Bill Hybels on Church Planting: How I’d Plant a Church Today…

Bill Hybels on Church Planting:  In this interview with Bill Hybels conducted for the Exponential Conference this spring, Hybels gives an inside look at the planting of Willow Creek, AND how he would plant a church differently if he were planting Willow Creek in 2013…

It is rare that you see an article written on Bill Hybels on church planting.  In this interview featured in the new Exponential Resources Series eBook MOVE for Church Planters: What Willow Creek and 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, Hybels shares what he has learned in 37 years of ministry; how his experience might impact his actions were he planting a church today; and what advice he would most like to share with those whose passion is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with unchurched people in a relevant, compelling and successful way. To read the full eBook, dowload it here.

The suburban Chicago church plant, launched by a 22-year-old Bill Hybels back in 1975, would dramatically impact the face of American Christianity. What later became one of the nation’s first mega-churches, which now draws some 25,000 worshippers each week, Willow Creek Community Church began in a closed-on-Sunday-morning movie theater and was mostly staffed by teenaged volunteers passionate for Jesus Christ. As Willow grew, sharing what it learned with other churches became one of its highest priorities.

That desire to foster the progress of all Christ-centered churches continued into 2004, after Willow Creek’s internal congregant survey resulted in unanticipated findings. Now some 1,500 churches have participated in REVEAL, the resulting spiritual growth survey that carries implications for all Christian congregations, from long-established community anchors to bold new church plants. It is to church planters, in fact, that Willow Creek’s founding pastor Bill Hybels directed his remarks when he was asked, recently, what he has learned in 37 years of ministry, how his experience might impact his actions were he planting a church today and what advice he would most like to share with those whose passion is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with unchurched people in a relevant, compelling and successful way.

Welcome to that conversation.

Q: Before we start talking about what you might do the same and differently if you were planting a church today, let’s talk a little about our current environment. What societal factors have changed in the past 40 years that would impact your decisions today?

A: I think that there’s even more resistance/cynicism to the idea of the institutionalized church now than there was then. And I think that’s the result of all of the skepticism created as too many well-known pastors—and even some denominations—have broken trust. People who are starting a church today have to present an even stronger argument than we did in the mid-70s for Why another church? How is this one going to be different than all these other ones that are treading water and not doing a whole lot for their communities?

So, I would spend a lot of time coming up with the rationale for why would I be starting another church. What’s going to be different? What’s going to keep it from becoming like these others? That would be very important, because I think there’s a general feeling that there are already enough churches. In short, if you are going to launch a new church, you have to start with a white hot, differentiated, compelling vision, or why take up more real estate? Why not just go join one on the corner of Elm and Vine? Half of them are empty these days anyway, so why don’t you go take over their property as opposed to starting yet another one? So thinking about that and how to craft that vision would be quite important to me.

Start with a White-Hot, Differentiated, Compelling Vision.

Q: With this current environment in mind, can you give us an example of what worked well in your church plant 37 years ago that you would duplicate if you were planting a church today?

A: One thing I really got right is that I started Willow with my friends. The founders are still with me today and we’re still best of friends. I had an incredible team of proven people around me, and we had established a loving and joyful community before we held our first service. That I did right, by the grace of God. So if I were starting fresh, the minute I felt I had clarity on the vision for starting a new church, I would present that vision to close, trusted friends who I wanted to come along with me on this adventure.

Present That Vision to Close, Trusted Friends.

I get real nervous when senior pastors have a compelling vision and they start to share that vision with people they don’t know very well. Then they invite them to be a part of the inner circle that’s going to start this thing. I feel a lot more comfortable—even if the people aren’t as qualified—in having trust-filled, loving, already established friends surround you. Because they stick with you through thick or thin. They’re not the kind who bail because something goes a little wrong. The glue, the adhesion, is already in place and will hold together.

Q: Do you have an example of something you would do very differently?

A: Something that I didn’t do well, and this is a common problem all across the world, was to adequately capitalize our ministry. Therefore, the financial pressures were terribly destructive to the life of our church for the first five years. And it didn’t have to be that way. Most church planters and church planting organizations these days say you’ve got to raise X amount of money, so you’re sure people can survive—like, making sure your rent payment can be made. That kind of information was not widely known because there weren’t many church plants going on in our era. So I rather naively said, “God’s leading us to do this, so God will provide. We’re going to hold the first service and pass a plate around and it’s all going to be good.”

Well, we didn’t have a big enough core. We didn’t have people who had professional careers and resources to be able to invest, and we sank further and further into debt. All of us had to do things like take on part-time jobs and bring boarders into our homes, which led to a chaotic, unsustainable lifestyle.

Q: What steps would you take today?

A: These days I receive things in the mail from church planting organizations that have funds, but they don’t have the church planters. We’ve come so far that there are organizations with tens of millions of dollars ready to invest in a good church plant and church plant team. So I would say that church planters now should probably go to all of the various funding options and present their case, and see what part of it can be underwritten by one of these national or denominational funds. Then make the judgment about how “full on” your start can be, based on available funding.

Make the Judgment About How “Full On” Your Start Can Be, Based on Available Funding.

I would go to these organizations and say something like this: “There are ten of us on this team who want to give 18-hour-a-day efforts for the first three or four years to get this church up and going. If we don’t have to work part-time jobs, if we don’t have to take in boarders, if we don’t have to have our spouses work full-time jobs and neglect our kids— if we could take the basic financial stress out of the first three years, that would free us up to do all the things that we ought to be spending our time on. Like winning people to Christ, then discipling them and finding their place of service in this church. We’ll be way ahead five years from now if the first three years can get covered financially.”

But we didn’t do that and the stress was destructive. I certainly would capitalize the church better at the start.

Q: What else would you do differently?

A: Whenever I’m asked about my biggest mistakes in the early days of Willow, I say that I put undisciplined, untested people into positions of responsibility prematurely. And then I watched every imaginable kind of hurt happen as a result of that poor judgment. So, saying it the other way, I would spend far more time, and perhaps have a more formalized process, to vet and test leaders rigorously before putting them in key positions.

Vet and Test Leaders Rigorously Before Putting Them in Key Positions.

Q: What would that look like in a church-planting context?

A: Over the years I’ve learned you need to look for character, competence and chemistry. In the early days, I looked for warm bodies. I didn’t have the discernment grid. I didn’t know what would make or break a leader. So I didn’t know to the extent that I know it now that any little chinks in the character armor are going to be lethal. It’s not going to be a little problem. It’s going to be a major problem. So I have much higher standards now and have ways of determining who are people of character and who are not. Whereas in the early days, if they had a driver’s license and hadn’t served time, I figured—well, they’re probably okay. I should have observed them in a whole series of engagements. I should have checked references much, much better. I should have shot for the highest competence that I could find. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to chemistry. I thought, “Hey, people will get along.” I was naive about that. The truth is—and people in the church-planting world know this—that church planting attracts a sort of rogue personality. They’re risk-takers. Entrepreneurial, independent types who think, “Why would I go to a well-established church when I could help a church in a shopping center that’s just making it up as they go?” This makes it even that much more important to be careful about how you build your teams. Because you have a lot of highly independent, opinionated entrepreneurial types coming together at the same time to do the same thing.

I remember one of the first boards I put together. The third night we met, one of these hardcharging, real opinionated people said, “Hey, you have the totally wrong idea. I can’t believe that you are wasting your time talking about this.” He got up and not only left the room, but slammed the door. And the rest of us in the room were like, “Holy Cow! This is a church meeting. We’re just trying to figure out what place we’re going to rent for our mid-week service and someone blew up because he didn’t like the way we were going about it?”

Again, I was 22 years old, and I remember driving home that night thinking, “I even have to be careful about who I ask to serve on an ad hoc committee.” Because the rest of the guys who were in that room were thinking, “I don’t want to be on any committees.  Committees are dangerous places where doors get slammed and you don’t know who Bill’s going to have in the mix. I’m not going to sign up for anything like this again.” Well, I decided I have to be extremely careful about the chemistry thing in building teams and even ad hoc committees to make sure that people will like being with the other people on the team.

Q: So once you need to expand your network beyond your circle of trusted friends, how do you find the best possible leaders?

A: If you’re a start-up pastor, you do two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners every week with people outside your circle. This is a must because the pastor is the relational hub that makes the church work. If you have a hundred people coming to your early services, none of them know each other. But they all know you because they listen to you speak. So, it’s up to you to get to know every one of those people, so you can quickly establish who ought to be getting to know each other. Maybe they went to the same college, but they don’t know that. They’re both structural engineers, but they don’t know that. So I did two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners. And I would keep a little spiral notebook so I would remember that the Smiths ought to get together with the Johnsons because they have a lot in common. Then Lynne and I would invite the Smiths and Johnsons over to the house.

Do Two Breakfasts, Two Lunches and Two Dinners Every Week with People Outside Your Circle.

Our job was to get to know everybody so we could help the other people who didn’t know anybody start to form relationships. We did tons of social events. Halloween parties, hayrides, picnics—where people could begin to connect with people other than me. They got to know each other, and I got to know them. That’s how I found the best people with the best possible chemistry to put into leadership positions in the church.

Q: Any other practical steps you’d recommend to church planters?

A: I can think of two. The first is how to decide where to locate their church. When I talk with church planters, I always start by talking about vision. But quite quickly after the vision talk, I ask this question: “What demographic do you think calls the best out of you?” When you’re with a certain kind of people, do you get a sense of exuberance—that these are the kind of people I want to do life with?

Some church planters actually think that’s an illegal question. But let me give you an example. I was talking with a church planter who was on the verge of quitting. I knew his family background. These were very sophisticated people—grad school trained, excellent educational institutions and all that. And the church planting organization had put him in a blue collar, lower education level, semi- rural setting that was boring this guy to tears. These were lovely people. It’s just that they didn’t call the best out of him. He would want to discuss complex subject matters and things that are going to shape the future of the world. But they were not willing to engage in those conversations—the kind that gave him a lot of life and excitement. So I said, “Before you quit and go back into the business world, why don’t you see if there’s another plant that can be done in an area with a demographic that you actually feel fairly excited about?” And he said, “I couldn’t ask for that because that would be arrogant.” I said, “I don’t know that you ought to feel like that’s so bad, because a certain environment is going to call the best out of you and in another environment you’re not going to feel like such a great fit.”

And I think “fit” is key. God can always overrule it and call you to do anything. But if you have a choice in the matter, why don’t you choose to locate where the demographics call the best out of you? I heard from him several years later. He had relocated. It was like talking to a different guy. And he said, “I wouldn’t have stayed in ministry in that setting. But this is the group I’m supposed to be with.”

Locate Where the Demographics Call the Best Out of You.

It works the other way, too. Sometimes working with the poor and uneducated calls the best out of very sophisticated people. But they know that it does, so it works. The main thing is, find the fit. You have to have the self-awareness to know who calls the best out of you. A second practical issue is how to think about using volunteers vs. adding staff. In my opinion, the more a young church can get done through volunteers, the better. The fewer the staff, the better. As I said earlier, when we started Willow, we were undercapitalized and one of the downsides of that was tremendous financial stress. One of the upsides was that every week I told everyone attending the church—we need you! And they knew it was true. We needed everybody to step up—to take care of kids, to help set up and take down chairs, and eventually, to help us find a piece of land. That brought people forward. At one point, I think we were dangerously close to having 100 percent of our attendees serving because we didn’t have any paid staff.

The More a Young Church Can Get Done Through Volunteers, the Better.

As I look back on it, that’s how that sense of servanthood got embedded quickly. When you’re serving with each other, then connections happen. And when you are connected and serving, you’re owners of that vision.

Sometimes I hear of church plants that are overcapitalized. They start with 14 staff. Everything is slick and when people come, they think, “They don’t need me!” So they don’t become owners of the vision. They become spectators. They don’t use their spiritual gifts. They don’t get connected. Then you’ve got a polished, well-paid staff putting on a service for people who are spectating and leaving. So, you can be undercapitalized or you can be overcapitalized. There are dangers with each. You just have to understand what the dangers are.

Q: What you describe sounds like a strategy to Create Ownership, which is one of the four best practices discovered by REVEAL. Can you elaborate on how REVEAL has influenced your thinking about how a church can best fulfill its mission to help people become fully devoted followers of Christ?

A: I’d start by going back to something that was a miss in the early days of Willow, and it’s still a mystery to me why it was so much of a miss. It may be due to the fact I was still a fairly recent Christian when we started the church. In fact, I had only been a Christian five years. So when I started Willow, I loved reading God’s Word and I loved communicating with Him in prayer and reading good Christian books. I liked that just because of my relationship with God. But I dramatically underestimated how often my colleagues and the people in the church practiced the classic spiritual disciplines. I just thought everybody spent time with God and surrendered their spirits before Him every day. That everybody worked hard to receive promptings from God, quieting the ambient noise in their lives so they could hear Him. I misjudged that, and the few times that I preached on it, I remember seeing the semi-confused faces of the people in the crowd and thinking, “I must be doing a terrible job of teaching this because they are not getting it or they are not interested. I’m not getting the same kind of feedback that I get when I teach on other subject matters.”

So, I wound up not teaching on the spiritual practices very often. It’s hard to do, and I got mixed response. Decades later I found out, primarily through REVEAL, that I should have stuck with that. I should not have been dissuaded by the kind of feedback I was getting. I should have done a major series on the classic spiritual disciplines every single year, whether I saw confused faces or not. I should have just dug in and made that a regular part of the menu. We also had some feedback that went like this: “Yeah, well, interesting. But I’d really like to know something more practical than this, like how to be a better parent. Why don’t you teach this other stuff at a seminar, not on Sunday morning?”

Well, we didn’t have the facilities or the teachers to hold those kinds of seminars. So, it wasn’t until decades later when we found out—through REVEAL—that you can strip away almost every other thing the church does. But at the core of the core of the core, growing people into Christ followers is all about helping them engage in God’s Word and inspiring them to invite God to be at the center of their lives. I did not emphasize that as much in the early days as I do now.

Q: So you would do things differently today?

A: Absolutely. Now at Willow we have what we call the Getting Started Classes. The second movement in the Getting Started Classes is the spiritual practices: how to read your Bible, how to pray, how to surrender, how to confess your sins. We get people on track with these very basic things that will help them walk with Christ as soon as they show any movement. In the early days of Willow, when someone showed spiritual movement we would congratulate them and point them toward a ministry where they could serve or a group where they could get to know other people. But we didn’t instill a strong awareness that, more than anything, people need to know how to relate to God through his Word, and how to hear His prompting. How to navigate a day with Him in your head, in your heart, at your side—and all of that. It’s a deep regret I carry.

Instill a Strong Awareness That, More Than Anything, People Need to Know How to Relate to God Through His Word, and How to Hear His Prompting.

Q: What you’re talking about relates directly to two of the four best practices: Get People Moving and Embed the Bible in Everything. Other than getting people on track right away with spiritual disciplines, is there anything else you’d do differently?

A: Yes, and it relates to my church upbringing. I grew up in a church that was doctrinally intense. Because I heard the Heidelberg Catechism every Sunday for 20 years, and didn’t get application-oriented Bible teaching, I overreacted. I said to my congregation that all you’re going to learn from me is stuff you can put into practice on Monday morning. I’m not going to bore you with anything else. You’ll learn how to make a better marriage, how to bring Christ to your workplace, how to make good decisions—all this application-oriented teaching. In hindsight, I realize that I never really established the greater context in which those messages were being preached. Theologians would say I didn’t understand systematic theology. I didn’t create the infrastructure in which all of these pieces could make sense. And I think that hurt people. It robbed them of a richer understanding of the whole story of God and the arc of His activity throughout history. Now I find ways to be doctrinally and intellectually rigorous—to stretch people’s understanding of the whole narrative of Scripture as opposed to only delivering the goods for them to put into practice on Monday morning. If you shortchange people on that richer narrative, you do so to everyone’s peril.

Stretch People’s Understanding of the Whole Narrative of Scripture.

I think many church planters are eager to get a church up and going—eager to help people make better decisions in their everyday lives. In their eagerness, they might do what I did, which was to shortchange them on a fuller understanding of how awesome  God really is. Don’t shortchange people on knowing the attributes of God—who is He, what does His kingdom mean and where is this all going to wind up at the end?

Q: The fourth best practice found by REVEAL is “Pastor the Local Community.” That brings up this question: What about local and global service? Your “second conversions” about racial injustice and HIV-AIDS are well known and have influenced churches around the world. How would you advise young church planters today to find their mission field?

A: What gives me hope, especially in the lives of young pastors, is that if they stick with leading their churches and practicing the spiritual disciplines, God will give them their own “second conversions.” He will bring some causes into their minds five years from now that they don’t care a whiff about today.

I talked to a church planter recently who is in a tough urban area. With the crime in their neighborhood, they are almost in a war zone. And this guy is doing a very good job. He’s building a nice congregation there. I ran into him at a speaking event and I congratulated him. He’s been at it for six or seven years now. And I said, “Man, you’re not giving up, this is good, way to go!” And he said, “Yeah, but I want to do this global stuff like you. Aren’t you in 20 or 30 different countries? I want to start getting our people over there.” And I said, “What? Is God talking to you about this?”

He said, “Shouldn’t we all be globally oriented?” I said, “Yes, we should all be globally oriented. But there are so many traumas occurring within ten blocks of your church my advice would be solve some of that before you solve some village’s traumas in Malawi. Show the power of God in the place you know. If you don’t do much for Malawi in the first decade of your existence, I don’t think you’re going to get a merit badge removed when you stand before God someday. Now, if God really moves in your spirit, great! But don’t do this just because other churches do.”

So many younger idealistic church planters want to be full blown with every cause and every program. I think we need to let God do that over time. You don’t have to do it all at the beginning. Just do a few things well. Let the Holy Spirit tell you when it’s time to do the next thing. And the next thing, and the next, and the next. It would not have been wise for us, in the early days of Willow, to cook up some big outreach thing when we didn’t even have a youth ministry. We didn’t know how to disciple people who were getting saved. So take baby steps at first. Do the simple things well, and then as God grows your competence and you have some stability, God will give you your own “second conversion.” Stay focused for a while.

God Will Give You Your Own “Second Conversion.”

Q: Christ-Centered leadership is at the heart of REVEAL’s best-practice findings. How do you keep your passion for Jesus fired up?

A: In Romans 12:11, Paul says: Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. He’s saying don’t let your zeal burn low, but he’s also saying you’re responsible for your zeal. I like to remind myself of that. It’s my responsibility to keep my passion hot. It’s no one else’s. So if mine starts running low, I have to discern what cooled it off and then I’ve got to stop letting that happen. I have to figure out who the people are, what the books and the experiences are, that refresh my spirit—and then lean into whatever works to re-fire a passion for Jesus.

Lean Into Whatever Works to Re-fire a Passion for Jesus.

For example, whenever I’m around certain people for any length of time, I feel my pulse rate increasing. They fire me up. I need to be around them a little more. And, besides the Bible, the book I’ve turned to more often than any other for inspiration and encouragement is Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines. If I need spiritual refueling, that book works for me. So, who I’m with, what I read, where I go—that’s what keeps me charged up.

Last week I attended a particular conference in Manhattan that I go to every year. I go there as a discipline because there are certain years that I don’t feel like going. And this year nothing of great substance happened until the last night. Then some things unfolded and I almost couldn’t control the amount of enthusiasm in my spirit because I got a new idea. I got a new vision for something and it came all at once. I could see it and I knew it was going to help me so much and be so cool at Willow when I finally figure out how to do this. So I went up to my room and journaled about it for 45 minutes, then called a friend to talk to about it. Something like that generally happens when I go to this place. So I know I’ve got to go there. Even when it’s inconvenient, I have to take responsibility and just go.

Q: Thanks so much for sharing all of this with us, Bill. To close, do you have a final word of advice or encouragement for church planters?

A: You’re one of the luckiest people on the planet—because the most important thing happening on earth is the establishment and building of local churches. God selected you to be able to form a community where this incredibly important work is going to be going on under your direction for perhaps the next 40 years. You won the lottery!

You Won the Lottery!

Enjoy it! Every day realize you don’t have to stand at a drill press. You don’t have to load and unload trucks. You get to traffic in kingdom ideas and work with great people who are pulling with you to try to form this Acts 2 dream of Christ’s church. You should fall on your knees and say, “God, what an incredible privilege to be invited by your Holy Spirit to play a key role in the most important thing happening on planet Earth.”

I tell pastors all the time that I’ve had a ball! We’ve taken our hits. There are bad days. But I’ve had an astonishingly blessed ride. And I think God would have that same heart toward every pastor. I think he wants every pastor to love His Word and love the adventure of His work. I don’t even know what it’s like to lay my head on the pillow and say that today was a waste. Every night I feel like we moved the ball. We may have only moved it a foot, but we moved the kingdom ball ahead a little bit today. That’s good enough for me.

A high percentage of the human race hits the pillow at night feeling like their day was a waste. They didn’t move anything eternal ahead. They didn’t touch any lives. They didn’t do anything that’s going to outlive them. So my final word to church planters is this—you won the lottery! You get to lead the coolest endeavor on planet Earth, the only agency God said he was going to predictably bless and favor.

You get to be a part of that!


Note: At the 2012 conference, Exponential interviewed Bill and his family about how their lives were impacted by his leadership of Willow:


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