How Did We Get Here?

The following column, by Mike Cosper, originally appeared in The Roadstead, our weekly newsletter. To have Mike's column delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here

I grew up in a church that was deeply influenced by Willow Creek. Their ministry shaped the youth ministry I was a part of, and it shaped our Sunday morning gatherings. In the years that followed the adoption of the WC model, that church grew from a few hundred people to nearly 2,000. Many people came to know Jesus and were baptized. I remember watching a (now lifelong) friend walk down the aisle and give her life to Jesus.
I was involved in worship ministry at the church, and that was where I first experienced real discipleship, and where I was first encouraged to experience real, intimate community. In the small group that was formed out of that ministry, we read Richard Foster and Dallas Willard and other great devotional writers. But the gateway drug for those works was John Ortberg’s The Life You’ve Always Wanted, a book he jokingly referred to as “Dallas for Dummies.” It is still a book I recommend today. Ortberg, at the time, was a teaching pastor at WC.
I say all this because it’s been a very sad few months of news about Willow Creek. It began with a story in the Chicago Tribune about a number of women accusing WC’s lead pastor of sexual impropriety. The church at first accused the women of lying but eventually rolled back their defensive stance. Hybels “retired early”. It got worse last weekend when the New York Times published a story about sustained impropriety between Hybels and his executive assistant. One of WC’s current teaching pastors vomited in a bucket and immediately resigned. On Wednesday night, the lead pastor and the entire elder board acknowledged their failure to hold Hybels accountable and their failure to believe his accusers, and then they all resigned.
Willow Creek gets a lot of criticism from people in more conservative reformed circles. Their “seeker sensitive” model gets mocked for being watered down, their leadership model gets mocked for being shaped by the business world, and their culture gets mocked for being very white and very suburban. But it’s foolish to think any of these issues are behind what happened at the church with regard to Hybels. I say that as someone who has been openly critical of this church model in the past and remains critical of it today. There are churches of every stripe, every polity, every culture that have similar stories. This one captures news headlines only because of the scale.
The issues that lie behind the fall of Bill Hybels are not about theology or philosophy of ministry; they are about power, charisma, and narcissism. Chuck DeGroat posted a brilliant article outlining this phenomenon. In it, he writes:
“We can’t chalk this up to a few bad eggs, a few big egos. We’ve got to wonder – together – how did we get here? What about us even craves narcissistic systems and leaders? Why is our American culture a perfect petri dish for narcissistic systems and leaders? How do our structures and systems cultivate this quick-spreading virus?”
You can read the whole thing here. I think what Chuck is onto is this: If you want to know who’s at fault when a controversy this large and this explosiveemerges, we have to look not only at the leader, not only at their systems but also at ourselves. We are drawn to power and charisma and we have a way of overlooking what we don’t want to see. It happens in churches, businesses, neighborhood associations, families, governments and pretty much any other places where human beings are gathered together for a common purpose.
Perhaps, given Hybels’ love of “leadership” talk, we should be more suspicious of it in general. Across the cultural spectrum, you see many celebrated “leaders” whose character and interpersonal presence is a disaster. Steve Jobs comes to mind, as this week, his daughter described the tragic experience of their relationship.
Mark Driscoll is also a good name to bring up in this conversation: another celebrity pastor celebrated as a great leader who (it turns out) was propped up by a culture of narcissism, who chewed through staff and left spiritual wreckage in his wake. Consider how different these two men were, philosophically: the “seeker sensitive” approach of Hybels and the rather seeker insensitive Driscoll. It underscores that this is not about the philosophy of ministry or theology. It’s about Narcissism and power.
In the economy of the Kingdom of God, we’re told that the meek inherit the earth, that the mustard seed becomes the mighty tree, and that the greatest among us is a servant. I hope, in the aftermath of Willow Creek’s crisis, and in the aftermath of the countless other leadership meltdowns that have taken place in the last few years, that we would take the Kingdom economy more seriously and more literally. We should be less impressed with those who speak eloquently of the Kingdom, and more impressed with those who embody it through self-sacrifice, service, and a life of prayer. We shouldn’t confuse charisma with character. We shouldn’t shrug off evidence of egotism, pride, and the lust for power. We should be less eager to venerate those with charisma, and less eager to venerate human beings in general. It might save us a great deal of pain and disappointment in the long run.
I can’t help but think about Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary released earlier this summer about the life and work of Mr. Rogers. (I reviewed it here.) It’s hard to walk away from that film without a sense that there was something transcendent about Fred Rogers, precisely because of his meekness, his refusal to manipulate, his self-deprecation, and his dedication to the good of others. I once heard a philosopher define love as “willing good for another person.” That’s the life of Rogers: he had a will for the good of children, and he devoted his life to it. His meekness and gentleness contrast starkly with the loud, self-aggrandizing world of celebrity leaders and pastors. Which one looks more like the Kingdom of God? Which one has a deeper impact on the good of others? Which should we aspire to?
Interestingly, these thoughts coincide with the release of my interview with Phil Keaggy on today’s episode of Cultivated. Phil is widely considered one of the world’s great guitar players, and his career stretches back 50 years. We talk about him opening for the Kinks and Mike Bloomfield, about his time in the Jesus Music movement, with Larry Norman and others. (Norman was, of course, the subject of an earlier episode of Cultivated this season.) And about the way his faith has shaped his life along the way. Now, I’m a guitar player, and I’ve been around guitar players for 20+ years. I’ve obsessively read about the “greats”, and it’s hard not to notice the bravado that accompanies most of their personalities. That’s what makes talking to Phil so striking. He’s a humble, meek soul. He’s grateful for grace and deeply trusting in the love and care that comes from Jesus. I walked away from that conversation struck by the sense that a presence like his can only come from decades spent walking in that kind of trust.
This interview is in two parts. This week is about the arc of his career, and next week we talk more broadly about faith and music.


 I’m headed out of town for vacation, and I am ready for it. We’ve had a challenging season with injuries to kids, heavy loads at work and home, and the ordinary busyness that comes with camps, piano lessons, swim lessons, and other childhood occupations. I look forward to putting a chair in front of some rolling waves and doing a whole lot of nothing. Well… not nothing. I plan to read the recently released biography of Jeff Buckley. I covet your prayers for safe travel, good health, good rest, and good weather.
Jonah Goldberg was interviewed by W. Bradford Wilcox here. It’s a great conversation between two brilliant thinkers. Wilcox is a researcher on family and social dynamics, and Goldberg is a well-known conservative writer and thinker who writes for The National Review and works at the American Enterprise Institute. In the interview, Goldberg describes how he sees the role of the family in what he calls “the miracle” of western civilization. Human nature is violent and self-interested, prone to tribalism and distrust. With the enlightenment came a series of ideas that pushed back on human nature and caused human beings to live in cooperation with one another, crossing racial and tribal boundaries and making contemporary society – a world where all men are created equal – possible. The family plays no small role in that kind of a society, and Goldberg describes why. Much of this is also covered in Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West, which I’m about halfway through. It’s very good, and it’s challenged my attitudes towards a number of historical phenomena.
Also, Goldberg had a great moment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbertthis week too.
Finally…football season is almost upon us. I’m writing this on Thursday afternoon, and tonight the Colts play their first pre-season game. It’s the return of Andrew Luck. I should warn you now, you’ll probably see some regular Colts commentary in this section of the newsletter because I have to vent it somewhere. Here’s hoping this clip from Twitter is evidence of things to come.