Tish Warren Harrison: Willow Creek’s Crash Shows Us Why Denominations Still Matter

The main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. The megachurch has been in turmoil since sexual misconduct allegations came to light against its founder, Bill Hybels. Photo courtesy of Global Leadership Summit

It’s become common among some Protestants — and especially evangelicals — to call themselves “Jesus followers.”

Not Christians. Not Baptists or Pentecostals. Not members of the Presbyterian Church in America or the Anglican Communion. Not Wesleyans or Methodists or Lutherans.

Just people following Jesus.

I appreciate the spirit behind the moniker.

Christians want our first loyalty to be to Jesus, not a particular institution or tradition.  But I am wary of referring to myself (or anyone else) as simply a “Jesus follower” because no one follows Jesus in some pure, individual way, free of institutional ties or a larger and longer tradition.

I understand the desire to wash our hands of denominations. Linking ourselves to older institutions implicates us in past and present evil, and the damage caused by bickering and splintering within denominations can scarcely be overstated. The 20th-century evangelical rallying cry of “doctrine divides” is, in some sense, self-evidently true.

In reaction to the pitfalls of denominations, the mid-20th century birthed the baby boomer phenomenon of the “nondenominational megachurch.” American evangelicalism saw a rising tide of churches that were explicitly or implicitly anti-doctrinal and nontraditional, focused on relevance, extraversion, positivity, attractional style and seeker-sensitivity. Often these churches are helmed by a charismatic male head-pastor.

Pastor Bill Hybels, the former senior pastor of the
12,000-plus-member Willow Creek Community Church
in northwest-suburban Chicago, at American University
in Washington on July 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles

It is in this milieu, in 1975, that Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Community Church, and it quickly grew to be one of the largest churches in America. Willow Creek’s growth — and its ability to creatively and effectively address the needs of its community — is due, at least in part, to its entrepreneurial commitment to innovation and experimentation.

But what happens when innovation backfires? What do you do when a nondenominational megachurch is largely centered on a celebrity pastor and that pastor falls?

In this dark moment, Willow Creek leadership turned, not to other celebrity pastors, nor to other nondenominational megachurch heads, but to denominational and institutional leaders.

Willow Creek formed a four-member advisory board to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against its former pastor last fall.

Two of the board members were top-level denominational leaders: Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church, and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Two others were leaders of evangelical institutions: Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College, and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Their recent report found that most of the allegations against Hybels — mainly of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and the abuse of power — were credible. The report also found that Willow Creek’s elders and the leader of the Willow Creek Association, a network of churches where Hybels also played a leading role, failed to hold him accountable.

The main campus of Willow Creek Community Church in
South Barrington, Ill. Photo courtesy of Willow Creek
Community Church

Yet because Willow Creek was an independent congregation — which endorsed and promoted Hybels as a pastor — the report ended by saying there was nothing the church could do to further discipline Hybels.

He left the church last spring. And since he is no longer an employee, the report concluded, the church no longer had oversight of him.

But a former pastor isn’t just another ex-employee.

Denominations, however imperfect, often have more robust accountability measures in place for their leaders (these measures do not rely on close friends or parishioners of the accused).

As merely one example, in my denomination, a bishop can “inhibit” a church leader from future ministry or an ecclesiastical court — comprising both ordained and lay members — can conduct a trial and decide to depose a clergy person altogether (more commonly known as being defrocked). His or her ordination would be revoked and there are systems in place to ensure he or she would never be a leader in any other Anglican church.  (If a leader is accused of a crime, he or she is also mandatorily reported to civil authorities for investigation.)

The point of church discipline is both to help bring the accused person to repentance and also to protect the larger, global church body from harm.

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Source: Religion News Service

(Tish Warren Harrison is an Anglican priest, writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh and author of “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.)