Repent Or Rebrand: The Organizational Complicity of Willow Creek Community Church

The image above was the logo for ValuJet.

It has come to my attention that  WCCC has hired a company that essentially helps to rebrand the church. Rebranding is a popular process that is used by corporations to create a new association between their products and a more positive reputation. Rebranding is often used when a company has developed a bad connection between their product and a negative characteristic. An example would be that of ValuJet that was renamed AirTran. Facebook recently changed their corporate name to escape negative brand associations. 

In 1992 a ValuJet plane crashed in the Everglades killing 110 people. It was discovered that ValuJet’s maintenance company, SabreTech, was responsible for dangerous cargo conditions that led to the crash. The company was then renamed AirTran. The intent in this rebranding is that magically, people would forget the negative aspects of the company when it was ValuJet and would now have a more positive confidence in the company’s product. Essentially, rebranding can be a form of smoke and mirror transformation, that allows the company to move on and distance itself from the past. It is the manipulation of language as a way to refocus customers away from any negative associations. 

WCCC has been working hard to change the presentation of the church to the world. It has moved away from much of what used to define it as a church. They have currently altered the font of its’ logo. It would not surprise if they changed the name of the church itself. Due to the scandal perpetrated by its’ founder, Bill Hybels, the worldwide reputation of WCCC was severely tarnished. The church has lost over half of its’ congregants, lost a vast number of staff members, lost well over one half of its’ yearly donations, and lost many of its’ previously effective programs. Those are not just the consequences of Bill Hybels’s behaviors, but, looked at from a Biblical perspective, are the result of the failure of the whole church to repent of its’ corporate sins. 

 The way that the leadership of the church initially dealt with the revelation was frankly to deny and gaslight those who had exposed the sexual sin of Hybels. Then, rather than honestly and Biblically addressing both the sin of Hybels and their own complicity, they took the path of cowards. They resigned so that they would no longer have to take any public ownership for the way that they had been a part of the governance system that allowed Bill Hybels to exercise dictatorial control and the abuse of women that came from his sense of entitlement. 

The church then put an interim leadership in place that continued the strategy of minimizing both the sin of Bill Hybels and the complicity of the leadership and the congregants. This approach is in direct contrast to both the Old and New Testaments focus on repentance of the whole body of the people of God. Simply put, Bill Hybels could not have gotten away with decades of behind-the-scenes abuse, both sexually, and in his management style, without a multilevel complicity of those who surrounded him. It seems clear that the response of the church leadership attempted to silo his behavior and distance themselves from the ways that they had engaged in actions that resulted in their own complicity in the sin. 

The true church, clearly described in the New Testament, and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, focused both on individual as well as corporate sin. The church is described as a body, much like the human body, where there is a vital interdependency, so that the behavior of one can create consequences to the many. I Corinthians 6:19,20, focuses on the fact that we are not independent and the owners of our own being. In truth we are bought with a price, and so are indebted to God. And the Lord’s Prayer shows our mutual indebtedness when it focuses on the way that we pray for forgiveness for our debts as we forgive others. There are many indicators of the importance of corporate repentance in the Old Testament. One that is so clear is the story of Ezra. As the spiritual leader of the children of Israel, he called God’s people back to obedience to God and named the sin. He included himself in responsibility for the sin. 

“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. “ Ezra  9:6,7

If Ezra had acted like the leadership of WCCC, he would have been seen slinking away and hiding. He would have disassociated himself from any responsibility for the sins of the people or leadership. He would never have articulated in detail the complicity of both the leadership and the people in the sins among them. He would have focused on moving towards the future quickly or rebranding (renaming Israel) to somehow magically make the world think that this was an altogether new group of people with no connection to the past. No, he stood amid his people and repented. He took sin seriously, and the reputation of God as paramount. He clearly realized that if he and the people failed to name their sin and repent, that they could not presume the blessing of God. Because WCCC has run away from naming and repenting of their corporate sin, the church is seeing dire consequences.  David as well lamented for the state of the church.

“Your glory, O Israel (Willow Creek Community Church), lies slain on your heights. How the mighty have fallen! … How the mighty have fallen in the thick of battle! Jonathan lies slain on your …2 Samuel 1:27

Individual Vs. Corporate Responsibility

WCCC has focused exclusively on individual responsibility. The name of Bill Hybels is not mentioned. His books have been removed. Any honor that he has been given, such as having his name on areas of the church, have been removed. It is a kindergarten way of handling the past. If we pretend that he does not exist anymore, we can move on. Cancel culture at its’ best. The goal is to put all the responsibility on Hybels so that we can extricate the church from the past and any responsibility that the body of Christ might have in the creation of a culture that allowed for the narcissistic entitlement and abuse that he demonstrated. I have heard things like “he was too powerful to control’, or “I was so mesmerized by his confidence that I was too fearful to question him”. The belief was that Bill Hybels would not repent so there was nothing that could be done. 

If WCCC had embraced their corporate responsibility, they would have accepted that sin in a body often involves both personal behaviors and the organizational action that supports the sin. Here are the multiple levels of complicity that supported the sin of Bill Hybels. 

  1. Starting at the greatest level of complicity, the congregants of WCCC participated in a distorted understanding of servant leadership, by placing Bill Hybels on a pedestal of celebrity. The public image of Bill was that of success at multiple levels. He consulted with presidents, corporate CEOs, and was known worldwide. This kind of success allowed those who observed it to never look behind the curtain to see that he was a flawed person who should have constantly pointed people to Christ, instead of himself. The people of WCCC, if led appropriately by leadership, should confess, and repent of the idolatry of celebrity. 
  2. The congregation also was complicit in the idolatry of elevating the church building, the churches worldwide influence, the perfection of the stage performance, and the greatness of the programs at WCCC . In some ways, the idea that if things look good they must be good.
  3. The elders, in that they clearly had a front seat to the bullying management style of Bill should confess that they failed to confront him. They were complicit in allowing him the autocratic leadership style that he demonstrated. This supported the sin of Bill.
  4. Every staff member that felt they had derivative value by being in the presence of Bill Hybels, feeling that his choosing them validated their importance, should repent. All the yes men and women, who were the narcissistic support figures of emperor Bill, should recognize, own, and confess their complicity.
  5. All of church should corporately publicly confess the degree to which their failure to confront Bill, when they clearly knew of his celebrity influence over the congregation, created the foundation for his sin.
  6. The church and its leadership should confess to the fact that they allowed elders, who should have been the thermometer of the spiritual temperature of the church, to be passive in their response to Bill’s sin. The spiritual protection of the church was so weak that Bill’s sin was minimized or rationalized.
  7. The leadership of the church should confess the way that so many people, both in the church and in the world at large, have become disillusioned in the church. Many have even turned away from God due to the actions of Bill and the leadership. Many former Willow members and attenders have a deep sense of distrust in the church and have hesitated to reengage with a church. It is God’s reputation that has been sullied, and as a result, who knows how many have been hurt.
  8. The leadership should, like Ezra, lament the way that the church, being organizationally guilty, allowed Bill to harm not only the women victims, but all women in the church.
  9. Those who allowed Bill Hybels to leave with a golden parachute, taking the hard earned money of those who sacrificed to give to the church should confess to the misappropriation of money. In essence, he was rewarded with a luxury life in spite of his moral failures. He “fleeced the flock”. Also, the secrecy that characterized the handling of money and payouts in the church should be acknowledge and repented over.
  10. Those who implemented the despicable practice of making individuals sign non-disclosure agreements, which were “shut up” tactics, should repent. This corporate suppression of truth is contradictory to a Biblical culture of truth telling.

The current state of Willow, if we are to believe what scripture teaches about failure to repent, is directly connected to the church as a whole’s running, like Jonah, from the truth and from obedience to God’s word. Willow has lost its influence in the world. They could have been a shining light that pointed the church towards how to Biblically deal with both the sin of the individual, and the sin of the church. But they have slunk away from the shadows of the past, and, instead, believe the lie that the church can move forward without the cleansing and purging of sin from the past. They think the new branding, new vision, new programs, etc., will, like the magician who uses slight of hand, get the world to forget.

Only ownership, confession, and repentance for sin will restore Willow to some prominence. And this is not as a brand, but rather the bride of Christ. Anything short of this process is simply humanistic, corporate strategy to succeed without the power and presence of God’s power. The church must bend the knee.

14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7