In October 2007, Bill Hybels had what he called, “the biggest wake up call of his adult life.” His staff, led by Greg Hawkins, ran a survey of the congregation and discovered that their philosophy of ministry, which has guided them for the past 30 years, has led to a huge failure in making strong disciples of Jesus Christ. Come to find out that going to church and attending programs does not equate to mature faith. Hybels called these findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.” Now he has started a new approach based on more research through their website called REVEAL. My initial impressions back in 2008 are depicted in my cartoon, “Blind Foxes & Shifting Sands.”


First, my cartoon is not a wholesale indictment of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, or even the Willow Creek model. Hybels, like every leader, has made mistakes and used bad judgment, but I have no reason to doubt he is a brother in Christ Jesus. The only point I am making here is that statistical surveys are not an effective method for evaluating the spiritual life of a people. You can check out the educated and insightful opinion of Dr. Bradley Wright for deeper study.

Hybels is convinced that every church in America will be shocked to discover that attendance at a big church and spending millions of dollars on programs do not equate to spiritual maturity. But what shocks me is Hybels, after 30 years, is only now aware that his methodology is flawed.  A study of history could have told him 30 years ago that this approach was flawed.  It is a mistake for Hybels, and for any leader, to rely on statistics (from REVEAL or Barna or any source) to shape their ministry.

Henry and Richard Blackaby, in their book Spiritual Leadership: Moving People Onto God’s Agenda, states,

The church must discover its vision not by seeking the opinions of people but by seeking God’s will  (p.62).”

Later they ask, in response to the tendency of some in pastoral leadership to push the setting of BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals),

This all sounds exciting and can generally elicit a chorus of amens from the audience, but is it biblical? (p.66).”

The answer to their question probably varies from situation to situation, but the truth that we need to follow God’s vision and not our own is universal. A better translation of the oft quoted Proverbs 29:18 offers some important guidance,

Where there is no revelation the people cast off restraint

It is revelation that must guide us, not opinion polls and surveys.

Replacing one program with another program is not the answer either. There have been many voices over the past 30 years who have tried to warn of the flaws in Hybels approach. I suggest that if people are looking for some good answers to Hybels “new” discoveries,  they should look to some of those discerning voices before following Hybels into his next 30 year experiment.

I hope the cartoon will help people face some hard questions.

  • If you are a Willow church, why?
  • Should you continue to follow Hybels’ leadership into the next experiment? Why or why not?

Everyone who follows the Willow model will have different answers. I am not here to give anyone the answers but I do hope my observations will at least give you pause to stop, pray, and think about how God wants to lead your church?

Please take some time to LIKE Blind Foxes on Facebook!

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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