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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.


    • What I am about to share is biblically called ‘exhortation’ and correction. You could also call it “free expression” and an honest reply. I’m certainly NOT saying that I am necessarily correct:

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

      Why not? Does political correctness dictate this forum or perhaps you wanted the answers that you wanted to hear? That is exactly what the whole modern “seeker”/ PDC movement is about: ‘outcome based religion.’ Steer people into the direction that you want them to go and have them arrive at the answer that you want them to come to. It’s also known as “manipulation.” I hope that most Christians see a problem with that. It happens because the church has gotten heavily hierarchal while pretending to be humble, pious and “egalitarian.”

      Of course all forms of communication can help to keep the body in touch but when it becomes a frivolous and idolatrous fixation that replaces real ministry, then it becomes antithetical to the Gospel.

      >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.

      “Singles and doubles”…”knocking IT out of the park? As long as we think in these kind of worldly terms, we will continue to miss the mark in Jesus Christ (in the greater evangelical church) I am not saying that you are missing the mark.

      >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?

      Sounds good Paul, as long as these forms of modern communication enhance ministry connections / discipleship/ invitations to community etc/ and don’t replace real relationship building and one-on one outreach and ministry. On my visits to Willow Creek, I was always struck as to how disconnected and unfriendly most of the herd was. Very little human, let alone Christian connection going on from what I experienced. My experience at Harvest Bible Chapel (where my family now attends) has been extrordinarily loving, caring and authentic. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

      >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?

      Paul, is numbers what Christianity is all about. Numbers is what churchianity is all about , especially since the advent of the ‘Purpose Driven Church.’

      >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).

      “Rockstars”… why would anyone in Christian leadership want to use that analogy? You’re not coming off like you’re bashing- but you are coming off like your thoughts are higher and better than others.

      Answering the person who slung out the “religious spirit” comment. Faith movement adepts are presiding over the greatest perversion of Christianity in our time. Those who know me call me a “classical Pentecostal” who certainly knows of and operates in certain gifts of the Spirit but the abuses in the Faith Movement and their fixation on ‘signs, wonders’ and “prosperity,” has ruined many a Christian. I hear from them and pray for them all of time through my website. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and His gifts still operate but the Simons who worship ‘signs and wonders’ are seeking out what God can give them rather than PRIMARILY seeking God’s face to love and adore Him.

    • Paul & others, the reason why this is not the place to discuss Reveal and the merits of the church ministry philosophy is because this is the “Christian Web Trends” blog. We FOCUS on the impact of the Internet on Christian ministry.

      Yes, loving people is more important. Yes, ministry philosophy is more important. Yes, Jesus is MOST important. But here we are talking about making the most effective use of technology in ministry.

      I would really appreciate it if we could stay on topic. Thanks!

    • Paul,

      Narrowing my input strictly to the topic, I believe the answer is found in how early Christianity, particularly Paul’s journeys, were made particularly feasible due to the infrastructure of roads and shipping that the pagan Roman empire provided Paul. Certainly we can utilize almost every form of communication (that I am aware of as long as IT doesn’t become the focus and we are not mixing the holy and the profane (like sharing Christ on a porn website). As long as we are not giving undue focus to the form of communication and raise IT up and above the Message and we are directed by God’s Spirit and are not just enamored with the newest technology, God can bless our communication and use it of course. BUT if we so glorify “twittering” and such and allow it to actually distract from all the important feeding and edification of the body, then we could do God a disservice. Like all things, God must be first and we must be reminded that almost ANYTHING can become an idol or distract us from Jesus and His Gospel. Aren’t there days, perhaps weeks when you sense that dealing with all of this distracts you from prayer and Bible study? I have had to forget about my web sites for a month at a time, in order to make sure that I was primarily focused on Jesus and not primarily on my websites.

    • Thanks for the interaction, thoughts and challenges. We have a long way to go on the social networking and tech side. Probably a lot is also because our team (IT for example) has been working so hard over the years to create infrastructure and communication for us internally both at the church and especially at the WCA. With over 10,000 member churches in the WCA, tens of thousands of conference registations, products and services, totally revamping those internal web sites/structures int he last 3 years for the church and our WCA areas (childrens, students, groups, etc) I know that they have been “disctracted” if you will.

      Plus adding and integrating 5 campuses as we launched new sites, I am frankly surprised we are as far as we are. But to your point it could be more of a priority for sure, and that means throwing some money and staff at some of this given the new world in which we live. Please, i do not speak for all that team, but guess they would like to do more too — just need to get it on the front page.

      While others have been able to create the new wave over the last 10 years, we were experiencing an overwhelming barrage of incoming activity (as I described above). For example, at one point we had 7 onsite conferences and over a dozen international events going on, we were launching a new campus every year, Bill travelled 100 days to international cities to talk about and build the Global Summit ministry, we grew from18,000-24,000 weekend attendance, and grew to 130 Association employees and 350 church staff. I am sure our IT people were more than busy. In a sense we were riding a huge wave of interest and activity and requests worldwide coming our way that probably kept us from seeing the rising wave that was emerging. I am totally convinced our people knew and know what is happening, but it has been about capacity as much as it is about vision. Organizations of such scale stuggle simply because of size (World Vision is an example).

      So thanks for the challenge and the interaction. To those who are “bible only” and “Jesus only” people, why are you reading this blog? Why do you have a computer or cell phone? And do you have no commentaries or Bible study resources in your church or home? No hymnals? Visit no web sites (except this one)? Never learn from pastors, Sunday School teachers, own a Christian music CD? Get real.

      I can tell you why this article generated so much buzz… the name Willow Creek was in it. If this were written only about Northpoint’s influence with the web, the article would have been very helpful and interesting, but i am guessing the buzz would have been much less. Just because Willow is controversial. And because it mentioned something about Willow failing, shrinking, whatever, in some area. There is not (at least not as much yet) animosity toward Andy and Craig or those ministries as toward Willow or Rick W, as evidenced by the comments. Just google and see. It is pretty nasty out there and the harmful comments are relentless. Of course, after people tell us we are going to hell, they sign the email, “your brother in Chirst” — heartwarming.

      I will say, however, that I see more criticism coming. When LifeChurch was becoming more known we had Bobby Gruenwald speak live via internet on the screen at the Group Life conference, and I interviewed him about the internet campus, we showed it, etc. — it was the session that got the most negative reaction from people– still a big negative buzz out there about internet community etc. — not among the 20-somethings but certainly inthe 40+ group — no doubt the stones are being thrown. Which is nice…we get hit less (smile).

      It’s hard not to be hurt or get defensive because of misunderstanding, harsh judgments and critical spirits. And I am not trying to speak from that place here. And I am not naive about whether we invite or deserve some of what we get. we also invite genuine critique and dialogue. But it is hard. I once invited a very well known critic of Willow to spend several days with us — meet staff, visit ministries, sit in on services, meet believers and unbelievers who had come to Willow, etc. He had written an article based on hearsay about the church –some of which had fair critique, but much of which simply was untrue about Bill H and what we were doing. Sadly, he had no desire to do so. I learned a lot from that.

      Thanks Paul & Scott and those who engaged the issue in the article. I appreciate the spirit of these remarks — you’ve tried to give a fair assessment and critique from your vantage point and it has promoted healthy dialogue and, I believe, kingdom progress. Hope to stay more in touch with you in the future.

      Bill D

    • I finally got a chance to read through the entire thread and wow, it was a lot to work through. As I was reading a thought came to mind and I was curious if there was any data to back some of the observations that were made.

      The first thing that came to mind was Twitalyzer! What better way to measure “influence”! 🙂 Twitalyzer goes beyond number of followers and comes up with a crazy calculation that also measures how engaged the “followers” really are with that person/account. According to the handy Twitter analyzing tool we find that:
      @bobbygwald was rated “slowly developing” based on a calculated score of 3.8 out of 100.
      @andystanley was rated as “developing based” on a calculated score of 9.6 out of 100.
      @rickwarren was rated as “established based” on a calculated score of 49.9 out of 100.
      @bdonahue80 was rated as “barely emerging” based on a calculated score of 0.3 out of 100.

      So according to Twitalyzer, Rick actually has more influence on Twitter than Bobby or Andy. Bill is in a league of his own. One recommendation to Bill is that he stop posting to this blog and get Tweeting.

      You can find the rankings here:

      Thanks again for the discussion.

    • Well, wellcome to reality. Changes are an important part of churches influence. R.Warren & B. Hybells were the Twenty Century reference. Now, we have “new kids on the block” in the XXI century. Thanks to our God because Christians churches still are an influential people. All is good communications and mass media strategy. Like in Jesus’ times.

    • Greetings in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ!!! I agree with all of the points, but that being said….. the annoiting destroys the yoke of bondage, this is what attracts followers. At one point, our ministry will use all that was mentioned above. There is no set formula. Wish there was, would be a lot easier, wouldn’t it? So, use all the tech that’s available, just remember that it is the same when Jesus walked the earth. The annoiting brings the followers, and keeps them. I believe , Willow Creek, and Saddleback , will snap back. These are very hard times, but God, ( my favorite 2 words) is very much in control. Have a Jesus-filled Day!! Dr. R. Joseph Milligan, Upper Room Ministries, Gathering of Friends Fellowship

    • Using effective communication to “spread” the Gospel has its roots in the Bible. From Jesus’ agricultural metaphors to Paul’s Olympic references. So whether it be spoken, written, twittered, blogged or on a T-shirt…go for it. This however should not be confused with the later process of growth, maturity and offering to God worship in Truth and Spirit. This is done in fellowship that moves into deeper relationship with Christ and each other. While the Willow and Saddleback models have been effective in spreading the Gospel as North Point and LIfeChurch are doing as well, they all have the same chink in their armour…that of effectively leading seekers to be able to feed themselves and enter into deeper relationships with the Body and to worship God in a “God-centered” manner. You have to move out of random sound bytes to do that and “not neglect to meet together regularly.”

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