Downfall of Bill Hybels Exposes Widespread Spirit of Pride, Promotion, and Toxic Power in American Evangelical Churches

An expansive view of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. (Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church)
An expansive view of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. (Photo courtesy of Willow Creek Community Church)

by Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin

The past few months have been filled with stories of pastoral failure — for Protestants and Catholics alike. These stories inundate our social media feeds, causing outrage and heartache but rarely self-reflection.

Once in a while, however, a story hits close to home. That’s been the case for us with Willow Creek.

For my (Kyle) entire childhood, Willow Creek was my church home. I found Jesus there. My whole family came to know the Lord there. My father pastored there. I worshipped God, grew in the faith, and wrestled through his call on my life in that place.

During those years, there would often be a short, dramatic skit before the sermon that would illustrate the point of one of the Bible readings. In one, a man and a woman pretended Willow Creek had been abandoned and become a pile of stones. As the actors reflected on the skit, they proclaimed the truth that Willow was not a building, and that God’s kingdom did not rest on their achievements or demise.

This drama has come to mind recently as I see the pain, struggle and failure of a place that means so much to me and my family. The numerous allegations of Bill Hybels’ sexual misconduct have exposed cracks in an institution believed to be indestructible.

But this is not solely a Willow problem. It’s a problem that afflicts American evangelicalism, a movement long deemed indestructible as well. Many influential pastors have fallen; at times, followed by the collapse of the institution they shepherded.

Perhaps there is something for us all to hear in the wisdom of the church drama I saw as a child. Perhaps many of us have looked upon American evangelicalism and said to the Lord — as the disciples once did — “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” (Mark 13:1)

As we watch many leaders fall, and as we discover rooms in this vast building that have become “dens of robbers,” what do we do?

Instead of turning to superficial answers, we must see this as an opportunity to have a new conversation in the American evangelical church.

We need a new conversation about power.

The fundamental ailment of the evangelical church today is toxic power. Toxic power is anchored in prideful autonomy and manifested in forms of competition, coercion, domination and abuse. It is power in strength for the sake of control. It is not the way of the cross, but rather the way of the world, the flesh and the devil.

Toxic power can show up in a youth group of 40 students just as much as it can in a church of 10,000 people. It is not merely a problem for pastors and leaders, let alone “celebrity” pastors and leaders. It is a problem for the church.

Toxic power shows up in the deep belief that the power of a church is measured by the degree to which it makes us feel special and significant. It shows up in our targeted evangelism strategies, pointed toward the powerful, influential, prosperous and put together, as opposed to the weak, marginalized, poor and broken.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service

Kyle Strobel is associate professor of spiritual theology and formation at Talbot School of Theology. Jamin Goggin is a pastor at Missions Hills Church in San Marcos, Calif. They are co-authors of “The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service or Black Christian News Network One.