Willow Creek Association was established in 1982 to inspire, encourage, and equip churches and their leaders to guide their members and reach out into their communities more effectively. The association is an outgrowth of the highly effective Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The church has three weekend services averaging 26,000 attendees, and because of the Willow Creek Association has been called the most influential church in America the last several years in a national poll of pastors.
Willow Creek Community Church started in a moment of inspiration while Bill Hybels was attending a Trinity College in 1972. The lesson that day was on the early church and Acts 2. Bill Hybels says, “The dream of being part of such a church took root in my soul.” At the time 20-year-old student was youth pastor in Park Ridge, Illinois and began to apply the things he was learning. Youth from across the area began coming to Christ and the youth grow expanded until it was larger than the sponsoring church.
The sponsoring church was upset and did not like so many youth in the building so Bill Hybels and his new congregation moved to the Willow Creek Theatre in Palatine, IL. Bill, friends and the youth group launched the very first Willow Creek church service in 1975. The church thrived, quickly outgrowing their space at the theatre. In 1977, they purchased a plot of land in South Barrington, constructed a building and began worship at the new site in 1981. Rediscovering Church, a book written by Lynne and Bill Hybels in 1995 is an in-depth exploration of the first 20 years of Willow Creek.
The philosophy of the church from the start, and until recently has been to present the gospel in a seeker sensitive way. This means nothing will be presented which might drive non-believers away. This has brought great growth to the church, but it has also produced shallow believers because in avoiding non-offensive worship many of the deeper things of the faith are left out. The church recently shared they will be moving toward a deeper discipleship methodology to help their members grow.
Worship services are always contemporary. Music is led through a praise team which is practiced and well planned. Words to the music will be projected on a screen so they can be seen, understood, and sometimes sung. Skits and other elements can also appear in worship services to bring the total message of the service to life. The message will always be relevant. Seldom will there be a pulpit on the platform, and often there will be a tall table and chair for the speaker(s) to sit and chat with the congregation.
Baptism is a major event at the church as people celebrate the new life in Christ. It is done by immersion and will often be held in at a pool outside. Candidates for baptism will go through a class to understand fully the step they are making. The Lord’s supper is generally held in an evening service, as seekers most often do not understand the significance of the observance.
In the early days Willow Creek Community Church grew so rapidly it began to attract national attention. Pastors in Illinois and across the country began to ask how a church could grow so rapidly. In response to the requests for information Willow Creek Association was established in 1982 in order to help churches thrive.
The Willow Creek Association stirs up and calls out the core leadership of churches around the world, encouraging them to follow their “holy discontent” as they build life-changing communities of faith. The WCA serves pioneering pastors and leaders around the world by curating inspirational leadership, intentional skill development, and experiences. Each year, the WCA serves more than 18,000 churches in 90 countries with vision, training, and resources. Each August, the WCA hosts The Global Leadership Summit (GLS), a leadership event that brings together the best and latest in leadership exprience, wisdom, and training.
Several churches in the Charlotte area including The Cove in Mooresville, Journey Church in Huntersville, and Mecklenburg Community Church and Stonebridge Church Community in Charlotte align with WIllow Creek community and feature seeker sensitive services. These churches share the philosophy of seeker sensitive worship, orchestrate worship so it is timed and flawless, and have small groups which meet weekly in homes.
Willow Creek Community Church practices what they teach through their Association and Leadership Conference. The church has continued to grow, expanding to over 20,000 in attendance. In 2001 leaders of the church began to talk about the distance people drove and decided to start satellite churches in different areas. They started their first satellite in the DuPage area, and today there are six other satellites from Crystal Lake and Huntley to Northfield, Illinois. Each campus offers student ministries for middle and high school students, as well as Promiseland, Willow’s children’s ministry for infants through grade 5. Each regional campus is a fully functioning church with its own staff and ministries to meet the needs of their community.
Willow Creek is an independent church still guided by the principles in Acts 2. The church is led by a plurality of godly leaders, relying on consensual agreement of Elders selected from the congregation, creating a healthy checks-and-balance of leadership direction, financial accountability, spiritual guidance, and ministry implementation. Elders serve four year terms as representatives of the church and before serving undergo a prayerful screening, interview, and approval process. The Elder board consists of 12 Elders plus the senior pastor (Bill Hybels) who provides a key link between the Elder board and the staff. Church staff are highly competent in their areas of service and guide the day to day operations of the church.
Willow Creek Community Church was founded on this conviction: People matter to God; therefore they matter to the church. God bridged the unfathomable chasm between His holiness and our sin-stained humanity through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Luke 19:10 tells us, “The Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus went beyond a mere rescue mission; He transformed lives. In Matthew 6:10, He taught His followers to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus came to redeem this broken world, both for all eternity and in the here-and-now. This conviction drives the mission of Willow Creek. Simply stated the church writes: Willow Creek exists to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.