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Why Willow Creek and Saddleback are Losing Influence While North Point and 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 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, 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 and North Point have been leading innovators in this area. was one of the first churches to video-cast their services and one of the first to create an online campus. also broke the mold when they decided to make all their media and creative work available for free at Now, thousands of churches are reusing’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.’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’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. 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

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 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 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 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.


  • I would describe my comment as a misinterpretation but simply what they themselves stated. I understand that the Reveal study was cross-denominational but the article focused on Willow Creek, not all denominations.

    Unfortunately, many churches have followed the Willow Creek model and becoming more program based has shown to be very ineffective. It isn’t Willow’s fault, simply they tried and didn’t see sustainable results in what they did. Similar to a failed business plan.

    If we were talking about Evangelicalism as a whole, then I would have been broader with my comment. =)

  • I appreciate your candor and willingness to have this dialogue. If I’m being honest it’s difficult for me to comment on the fact that Willow Creek & Saddleback which I have so much respect for might not be pereived as influential.

    Personally, I think that just as the methods used to reach people for the Cause of Crist evolves, so do the perceptions and types of influence. I think all four ministries are still highly influential; however the method and type of influence they garner has evolved. If we don’t think Hybels and Warren are still gaining influence around the globe we are kidding ourselves.

    I remember when Hybels spoke at our all-staff event last year and was amazed at how influential his words, wisdom and presence was on a room filled with us so-called influencers. The same thing can be said about the time that some of our Leadership team spent with Warren while over seas. Hybels and Warren are encouraging and influecning the influencers.

  • I plead the fifth as to how quickly I read most of the replies but it became crystal clear as to who were primarily focused on the sadness of why certain mega-churches were slumping a bit while others with a new ‘marketing plan’ were rising. Many of these postings remind me of when the disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Have we become so decadent and worldly that we don’t learn the lesson of how wrong it is to follow and idolize men and women and their successful ministries- vainly attempting to replicate their ‘styles’ and ideas instead of following and fixing our eyes on Jesus? ‘SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM’ JESUS IS THE KINGDOM! These fading pop movements have done great damage to the body of Christ- while yes, also leading many to him. The Bible clearly describes that it is possible to preach the Gospel out of the wrong motivation and yet the Gospel is preached by them but what kind of Christian is nurtured under such a ministry? (I received Jesus through the prayer and prompting of friends but the evangelical church that they brought me to had lost it’s salt and light and was clueless as to the importance of discipleship and follow-up. I struggled off and on for many years and still wonder what would have happened if just one mature Christian had discipled / mentored me? Surely, most of the evamgelical church lost it’s salt and light and so many became desperate for a “new thing” to fill the void.) Too many ministries are “driven” by all the wrong and most worldly motives. Better to have 10 people in a small church completely devoted to Jesus and pure, than 10,000 who come to make an appearance because the “movement” is trendy and popular. We have many idols in the church today and as soon as we begin to repent of them one by one and seek Jesus with all abandon, we will continue to sound like materialistic yuppies ( I call them “muppies” modern urban pharisees) seeking for a new Christian guru who has the best, new marketing plan that tickles their ears right into that church, who then becomes one of many who walk in lock step with the guru and his devotees instead of repenting of all of their sins and coming spiritually face-to-face with the Creator and Savior of the world.

    Putting the ‘cart before the horse’ and craving for ‘signs and wonders’ also leads people to destruction, as true signs and wonders are merely the fruit of those who truly follow the Master in great Faith.

    Human beings naturally want to follow the herd and be associated with big, “successful” organizations. We want to be able to boil everything down to following a formula or step plan but our God cannot be turned into merely following certain steps, styles, formulas, marketing techniques etc. Our God will lead us to use all sorts of ways to spread the Gospel (by His Spirit) but the only people that we should emulate are Jesus, His disciples, and those who preach the whole Word of God and are obedient first and foremost to Jesus and are filled with His Spirit. All else is vanity. How many of these mega-ministers would preach the Gospel if it became illegal to do so or had to do it without knowing where or when they would have any income from it? The gift of gab, P.R. and marketing plans, are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Many are heading up great big churches on the basis of these kinds of gifts rather than on the spiritual gifts that only God gives.

    The day may be coming soon when you will see these things come upon our nation. Then we will see who will be willing to lay down their lives for the Truth of the Gospel.

  • Thanks to everyone who joined the conversation. I wish I could have been more involved today, but I spent 7 hours in the emergency room getting tested for malaria :p (tests negative, thank God). A few thoughts…

    Ben & others – This is not the place to discuss Reveal or the merits of the churches’ ministry philosophy.

    Scott & Adam – I never said Willow Creek or Saddleback are “dead” or not influential. They are still both immensely influential.

    Greg – IMO, it’s not that Willow Creek isn’t trying to use online media, it’s just that they’re hitting singles and doubles where LifeChurch and North Point are knocking it out of the park.

    For example, if the Leadership Summit is on FB, Twitter, YouTube, etc then why are there no links to those things on the Summit site? Where’s the blog and chat? The “Share with a Friend” button under the video on the homepage enables people to email the video to friends. That’s good, but why not use something like ShareThis and enable people to share it via FB, Twitter, and more?

    Another example, you and Bill are now using Twitter, but you both have less than 250 followers. So do I, by the way. We have some influence through Twitter, but not like the guys I mentioned in the article. Wouldn’t you agree?

    I hope that doesn’t come off sounding like I’m bashing, because I’m not. All I’m saying is North Point and are rockstars in this area, and right now a lot of us can and are learning from them (including me).

  • Bravo, Bravo ,The shepherd can now twitter his disciples. But can he do hospital visits through the web? or how about know the names of 15,000 of his twitter flock. We have thousand of followers on twitter but God calls us to disciple not twiiter He calls us to change the world not follow the latest trend. You wonder why we have no influence we don’t have any more churches we have campuses wow!!! upon this rock I will build my campus and the gates of hell will not prevail? Is that what the bible says? we need SHEPHERDS not internet pictures of them or there blogs. We need them by our side in prayer and in moments of crisis. A shepherd walks with his flock together not via satillite.

  • Yes, these points are interesting and true – but I believe it misses a very important point, and thereby is “the same performance – different set and actors”. What is flawes is that influence are seen as “mega”. So, this whole post are actually just saying “Why people prefer another megachurch / consumeristic / numbers driven model above the previous older version. ”

    It’s all about upgrading within a very “inflated” view of being church.

  • Yes, these points are interesting and true – but I believe it misses a very important point, and thereby is “the same performance – different set and actors”. What is flawed is that influence are seen as “mega”. So, this whole post are actually just saying “Why people prefer another megachurch / consumeristic / numbers driven model above the previous older version. ”

    It’s all about upgrading within a very “inflated” view of being church.

  • Yes this is a perfect example of mostly pious dribble and religious spirits operating in the church. And people really get so sick of it all. People need to see the signs wonders amd miracles that Jesus spoke about and He said that power is available to us in our day. God’s people need the same power and we can have it and use it. Where are the ministries that have that same power as described in Acts 2.
    I have seen a boy that was run over be a car and was raised from the dead Praise God. People need to see God’s supernatural power in operation.
    And how many Christians are getting all sorts of diseases and dying from them such as cander, stroke, heart problems etc. More next time.

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