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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 am not a fan nor a critic of Hybels/Warren. I am suspicious of all those who promote ministries over ministry!!

    Millions of books sold, endless conferences and the like to tell us what the Bible has expressed all through the ages by way of the Great Commission.

    Please don’t tell me that ‘we have to learn “how” from these varied sources! Get into the Word and learn that all that is being written today is simply a rehash of what was written in God’s Word.

    I am also suspicious of blogs trying to promote smaller ministries who in reality may just want to replace Hybels and Warren.

    Blessings!

    GLaws

  • Paul,

    WCA has been doing blogs, chats, FaceBook, and Twitter before, during and after conferences for more than 2 years. Dave Treat (Thinkingsmall.net) was an innovation leader for us in that area. Started with Student Ministries confernece in Feb 2007.

    Next week’s Leadership Summit has been on FB, Twitter, YouTube, GodTube, MySpace and had a version of a blog since last August. Look up the sites to find the hashtag – and come join the conversation. The same can be said for the three conference that have already happened this year – Arts, Students and Children’s – as well as for Group Life in the fall.

    Part of why you may not have noticed it is that many times we try to speak as an individual and not push the organization. Sometimes the WCA name opens and sometimes it closes doors for us. We also are just learning how to get the word out on what we are doing – have not always been the best at telling our own story.

    I didn’t know your blog existed until yesterday, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist or you weren’t doing good work. Glad to find and follow you now.

    Greg Bowman
    Brand Architect, Group Life WCA
    twitter.com/gregmbowman

  • The whole point of our faith is to reconcile with God through Jesus Christ, and live our lives in a way that wins others over. It isn’t about ministries, podcasts, books, church numbers, or annual cash flow. The smallest church with no cash and no technology can be the most influential because it is entirely focused on one thing: Jesus Christ. And that’s the only thing that lasts. Paul, Peter, and all the other saints had no internet. But we’re enjoying the fruit of their labor millenia later.

    It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to convict and save, and that’s the only thing that truly influences. Our job is to refelct our relationship with Christ though our hearts and lifestyles. In that regaard, it’s the condition of the souls, not the number of seats that matter.

    So really, there is no such thing as cultural relevance. The Holy Spirit does his work in the ways and numbers he sees fit, in all times and places.

    God bless you all.

  • God is holy and we must not trample on that but He can use anything He wants to get His message out, including a talking donkey, loud public praise, or translating people from one place to another – all are scriptural. I’m excited about the Internet in the hands of a creative Father. It would be strange indeed if God chose NOT to use it. We were created in His image and He made us creative so… let’s be creative to His glory.

    That being said…

    No amount of twittering or blogging will help if the central message is watered down, lightened up so as not to offend, glorifies a church or organization, or is couched in man’s philosophy, no matter how eloquent. It’s not the media (medium, schmedium) used that tends to be the problem. It’s the message.

    Just sayin’.

  • Excellent article. I think because you wanted to accolade Willow Creek and Saddleback that you missed out on some points that are important to their decrease in influence. These are simply my opinion and not fact.

    1. Saddleback became political which had a similar backlash that it did with Oprah. Americans like to have their leaders be nonbiased towards one person or the other. Once they cross that line, you lose some of your following. When Rick Warren hosted the debate, came out against gay marriage and then did the opening prayer at the inauguration with all of the negative press surrounding him, I think that it blemished him a little.

    2. Willow Creek admitted openly that the programs they had been running were an overall failure. That they did not reproduce stronger Christians but instead had a group of milk fed Christians. Add that to the Emerging movement coming against the seeker friendly movement. Also, their cycle may simply be over.

    Those are snapshot looks at what I see with those two churches.

    The jury is still out for me with Lifechurch and Northpoint. I am not a fan of people making an online community their sole home. I don’t understand the whole campus concept that Mars Hill Seattle and the others are doing. Maybe I am more of a traditionalist overall and believe that you need to be connected with a local body, if it is possible. However, people are drawn to current culure movements and these two churches represent that to the fullest. From the look, the design and feel, people feel comfortable in the culture that is presented; I don’t think it means much on how deep the Word is being preached, it is first, “do I feel comfortable with the culture that is surrounding me.” That seems a little backward but regardless it is backwards.

    But I am trying to learn, so give me time if you think I am wrong. =)

  • I think we may be calling dead too early. Warren has said that they have best year for baptisms that they ever have had. I certainly don’t want to complain about different styles.

    Here is my 2 cents. People that are looking for advice are usually looking for it from people that are just in front of them. Willow-Back is just in front of people that are 10-15 years older than the people that are looking for advice from Life-Point.

    Methods and communication styles change, so more modern styles are reaching out to people that are younger. People that are older probably are out of the “let’s go to a conference and learn what to do” phase. Life-Point attendees are younger and haven’t necessarily learned that you can’t just steal ideas from one context and plant them in another context yet.

  • I just want to note that Ben has the same mis-interpretation of Willow’s Reveal study that most people have. Willow’s study was not just about their own ministries, but about a wide variety of churches of various sizes and styles. All of them had the same problem. The basic problem was that our proxies (church attendance, volunteer hours, church giving) are not really good measures of spiritual growth. The problem is one of the evangelical world, not of Willow Creek.

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