As Christmas nears, Willow Creek hopes for a fresh start

Acting senior pastor Steve Gillen, center, offers prayers for Christmas prison packs filled at Willow Creek Community Church for its Hope Behind Bars initiative near Chicago on Dec. 9, 2018. Video screenshot

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. (RNS) — Warm white lights twinkled on the artificial evergreen trees and garlands decorating the auditorium.

The worship team sang upbeat Christmas carols “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

People in the auditorium seats dressed in cozy flannel and festive sweaters, greeting friends and sitting with family.

For a few minutes during Saturday evening’s (Dec. 15) service, it was Christmastime as usual at Willow Creek Community Church.

“Wherever you’re at, Christmas is coming,” one worship leader said. 

RELATED: What’s next for Willow Creek?

The late December holiday, during which Christians remember Jesus’ birth, has always been a festive time at Willow Creek, one of the largest and most influential evangelical megachurches in the United States, with about 24,000 worshippers every week across eight locations in the Chicago area.

Christmas decorations fill Willow Creek Community Church during worship. Video screenshot

This year, Willow Creek is celebrating with a monthlong series called “Awestruck” — about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christmas story — leading up to six Christmas Eve services between Dec. 22 and 24 at the church’s main campus in the northwestern suburb of South Barrington. 

“This Christmas at Willow, we’ll sing songs, hear the well-known story, and tell a few of our own stories to get at the deep-down truth that right now — whoever you are, whatever the longing of your heart may be, whatever mess you find yourself in — God has come to you, has revealed Himself to you, and wants you to know that you are loved,” creative director Nick Benoit wrote in a sneak peek of the services posted Tuesday to Willow Creek’s website.

RELATED: Willow Creek responds to new allegations against former pastor Hybels

But there also are reminders that much has changed this year at Willow Creek.

Bill Hybels in 2012. Photo by Marc Gilgen/Creative Commons

Founding pastor Bill Hybels is gone, having stepped down after he was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by a number of women connected to the church in a series of news reportsHybels denied the allegations but retired early from the church and the Willow Creek Association, a network of thousands of churches worldwide with ties to Willow Creek. 

Church leaders first defended Hybels, then admitted his behavior was sinful and their previous investigation, flawed. Eventually, Hybels’ successors and all of the church’s elders resigned, saying the church needed a fresh start.

Now the church hopes to start over with new leaders, beginning with its elder board.

RELATED: Willow Creek elders and lead pastor resign in wake of Hybels revelations

“In the spring of 2018, Willow entered into one of the most difficult and painful seasons in our church’s history,” according to a video update from the church’s Elder Selection Committee shown during services the weekend of Dec. 9.

The video introduced 11 candidates for the church’s elder board who will take office in January, barring any concerns raised about candidates.

Still, the church has much work to do.

That starts with a filling a $3.3 million budget shortfall, according to the last 2018 process update from the church posted online Tuesday evening.

Church attendance fell about 9 percent from the year before across the church’s eight campuses and at least 15 percent at its main campus, according to a process update dated Sept. 27.

Giving dropped about 10 percent from January to July and more than 25 percent from August to October, according to a financial update acting senior pastor Steve Gillen shared in the fall. September alone was the lowest giving month in the past five years, according to an Oct. 25 process update.

Since then, both attendance and giving have been “remarkably consistent,” Gillen said during a service the weekend of Dec. 9.

Acting senior pastor Steve Gillen preaches at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago on Dec. 9, 2018. Video screenshot

The church adjusted its general operating budget for 2019, cutting anticipated giving from $685,000 a week to $550,000 a week for 2019 and eliminating 50 full-time positions in the process. The church also cut operational expenses and drew from long-term cash reserves, according to updates and information shared by Gillen at services. Half of the positions eliminated came from cutting unfilled positions; the others, from layoffs.

RELATED: Former Willow Creek pastor Steve Carter breaks his silence on Hybels allegations

Willow Creek also is forgoing its usual Year-End Fund — instead focusing on a Close the Gap initiative, hoping churchgoers will give extra to fill that budget gap.

In past years, Willow Creek has invited churchgoers to donate to the Year-End Fund above and beyond the regular offerings they give each week, Gillen notedThat money would go to a special initiative planned for the upcoming new year.

Christmas decorations at Willow Creek Community Church on Dec. 15, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Last year, the church collected money for a program called Forward, a plan to invest in space and outreach for students and kids, as well as resources for adults to connect with small groups and engage with the Bible; and to expand its online church community and locations in the Chicago suburbs.

“With everything that happened this year, many of those initiatives were put on pause,” Gillen said.

RELATED: Willow Creek names NAE head, 3 others to oversee Hybels investigation

Willow Creek now hopes to pick up those initiatives in 2019 with the funds set aside last year.

Its new elders also will begin the search for a senior pastor in the new year.

And an Independent Advisory Group continues its investigation into the allegations against Hybels and the church’s handling of them.

Meantime, acting executive pastor Matt Wright preached a message over the weekend at the main campus about the season leading up to Christmas being a season of waiting.

God has a promise for each person at Willow Creek, Wright said. There can be a lot of time between a promise and its fulfillment, he said, but God doesn’t waste the wait. He uses it.

As churchgoers wait for Willow Creek’s next chapter to begin, he encouraged them to do the same.

“Don’t waste the wait,” he said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.


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  • Dear Member of Willow Creek Community Church,

    Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.
    As per many contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.


    Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing/talking from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

    “Mark’s gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event.

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, “The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative in respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil.

    Matt 1:18-25: , pp. 123-124, “The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical”. Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

    “Lüdemann [pp. 261-63) discounts Luke’s account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. ”

    Then there are these additional conclusions:

    Professor Bruce Chilton

    “In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus’ life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus’ self-identity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

    Continued below:

  • From Professor John Dominic Crossan

    “In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

    “In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke’s account of Jesus’ conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard “pagan” birth legends while investing great effort in the defense of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

    I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus. ”

    “The following ancient parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception should be noted:

    Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
    Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
    Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
    Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]”

    And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:

    “And the day will come,
    when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the Supreme Being as His Father,
    in the womb of a virgin,
    will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva”

    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

    Conclusion: Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.

  • Now would be a good time to ditch any political conservatism, if members have that. Fresh starts are opportunities for churches to wake up.

  • You’ve provided nothing but opinions. While I can’t prove it… you surely can’t disprove Christ’s birth. He changed my life and I’ve watched hundreds of lives redirected apart from their own will by surrendering their life to Him. Don’t miss it.

  • Hey, don’t forget to remind them to hate on President Trump with all their minds, hearts, and souls!

    (Not exactly sure what good such hatred would accomplish, but since you’re into all that stuff, might as well make that part of your sales-pitch!)

  • Of course, it won’t hurt to point out that **some** folks have looked up those 4 names (Moses, Plato, Alexander, Apollonius) and the accounts of their births — and NONE of them are actual parallels to the astonishing (and very specific) historical details that you’ll find in Matthew and Luke, about Jesus’s unique birth.

    There has never been a birth like that of Jesus Christ, **in all of Earth’s history.** Deal upfront, folks!!

  • Well, because most of today’s political conservatism is built on claims which are not true and which turn into policy which is not Christian when put into practice. It’s legendary, for instance, that political conservatives are against anything which is associated with socialism. Yet virtually everybody at USA church is beneficially swimming (instead of sinking) in all the blessings which have been achieved in the past century or so with respect to public education, public infrastructure, regulated financial trading and business practices, public safety, consumerism, public utilities, food and drug safety, environmental regulation on corporate activities, Social Security and Medicare for the oldsters, labor law, collective bargaining and much more. To hear the pastor gang aligned with Am Talk Radio, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, The Hoover Institution, and The Fox News Channel tell a world view, all these collectively-achieved blessings are bad, possibly evil and should all be destroyed. This effect has made large numbers of pastors and church attendees into complete fools, approvers of lying on nearly all subjects which are tangible matters in people’s real (real) lives.

    I was in churches, several denominations, for over 40 years. I finally woke up to the fact that their business models are not built on telling people truth about much of anything.
    Many of them start with “Every Word of the Bible is True”, a colossal fib about what the Bible is, then comport themselves to whatever will draw a paying audience for supposedly-spiritual Sunday Entertainment. This institutional behavior is simply not in any kind of real tune with a spirit of “loving the neighbors”. We are to love the neighbors by getting real, getting honest on all subjects. Conservative Church is not designed to do it—–and, as a result, doesn’t do it.

  • And there has never been births like those of Buddha or Lao-tzu.

    The mind does nightmarish things 24/7. And keep in mind that Mark, the most historical of the Gospels, does not even mention the birth of Jesus. You would think with all the supernatural hype around said birth, he would have featured it on the first page.

  • There is no doubt Jesus was born, however, he was not born as per the description in Luke’s gospel.

  • My life experience has been that of growing into adulthood and discovering that neither the Church Incorporated Gang nor the Chamber of Commerce Incorporated Gang are the least bit interested in speaking truthfully to ordinary citizens on real subjects. Those who are SUPPOSED to be paternalistic enough, for instance, to shoot straight with high school kids or twenty-somethings about subjects like health insurance are simply unable or unwilling to do it. Landing, as I did, as both a church member and an accountant for a manufacturing company in the early 1970s, I have watched both “institutions” (Church and Business Leaders) simply go less and less truthful over 40+ years. This is not right, and our obligation is to fix it.

  • My #1 suggestion would be citizens deciding we will, will, will have a fairness doctrine in media. We had one before, and we could have one again whenever citizens demand it. This goes to the idea of what we permit corporations to do. We have not completely abandoned the idea of truth in advertising, after all, which at root is a “freedom of speech” issue where some brakes or limits are applied. Where is the line when we say that corporations lying to our citizenry with only one side presented in issue discussions is not acceptable.

    One way to do this might be by limiting the business expense deduction any corporation can take for advertising or sponsorship of programs which are not balanced. We need to tone down junk like Rush Limbaugh by reducing the flow of money he can take in for broadcasting one-sided opinions which negatively affect our civics. It’s not about his “speech”, it’s about the amplification it receives. After all, nobody pays you or me to soapbox in such a way in our workplaces. Our employers, in fact, would tell us to shut up. We citizens need a similar balance of power with the corporations who are overpowering us with “messaging”.

    With churches and ministries, this is harder. It mostly centers on whether they continue claiming (improbably) that Every Word Of This Bible Is True. The ones who are fibbing about that are largely given to fibbing about everything else. We need our people holding Christianity to the high standard of telling truth, no matter what the truth is showable to be.

  • The people here believe Jesus exists because they know him personally, not because of any physical evidence or lack thereof. Which you don’t have by the way.

    Personal experience always trumps second hand accounts