countries including China, Khazakhstan, Iceland, Romania, Bolivia and Faroe Islands (had to look them up). And it will be seen in some places I cannot mention because of risk to the particpants. A few years ago it was only in 125 cities in North America. And people world-wide will be seeing Andy Stanley, Craig G., Erwin M, and many more great leaders at those broadcasts. So it is mutual influence being catalyzed — Willow and these highly influential leaders in partnership.

    Leaders acknowledged that Willow-Back is not always the most cutting edge, certainly not in every area of ministry. But by God’s grace we have a platform and “influence” that, if properly leveraged, can spread the innovation of others, nit just what we are learning or doing– that is part of our dream.

    Perhaps we will fall under persecution or catastrophic economic calamity in a few years. Without money, buildings, and technology at our ready disposal, perhaps we will be learning from innovators in persecuted and impoverished lands on how to be the church without the tools we use here. This is exciting, not threatening, to us.

    As for the WCA re-formation and strategy, economics and new technologies have forced change. But look. A few years ago we had over 3,000 people at the Group Life Conference here at Willow. Pretty cool. But times are tough. So last year, we only had 1500 on campus. But through CCN we had 10,500 at satellite locations. So is that more or less influence? I truly cannot judge because we know it is not all about numbers. But people were thrilled to have something cheaper, more accessible, and more targeted at group leaders so it looks like a win for everyone so far. Who knows where it is going from here.

    I remember sitting with Andy Stanely, Bill Willits and team at Northpoint many years ago when they had no groups, and i visited 4-6 times to help get them going. I was the teacher. Now we are pleased to look to them for insight and wisdom in areas where we need help. This is very cool. It is the fruit of influence, where sometimes you drift to the outside lane to allow the faster runners to pass. And you can bet no one here is dropping out of the race — just doing more player-coaching maybe. (FYI- I remember Hybels telling us how Schuller influenced him — imagine, having church at a drive-in movie 50 years ago in California. Talk about risky.)

    And finally, there are new stories emerging in Axis here at Willow, with 25 missional community hubs of about 25 people each, meeting all over Chicagoland. About 500 twenty-somethings living in community and serving the world, being the culture, rockin the kingdom. I love it. And I am learning from it. And that is the Church! Love the interaction, bro…Bill

    • I agree with so much that you have to say Bill. Thanks for blazing the trail and creating systems and processes, curriculum and a care structure so that I can enhance and contextualize without have to re-create. It is funny to read this thread that is just 35 weeks old. Lifechurch.tv and Northpoint are already on the slide down in "influence"- not sure where we get the stats for the popularity contest. They were the churches of the 2000's and there are new churches and new pastors rising up in the 2010's. Funny how life is. Blogging and Tech teams will begin to dicipate in part off of church staffs as we have seen this trend emerge after the market crash and many meta-churches have decided that these guys were cool…but maybe not as needed as first thought. There are many things which are passing trends and at the end of the day we all agree that we do what we do, no matter the style, coolness, location, etc., because we want to see one more person embrace the life change that comes from knowing Jesus. I have never been a part of the WCA, I was on staff at S-Back, have friends at L-church and N-Point, and boy can we all learn from one another- its awesomeness being a part of the kingdom. God is so good-

  • I believe that there are many reasons why there is a falling away in the churches.
    The bible says that “signs wonders and miracles shall follow those etc.” Where are the dead raised and the diseased raised? Where are the five ministry gifts of Apostles, prophets ministrys, evangelist mininstries, etc operating in the churches today? Where are God’s laws in operation today such as “no racemixing and mongrelising God’s chosen seed the Israelites that crossed the Red Sea with Moses, and these are not Jews who were always God’s worst enemies and still are. This may give you someting to get back to me on.

  • I agree with these points and I want to use a simple example to explain why; the common preacher. In Jesus’ time, and for many millenia afterward, the preacher could only speak to a relatively small crowd. Eventually, with the advent of electronic amplifiers, crowds in the twenty to thirty thousands could be spoken to at once. Note; would Dr. Billy Graham be as well known or have made as great an impact were it not for amplifiers? And I’ve little doubt but that Andy Stanley learned the importance of utilizing current technology from his own Dad right here in Atlanta, taking his organization to a higher level of influence than his father has. How many outside of Georgia even know his father’s name or the name of his church? And yet they both preach the same message and both are successful in their own right. Are Saddleback and Willow Creek being left behind? Not at all. Will they continue to enjoy the influence in the world as they have had? Probably not, if they don’t utilize the current and future technologies. Is that a bad thing? No. Rick Warren and Bill Hybles established a foundation upon which others are building.

  • Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. As a small group leader and coach of small group leaders, I love all you’ve done and continue to do raise the banner for authentic Christian community. I was at Willow for last year’s Reveal and Group Life Conferences. So both Willow and you personally have and continue to influence my faith and view of the church.

    Obviously Willow Creek and Saddleback continue to have immense influence on many Christian churches and individuals around the world. And I have no doubt you guys are doing some amazing stuff. I also know we’re all on the same team in the body of Christ, and Willow, Saddleback, North Point and LifeChurch staff are speaking at each others conferences and talking with each other behind the scenes, etc.

    But, if I can be totally frank with you, I think Willow has been missing out on opportunities to engage even more people in the things you are doing, because I don’t see anyone from Willow engaged in online conversations about these things with people from other churches.

    One example… I read every blog I can find that discusses ministry and Internet technology, including quite a few by people who are the tech or communication director of their church. Willow must be doing some innovative tech things, but I don’t know who any of the tech folks at Willow are. Never seen a blog, a comment on another blog, or a tweet referring to. Maybe I’m missing it, but I just don’t see Willow Creek in that conversation, much less leading it.

    Is there going to be a blog for the Leadership Summit next week? A chatroom? A twitter hashtag? These are things that other conferences are doing to add to their engagement and influence. I can’t find any info about these things for the Summit.

    So, that’s where I’m coming from. Thanks again for joining the discussion.

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