I’m sitting in South Barrington, Illinois (in the western suburbs of Chicago) taking a break from the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit, an annual event hosted by Willow Creek Community Church and its pastor, Bill Hybels.  I joked to my facebook friends that I was undercover this week and that’s partly true. I’m the guest of a national corporation who—through a friend—paid for my registration and my nametag says I’m an employee of theirs! Well, no harm done. Not many people here read Modern Reformation or listen to White Horse Inn anyway…at least not yet!

The two-day conference is an intentional effort to combine the wisdom of business leaders with the wisdom of ministry leaders, with the hope that these two different kinds of leaders could learn from one another. The difficulty of that enterprise was demonstrated yesterday when Bill Hybels had to announce that Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, had cancelled his scheduled appearance at the summit because of an online petition by a gay rights groups upset by Willow Creek’s prior relationship with Exodus, Intl, which advocates that gay people can change their sexual orientation. Business leaders have different agendas than ministry leaders and that difference is spelled out in quarterly profit reports, reports that depend on keeping many different segments of the marketplace happy with your product. I wonder if many of the thousands of registrants here and at dozens of sites across the country watching by live video feed caught that lesson.

The product that the Summit is offering is enticing: success. The first day was spent listening to speakers (and even people who introduced the speakers) who were highly successful in their fields: Bill Hybels, who helped launch the megachurch movement; Len Schlesinger, a successful businessman and now president of Babson College, the top-ranked business school for entrepreneurship; Corey Booker, the young mayor of Newark, New Jersey; Brenda Salter McNeil, a writer and speaker on issues facing African-American Christians; Seth Godin, bestselling business author; and Steven Furtick, a young pastor of a brand new megachurch in North Carolina.

The unmistakable message is that applying leadership principles that are common to all leaders (no matter what “industry” you might be part of) will result in that most powerful of aphrodisiacs, success. To be fair, the session that I’m missing right now features the stories of difficult ministries, specifically foreign ministries in India and Egypt, where success may not be immediately visible. In fact, one speaker from Egypt is, as I write this, receiving a standing ovation for her mostly unnoticed work among the poorest children of the minority Coptic Christian community there. But it is striking to me that the Summit went outside of the country to find those “difficult callings.” The message, to me at least, is that if you are in the States you should be successful: big churches, lots of baptisms, or at least audacious entrepreneurial goals to give your life and church to. If you’re not successful, the failure resides in you and your unwillingness or inability to apply the leadership principles that have so clearly worked for so many others.

Do the kind of leadership principles that are necessary for a business to be successful belong in the church? The assumption here is that the church and the business are variants on the same kind of thing and so the principles that work in one should work in the other and the leadership that exists in one should exist in the other. That assumption is naïve and I’m surprised by the number of business leaders over the years who have spoken at the Summit, giving credence to that view. Businesses have customers; churches have disciples. Businesses want their customers to consume their products (whether that is a physical thing, a service, or an experience); churches want their disciples to attend to the means of grace (as humble as they might seem in the great religious marketplace). Businesses will change according to the ebb and flow of the market; churches cannot change their mission or vision and still lay claim to being the church.

What business is the church in? Bill Hybels said yesterday that the church is in the life transformation business. I’m glad to say that the Bible doesn’t support that view though it does seem to be a fairly common misconception today. We all want Jesus to come alongside us and improve us, our marriages, our children. We want to go to sleep at night confident that we have taken several steps forward, getting a little better every day. We want to reach the end of our lives and see that we have accomplished something of lasting significance and worth, to know that we were worth something. In all of these scenarios, however, Jesus is a means to an end (a very personal, therapeutic end: feeling better about ourselves). As one new acquaintance said at dinner last night, the problem isn’t that we need to align our hopes and dreams with Jesus; it’s that Jesus upends our hopes and dreams, intruding into our lives with such force that what we thought was important actually dies and new life is born in its place. As the great Episcopal preacher Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things work.” As long as the church thinks it is in the life business instead of the death business, it will constantly clamor after every tool to improve life and it will judge its success in the way that bookkeepers and accountants judge success.

So what does success look like in a church? Success looks a lot like faithfulness, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long obedience in the same direction. But can a church ever learn that discipline if it is constantly changing its ministry plan in an effort to pack more people into its $80 million dollar auditorium? Success can never be small in America. The same spirit that launched MTV’s “Cribs” and relishes in the material excess of celebrities pervades our churches and infects even the ministers. I’ll admit, I had to check myself several times from being swept up into the “more is better” attitude that was celebrated and encouraged this week. I had to remember that my success as a pastor must be different than the success a business leader looks for and is judged by. My success is judged by my faithfulness to the marks of the church and the ministry that God has called me to: a ministry of Word and Sacrament, a ministry of foolishness in the eyes of the world, a ministry of life and light to those dead and in darkness, a ministry not of myself and my dreams or even my leadership, but a ministry of Christ by His Spirit.

There’s not enough time to comment on the rest of the event, so I’ll just quickly bullet point a few things:

  • We started yesterday with an American Idolized “Awake My Soul,” the beautifully spare song from the British band Mumford and Sons.  I knew that I recognized it while the band was singing, but it was so over-produced that I couldn’t place it until I Googled the lyrics. I had to listen to the real version several times last night just to remember how wonderful the song is in its simplicity. Sadly, the band used it as the beginning of a medley of praise songs but the audience couldn’t figure out when to start singing along, at what point did performance give way to participation?
  • Anytime the band performed, the stage and auditorium exploded into a light show strong enough to induce seizures. I hasten to add that I’m a GenX’r and am supposed to like all of this. But I don’t think my problem is Presbyterian curmudgeoness; there was a disconnect between what everybody assumed they were doing and the environment in which they were doing it.
  • Along the same lines, highly produced videos intruded into every presentation. There were even commercials for different products related to the various speakers and presentations.
  • I wish that this had been a straight leadership/management conference. I think that Bill Hybels is in the wrong business. He is obviously a gifted leader and CEO. I learned quite a bit from him and the other secular presenters about business. The “Jesus” side of things was weird and whenever one of the secular speakers tried to include a little “Jesus” in their presentation, the result was always a mess (see Mayor Booker’s remark in the “theological fails” below).
  • [this point has been changed in response to a good pushback from a commentator] Steven Furtick, the young pastor of the new megachurch in Charlotte, North Carolina had a rousing message from 2 Kings 3, but I felt that he based the main point of his message on a part of the verse that isn’t universally attested to, at least in English Bibles. Preaching from 2 Kings 3:16, Pastor Furtick enjoined the crowd to have audacious faith by digging ditches in the desert, waiting for God to bring the rain. Rhetorically, this was a powerful message. But, in several English versions, there’s nothing in there about digging ditches. Instead, the text says that God will fill the dry stream beds. One could understand why ditches might be substituted for stream beds in different English translations, but where’s the verb?
  • Willow Creek is the epicenter of that kind of evangelicalism that the British newspaper, the Guardian called “unrecognizable” as Christian houses of worship, wrappers “round some mixture of superstition and advertising.” That was on full display these last two days. Thankfully, as the Boomers age that form of ministry seems to be dying off, too. I just hope the church in America can recover from it.

And to conclude, three theological fails:

  • Newark mayor Corey Booker needs to go back to Sunday school: we do not have divinity within each of us, as he claimed during his presentation. In fact, our drive to do good isn’t internal at all, it is borne out of two things: gratitude to God and seeing our neighbor’s need.
  • Mama Maggie Gobran, an Egyptian Coptic Christian told the crowd that they must choose to be either a sinner or a saint. Great illiteration but terrible theology not to mention absolutely contrary to Ephesians 2:1-10, which states that we were dead in our trespasses and sins and made alive by God.
  • In a crowd of thousands of pastors, neither statement elicited even a murmur. The judgment of charity can only extend so far, folks.

Update:

Many of you have asked me if there was anything beneficial that I gained by being at the Summit, or if I went in with an agenda to merely criticize. As I mentioned above, I came hoping to learn leadership and management skills for the nonprofit organization I lead. I didn’t come as a pastor, but as an executive. To that end, there were quite a few good things:

  • I really liked Bill Hybels’ first session on Thursday. He set up four flip charts and identified four big issues facing leaders: the level of their current challenge at work, plans for dealing with challenging people, a challenge to address problems as problems, and reexamining the core of organizational mission. I took a good two pages of notes on his presentation.
  • The one take away I got from Len Schlesinger’s presentation (I was out of the room for part of it), was that big problems are solved by small steps, not big steps. That’s good to remember.
  • I also really enjoyed Seth Godin’s presentation: engaging, quick, funny. The big take away is that organizations can’t be all things to all people: who is your tribe (a fancy word for an audience or market)? Appeal to them and make yourself indispensable to them.
  • I enjoyed Jim Mellado’s interview with Michelle Rhee. She’s always been someone I admired and now I have even more reason to do so. I also really appreciated her honestly about her own process in becoming an “aspiring Christian.”
  • Henry Cloud is outstanding and his presentation on the three categories of people was excellent.

I had to leave at that point to catch a flight, so I can’t comment on anything else.