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NEWS PROFILE: Trend-Setting Evangelical Pastor Utilizes Research, Humor, to Grow Huge Flock

c. 2005 Religion News Service SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. _ The Rev. Bill Hybels stepped onto the stage at Willow Creek Community Church to give a sermon on money management. But the senior pastor of this trend-setting, Chicago-area congregation was not offering a fund-raising message asking the faithful to dig into their wallets to support a […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. _ The Rev. Bill Hybels stepped onto the stage at Willow Creek Community Church to give a sermon on money management. But the senior pastor of this trend-setting, Chicago-area congregation was not offering a fund-raising message asking the faithful to dig into their wallets to support a ministry. Instead, the Kalamazoo, Mich. native _ whom Time magazine recently named one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders _ wanted to challenge people to think about tithing as a higher calling. Hybels uses a practical theology, bolstered by a heartfelt faith, that tries to help people feel good about themselves without watering down the biblical commands. His message is packaged in a performance-style service that draws criticism from outsiders but also pulls in more than 17,000 worshippers a week, making it one of the largest churches in America. After a born-again blues musician belted out a few faith-based tunes on this winter night, Hybels started off his sermon with a good-natured jab at his Christian Reformed Church roots. “Isn’t this great _ a Dutch guy gets to do a message on money?” Hybels said, drawing lots of laughter over the stereotype of tight-fisted Hollanders. Slender and well-groomed, Bill Hybels is a church leader who also likes to race sailboats, fly planes, parachute, ride motorcycles, jog and play racquetball. Hybels has written several books that have topped Christian best-seller lists. He has served as a spiritual adviser to former President Bill Clinton and logs thousands of frequent-flier miles annually as he travels to tell the story of his church. What seems to draw people to Bill Hybels is his loyalty, his passion for Christianity and a drive for excellence in himself and in others. “He has shown his commitment to me in lots of ways,” said Joel Jager, a childhood friend from Kalamazoo who has been with Hybels from the start. Jager helps to oversee production of services and events at the church. “Bill challenges us to be all God wants us to be,” Jager said. Time magazine recognized Hybels for the way in which he has led a church movement _ first in the Chicago area and now worldwide _ that has “mass appeal.” “Hybels was a pioneer in attracting an upscale, youthful following with an informal yet rousing contemporary service,” Time said in its Feb. 7 edition. “Now 52, he (Hybels) leads a network of 10,500 churches and trains more than 100,000 pastors a year.” He does this training through the Willow Creek Association, the evangelistic and teaching arm of the church. Asked about the recognition from Time, Hybels said he considers it part of a broader picture. Evangelicals _ usually conservative, Bible-believing Christians _ are now on the national radar. “There is a fresh realization (in the media and elsewhere) of how important this group of people is, not as a voting bloc, but as a solid core to American culture,” Hybels said. After poking fun at his heritage, Hybels continued his sermon on money by offering a history on Willow Creek _ a nondenominational congregation he and his wife, Lynne, founded in 1975 after interviewing hundreds of people about what they sought in a church. “When this church was a tiny gathering in the Willow Creek theater 30 years ago, I was the only bona fide pastor and the only counselor available,” said Hybels, who has a Bible-studies degree from Trinity International University in Illinois and studied business for two years at Dordt College in Iowa. “I was only in my early 20s and had no clue how to solve these problems. “I was so unfit in those days until they came in with money issues. I have a business-oriented background and knew how to handle that.” Hybels credits his deceased father _ Harold, former owner of Hybels Produce Co. _ with teaching him a strong work ethic and inspiring him to take his Christian faith seriously. Bill Hybels spent many hours stacking and packing produce, riding along in the truck to pick up and make deliveries, and learning how to dicker for the best prices on products. “We learned that when you do business, you have to get right in there and rub shoulders with some pretty tough guys,” said Dan Hybels, who works with his brother at Willow Creek overseeing a ministry that fixes up and sells donated cars to single parents. Dan Hybels said their father taught them not to back down or roll over when things got hard. But he also taught them to be honest and to honor God in everything they did _ all traits that have helped make Willow Creek successful. “He (Bill Hybels) and the church are in the forefront in all sorts of areas,” said Scott McKnight, a Willow Creek member and professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago. Under Hybels’ lead and with his wife as the point person, Willow Creek recently raised nearly $600,000 to help fight AIDS in Africa. In the evangelical community, Willow Creek has led the way in addressing the AIDS problem, both in the amount of money raised and in drawing attention to the issue. Willow Creek recently wrote a check for $200,000, in addition to money already given, to help fund ongoing relief for those affected by last year’s tsunami in South Asia. Willow Creek also has created or supports several more-typical ministries in and around Chicago, including food and clothing banks and the donated-car ministry. The church also has a preaching and teaching network led by Hybels that offers church-growth seminars and materials to church leaders around the world. Last week Hybels spoke to more than 11,000 church workers at a pastor’s conference in Germany. “The whole secret is that they (Hybels and church leaders) have listened to people to find out what they want,” McKnight said. (OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS) The mega-church still has its critics, however, with some people saying Willow Creek is big on marketing but light on substance. They say the service is more about entertainment than an opportunity to get closer to God. “I am not used to being so passive and detached,” says the Mystery Worshipper, a feature of the Web site that posts reviews of churches by anonymous church attendees. “These folks came to a show. We didn’t sing, we didn’t confess or profess anything, no prayer, no interaction, nada. I admit I don’t understand what the vast numbers are getting out of all this.” While a performance-style service may turn off some people, upbeat music and accessible, Bible-based sermons are important for many Christians, especially younger families, said Calvin College communication professor Quentin Schultze. “Clearly Hybels learned much about historic Christianity from his own upbringing, but his church’s task became conveying age-old truth in new wineskins,” Schultze said. Once the money-management sermon is over and the church has cleared out, Hybels talked about the place he holds today on the international church scene. “I grew up thinking I’d go into the family business. I never intended to be a pastor,” he said. “No one is more surprised by the path my life took than I.”

(Chris Meehan writes about religion for The Gazette in Kalamazoo, Mich.)

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