The two-day Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit was inspiring and informative as usual. In addition to those attending on the South Barrington campus, about 70,000 participated by satellite feed in hundreds of local sites across the nation. The conference is videoed and will be repackaged and used to reach about 160,000 leaders around the world in the next year.
Some things about the Summit have remained unchanged over the years. There is a strong evangelical spirit; Hybels and his team leave no question that every person would be better off knowing Jesus as personal Lord and Savior. Worship is always spirited and well-done, but it has evolved over the years (more about that below). There is a strong commitment to learn about leadership not only from church leaders but from those in the business, not-for-profit, and educational sectors. Cutting-edge technology is important as well, and the Willow Creek Association has learned how to use all available digital tools to facilitate communication, learning, and giving.
Even so, I have observed some changes over the years. These are personal observations but I think valid ones. For one thing, the Summit is more egalitarian and more inclusive than it once was. Of the twelve platform presenters this year, three were women—one African-American, one of Chinese ancestry, and one Indian. The program has even featured a couple of women preachers in recent years, although clearly from evangelical churches. This is certainly not by chance!
Among the male speakers this year, there was an African-American, a Hispanic pastor from El Salvador, and a Canadian (but I digress). The racial representation among speakers overall was 40 percent non-Anglo. The desire to be more racially and ethnically inclusive is also reflected in the make-up of the worship team. Once typically all white, there is clear racial diversity among worship leaders.
The choice of speakers from several countries reflects a growing global awareness by the planners of the Summit, the Willow Creek Association and Willow Creek Church. Although the Summit has always highlighted overseas ministries, it has become a common practice to feature speakers from other countries; in fact, Mario Vega, the Salvadoran pastor on this year’s program, preached in Spanish with an English translator standing by. They come as examples and teachers and not simply as “exhibits.”
Worship has also changed. Although it continues to be “in your face” and innovative, the music is not always loud and more meditative aspects have been added, including some ancient-future worship touches. This is undoubtedly due a commitment to bring on new leadership on a regular basis (including Bill Hybels’ son-in-law).
Hybels comes out of a business background and has always brought that viewpoint to his leadership and the Summit. He is a habitual reader of books by business and leadership leaders like Patrick Lencioni and Jim Collins, who have become mainstays at these conferences. In recent years, however, the program has featured more speakers from business backgrounds, including young entrepreneurs with a social conscience. Marc Kielburger, one of this year’s presenters, is a great example. He and his brother Craig have founded two non-profit organizations that help children and youth minister to their peers around the world—Free the Children and Me to We. Kielburger is also a Rhodes Scholar with a law degree from Oxford and a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard, so he is not your typical entrepreneur. The brothers identify themselves as “shameless idealists” but nothing on their website indicates that they or their organization is a Christian mission. They do seem to be making a big impact on the global consciousness of young people, however.
As a follow participant and I talked over lunch Friday, he asked me, “What do you think the future of the mega church is?” As we discussed the question, we both felt that the megachurch movement has peaked and there will be fewer on the scene in twenty years (part of this due to the retirement of founding pastors).
What will take the place of the megachurch? I am not sure, but I think that the kind of ministries and charities that Hybels and the WCA highlight at these meetings may give us a clue. Whether churches or not-for-profits, they will be entrepreneurial, agile, and commited to helping people. And, I hope, Christian. But they will be as different from the megachurch as the megachurch was from the neighborhood congregation.