Hundreds of thousands of pastors have converged upon South Barrington, Illinois, at one time or another to attend a Willow Creek conference. For years, it was Mecca for outreach-minded church leaders. They came to learn the models and methods of this larger-than- life church. And that’s a shame.
It’s a shame that most of us missed the beginning of Willow Creek Community Church. We missed the college class where Bill Hybels caught the vision for a New Testament church from Dr. Bilezikian. We missed selling vegetables door-to-door with a teenaged Nancy Beach to help pay the bills. We missed the years of meeting in a movie theater and the infamous “train wreck” (detailed in Rediscovering Church by Lynne & Bill Hybels) that almost killed the church.
Most of us caught the back end of the vision for Willow Creek, when it was tested, proven, and old. Once it broke all records in church ministry, we finally paid attention. When the lakeside auditorium was built and the escalators were installed, we finally woke up. And that’s a shame.
It’s a shame that we only catch on to great ideas when they’re no longer new. Willow Creek is a living monument to the power of vision, but we seem to have learned nothing from its story. When was the last time you paid any attention to a recent college graduate with a dream?
It’s a shame because the future is in the new.
Last year, I worked at Catalyst Conference, where we hosted 12,000 church leaders in Atlanta, 3,500 in California, and thousands of others at one-day events all across the country. The events were packed, the excitement was contagious, and the momentum was unquestionable. This year’s gathering in Atlanta sold out at 13,000 people and became the highest trending topic on Twitter. But hardly anyone was excited about Catalyst when it started. They had to give away hundreds of free tickets in its first year. Only two or three sponsors were interested in exhibiting. The early bird deadline was extended at least three times to reel in the stragglers. Nearly two-thirds of the attendees came from North Point Community Church, and that only happened because Andy Stanley promoted it for $49 two weeks before the event.
What a shame.
We miss out on the most important season of a vision’s lifecycle because we have an undying love for proven ideas and a blatant disregard for new ones. We don’t want to tolerate the hardships or the impossible odds that come with new ideas. We don’t want to take a risk on something untested. We want to gather where others are gathering, celebrate what others are celebrating, and affirm what others are affirming.
I’ll never forget the story of how a pastor visiting Willow Creek got caught measuring the distance from the rear doors to the front stage, presumably for his own building campaign. He wanted his church to be just like Willow’s, but without the unique vision. I think he missed the point. And unfortunately, so have most of us.
This year, a considerable number of conferences are closing down. Rob Bell just announced the end of NOOMA. The time is ripe for fresh, new vision, but it’s not going to come from what is already established and proven. The future comes from the new. And this means we all have to take some risks. We have to start looking for great ideas in their infancy. We can’t dismiss a young staffer’s audacious idea just because he’s inexperienced. Sure, he’ll make mistakes, but his idea will become refined by the process. It just might be the next great revolution in the church.
We have to trade our preferences for potential. If we go to the same conferences, listen to the same podcasts, and follow the same preachers, we’ll get more of the same. It’s time to shuffle the iPod and discover some new opportunities.
We have to be willing to break some rules. Great ideas turn into systems that get repeated over and over again. So when a new idea comes along, it threatens our way of doing things. We’ll be inclined to say, “You’re not allowed to do that.” But we have to be willing to break the rules if these new ideas have a shot at making it.
So go ahead—honor the idea-makers of the past. But make room for the obscure, the unheard-of, and the ridiculous. The future is in the new.