Willow Creek Community Church- “It’s The Culture, Stupid!” (Sorry, Too Harsh)

 

“So every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produces good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew 7:17-19

The concept of the “Fruit of The Poisonous Tree” , which the above verse refers to, began as a legal principle that stipulated that any evidence that came from a compromised source could not have legal validity, and so could not be used against a defendant. The idea has expanded to include the notion that anything that is produced from an unhealthy environment will be tainted. Unhealthy environments are the cultural context from which sickly things are produced. Culture can be healthy or corrupt, and the fruits of this context will follow suit. The tree, in this verse, represents the culture.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A quip attributed to Peter Drucker.

As I look at months of my (and others) blogging about the dysfunction of my church, Willow Creek Community Church, and its founding pastor Bill Hybels, the question that comes to mind is “has it made much difference?”. Truthfully, my conclusion is that it has not had a substantial impact on anything going forward in terms of real organizational reform. The same hiding of truth exists even now post-Hybels-crisis. The same elitist mentality of leadership seems unaltered. The same failure to let people know what is going on financially at the church is intact. The same image management strategy remains the intact modus operandi of the church. The same failure to admit sin and compensate victims of its nefarious ways continues unabated. 

Why does this seem to be the case? As I write this, I know the answer. I knew it all along, but hoped against hope that it was not true. But it is. And what is it? Culture. Culture is the answer to why there has been no substantial change. Culture operates like a boa-constrictor to squeeze out and kill anything that opposes its need to dominate whatever organization that it controls.

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Photo by Gabriel P on Pexels.com

Boy to his talking goldfish: “How do you like the water you’re swimming in?”

Goldfish: “What is water?”

This is the crux of what it is to understand culture. It is something that we swim in, surround ourselves with, operate and direct our behaviors from. If you asked the average person to describe the culture he/she lives in, he/she would not be able to articulate what a culture is, what it is composed of, and how it influences one’s life. It is in fact like a fish in water. It is the unconscious and invisible, while at the same time powerful medium, in which we move and live and have our being. Cultures can be understood at a micro, all the way up to a macro level. Marriage and families are the clearest microlevel of culture, while being a member of the global earth community would be the highest macro culture. There are many cultures in between and we are all nested in multiple cultures.

What Creates A Culture?

Cultures are the glue that holds any kind of organizational system together. Chaotic cultures do not last long. Cultures must have a predictable process based on a number of underlying structure-creating elements. Every culture contains at least the following components:

            Public Mission/Vision-  The mission of any organizational culture defines the goals and objectives of that entity. These are large general descriptors of the organization, such as what we will create and what we will look like. Using a family culture as an example, the overt mission of the family might be “we will look like a perfectly put together family to the world”.

             Shadow Mission/Vision- This is often the non-articulated driving force behind an organization that operates at a deep and unconscious level. It can live in opposition to the public mission of an organization. This is where a competing set of needs are in conflict with the stated public mission/vision. In the family example, the shadow mission might be the “we will not let anyone on the outside see the out of control, raging tyrant father who dominates his household”. This is where the public mission is that as a family we will look good, but the deeper shadow mission of not revealing the brokenness on the inside is what informs the culture with its shadow mission supporting values and strategies. 

              Values-This defines what the organization will value and promote. These are sub-components of the larger mission/vision. In a family, for instance, one of the underlying values supported may be the “we value privacy”.

                Strategies- These are the active elements of a culture and define the behaviors and problem solving processes that are active in implementing the larger mission/vision of the organization. These are often culture protecting and perpetuating actions that do not let the organization deviate from the deep mission values.  Rules provide the sub-structure that inform strategies. Rules, mostly unwritten, in the above shared family example, could be codified as “in this family we do not share private information.” The family exercises a powerful influence and will punish any deviance from the cultural mission, values, rules, or strategies of the family. Anyone in the family that shares family secrets will be systematically shamed and punished for breaking the rules and potentially exposing the shadow core of the family. 

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Cultures

Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) reflects the dualistic split of an organization that promotes a public mission, while it  has been dominated by a shadow mission agenda for a long time. This is because the architect of the culture is driven by a shadow mission of brokenness that unfolded the church culture around his results oriented focus on numbers, programs, looking good, building income and buildings. Its public mission may be about inclusive involvement of all members of the body of Christ, while its shadow mission culture values top-aligned concentration of power and the exclusion of any true ownership by the common laity. 

Although I could go into a detailed analysis of the culture of WCCC, one specific area that is clear to me,and has resulted in the frustration of any attempt at change, is the strategy of hiding truth. Many people have appealed to the elders and leaders to reveal a long history of treating anyone that threatened the exterior image of WCCC with expulsion and shame based rejection. Although it is clear in scripture (I Timothy 5:20) that there is a redemptive value in publicly exposing sin, and particularly the sin of those who have a greater influence in the church (pastors/elders), the culture of repression has trumped every effort. In a culture of truth and transparency, sin gets exposed, not to shame individuals, but to purify the church of all the hidden works of evil.

A Jesus-based culture would have a profoundly different true mission, with Biblically validated values and strategies that are loving, redemptive, and restorative. A Biblical culture lives in the light of Truth and exposes the works of darkness. The culture of WCCC has been more about staying in the darkness and protecting the image. Calling those who have been so immersed in the culture of WCCC to see the unhealthiness of the “tree” seems to elicit the response “what tree?”. Culture is so powerful and self-sustaining. 

The Self-perpetuating Nature of Culture

The disappointment that I have felt with WCCC’s response to the revelation of sin by Bill Hybels and the wounding of multiple people in the service of maintaining a culture of image management, has slowly evolved into  reality. WCCC is not going to alter its way of presenting itself to the world because the core change agents are disciples of the culture, and therefor do not appear to be concerned about the years of behind the scenes purging through repression and expulsion of any threat to the image of the church.  Here is how the culture of WCCC has perpetuated and stubbornly resisted any effort to change its fundamental core strategies. 

If WCCC comprehended that the problems at the church are not just a “one off” crisis of one man’s pattern of sexual predation, but in fact are a reflection of a broken culture, they would have focused on this first. Because they do not comprehend the powerful way that culture shapes behavior, WCCC has gone about things in the reverse of what would be appropriate. The people that remain at WCCC have been groomed to accept the culture as the normal way that the church should operate.

If the leadership had recognized that Bill Hybels behavior was the rotten fruit of a sick tree, they would have focused first on the culture. They would have done a deep dive into how the culture of WCCC exists as a significant departure from the culture of Jesus. They would have focused first on cultural transformation, so that the tree gets healed and can start to produce good fruit. The elders would then be selected out of this new healthy culture, and finally the search for a senior pastor would be guided by finding someone who is in synch with this new, Jesus-centered culture. 

Instead, this was the progression. First, after the exposure of Hybels behavior, the executive pastor, who was groomed, and like the fish metaphor, probably thought that the culture she swam in was healthy, put an interim head pastor in place. That person, who as well had been swimming in the murky waters of the WCCC culture, then served essentially as a game manager, to preserve the essential elements of the culture. He worked to minimize the losses of the core shadow mission culture of WCCC. Then, a long time disciple of the Hybels-generated culture, was instrumental in selecting a selection committee who were themselves fish that had been swimming in the polluted culture of WCCC. These people then were key to selecting elders who had also been swimming in the culture for years. It is like an inbred system.

To be fair, all of these individuals probably believed that they were doing the right thing. They just did not comprehend that the rules and the strategies of a broken culture were the abnormal “normal”. No one  recognized the need to stand outside the systemic culture to critique it, so naturally, the actions of the leaders were confirmatory of the mission and values of the culture. Of course, the elders are not going to call out Bill Hybels in any meaningful way. They endorse, in the marrow of their souls, the vision, values, strategies, and rules of the culture that he created. And they may have signed a non-disparagement agreement as part of his retirement package. This would be a strategy consistent with the value of hiding truth. I could be wrong, but how do you find out the truth in a culture that hides the truth so tenaciously?

Voices Crying In The Wilderness

It may be that WCCC will not fundamentally turn from its ways. The elders and leaders may not have ears to hear. The take away for the rest of the church world is that of seeing what has happened as a cautionary tale. Return to Jesus. There can be no other foundation to build the church upon than Christ. The culture of the church must be reflective of the vision and values and behaviors of Jesus. Grow a healthy tree first, and the fruit will naturally flow out in righteousness and love. A big and shiny megachurch may be impressive to the outside world, but as Jesus said, if it is a big white-washed tomb, it cannot survive because it is not Christ’s church. 

“Woke” Christians: The Willows and the Harvests of the World Take Heed!

 

“Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form.” Psalm 73:20 

For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14 

“so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.” 1 Thessalonians 5:6 

“Woke” 

This term has entered our cultural lexicon as a political rallying cry for all those who, from an identity politics perspective, are becoming aware of their sense of being disenfranchised. The dictionary definition of this term is: 

Woke – alert to injustice in society, especially racism. “We need to stay angry, and stay woke.” 

The word implies that for a long time people have been asleep to some kind of  injustice that exists, but are now wide awake to it, or -”woke”.

It seems to me that  this term is just as applicable to those followers of Jesus, who have been in a sleep-like trance, mesmerized in a state of perpetual wonder by those big, sprawling entities that have come to be called mega-churches. As the curtains are pulled back to expose the ugly underbelly of such mega-churches as Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel, those Christians are becoming “woke” from their spell. The scales that have clouded their  understanding are falling from their eyes. More and more, they are able to clearly see the contrast between these huge man-made organizations, the mega-churches, and the original God-instituted organism, the church.

They can increasingly see that where mega-churches were built on the sand of celebrity pastors and organizational greatness, they do not reflect the blueprint of God’s true church. And, to the degree that they were not built according to the Master Architect’s blueprint, they were always in danger of crashing.     

Organization Over Organism 

The mega-church is heavy on organization and light on the organic nature of the church. As the mega-church grows, it becomes unwieldy, and so organizational structures are created. While the organism, which is the church, is a horizontal entity, featuring the priesthood of the believers with radical equality between all parts of the body, the organization is inherently vertical and hierarchical. The church of the Bible is only vertical in one dimension. All members of the body of Christ, who are equal and equally important, all look to the absolute Headship of Christ. 

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in everything he might be preeminent” I Colossians 1:18 

Mega-churches often are started and developed by individuals with a core narcissistic brokenness. Their personalities self-select becoming the head of a mega church organization. Self-selection is a concept in organizational psychology. Peoples’ personalities influence them to select certain jobs. The somewhat compulsive nature of some individuals, coupled with their high level of introversion, causes them to gravitate to jobs such as accountant. So it is, that narcissistic personalities move toward jobs that allow them to actualize their inner shadow need for importance, power, authority, and adulation. They do not have the Biblical qualifications for leadership demonstrated by John the Baptist, who said: 

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Mark 1:7 

And

“He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” John 3:30

 A Necessary Revolution 

A revolution is underway occurring as God has begun a winnowing process within His church. God is jealous for His church, His bride. His reputation is most publicly lifted up by the example and behavior of His church. An inevitable crashing is occurring in those mega-forms of church that do not reflect his blueprint for the church. Those churches were built on the sand of celebrity pastors and organizational greatness. God is removing, and must remove, the mega-church caricatures of His true church, because they fundamentally misrepresent who He is — , and He is jealous for the integrity of His reputation. This revolution is occurring because, as in the political arena, whenever there is a disproportionate inequity between a governing elite and the governed, it cannot and should not survive. 

Modern Day Prophets, True and False 

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. Ephesians 5:11 

Courageous Christian investigative reporters such as Julie Roys (julieroys.com), are pursuing and exposing elements of the church that are trying to masquerade as legitimate, while at the same time acting against the will of God. These true prophets are “woke”. They are revealing those who Jesus warned against: 

“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” Matthew 24:24 

True prophets, of course, have always been hated by those whom they exposed. They have always spoken truth into the dark recesses of deceit, shining light onto the self-dealing corruption of those in power.  But false prophets who reside in the darkness of their own evil deeds hate the light, because the light reveals their true nature (John 3:19). And if there’s one thing that false prophets do not want, it’s to be exposed for the self-loving narcissistic people that they are.  By refusing to come into the light, they show that they do not love the One who saved them, or serve the One who they claim to honor. By trying to prevent the truth from being known, they show that they are bent on serving only themselves. 

 These self-serving individuals want to preserve their petty treasures of ill-gotten gain, so they lash back fiercely at what they view as attacks and criticism.  It’s no wonder they react in anger. They’re angry because their deeds of darkness are being obliterated by the brilliant light of Truth. They’re angry because their power, prestige, and prosperity are being threatened.  Their goal: kill the messenger. 

 

“Woke” Christians Must Take Back The Church For Christ 

The modern mega-church movement is so often not the church. But since they call themselves the church, many naive and immature new Christians believe it is the church. The mega-church movement is almost always created and governed, as mentioned before, by people with character flaws, who use the celebrity of their position to satisfy some hollow emptiness in their soul. They allow, and even promote, a culture of adulation. They consolidate their power at the top, and disenfranchise all believers who should be part of the priesthood of the believers. They create a ruling class of elites, and they systematically cultivate a pattern of absolute loyalty to the leader. They do not consistently step aside whenever it is evident that people see them as greater than Jesus. They may use “God words” to deceive their followers that they are following and are obedient to Jesus, . But their deeper shadow soul is revealed when their agenda, their ideas, their power, and their self-serving vision is challenged. It is then, with their caustic belittling and ruthless bullying, that the truth emerges; that this is not Christ’s church, but theirs. 

In mega-churches, the person who cleans the bathrooms is not considered  equal to the persons on stage. Organizational hierarchy inevitably places more importance on people at the top. They get paid more, they are given more power, and they get more respect. This is not the church. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who suggested that God’s Hall of Fame, when it is revealed, will likely be populated by Christians such as the humble washer woman who faithfully prayed in secret for the needs of people in the church. The true church is built on organismic equality, not organizational hierarchy. Rank?  Title? Status? These are not found in God’s true church where we are, after all, members one of the other. 

Those churches and those leaders that concentrate importance and power at the top cannot survive. It is no accident  that Willow Creek and Harvest have fallen. God is jealous for His reputation, and His reputation is most fully seen and expressed in the life of the Body, the church.  It is Christ’s church, and the gates of Hell itself cannot prevail against His church. He will never allow a church to survive that is not fully about His headship and the expression of His righteousness. This, above all else, is why Bill Hybels and James McDonald are no longer the heads of their churches. As the Old Testament says, Kings will rise and fall, but the Lord endures forever. Celebrity pastors will rise and fall, but if they do not display the humility necessary to sustain the pre-eminence of Jesus as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, they will erode into the dust bowl of history. 

Are we “woke” enough to shake off the mesmerizing twilight of mega-church celebrity personalities, and submit ourselves to Jesus, the true Head of the true church?  Will we allow God’s light and truth to have its full effect in our lives? 

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.  Romans 13: 11-14