Megachurch pastor Billy Hybels' first five years of establishing a church in a Chicago suburb was one of the hardest experiences in his life, he told Christian leaders at the Exponential conference.
"I did a lot of scrambling. In the first five years it was like 25, 100-yard dashes a day," Hybels told those attending the second day of the three-day church planting conference at First Baptist Church Orlando.
Hybels, 60, founded Willow Creek Community Church 37 years ago. He led services at Palatine's Willow Creek Theater before the church moved six years later to its current location in South Barrington, Ill.
"When I look out at a crowd like this and see how many of you are in the first five to ten years of a church plant, I just want to sprinkle pastor dust all over you and wish you well," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
"I think [church planting] is just inherently messy. I think it's inherently confusing. I think it's inherently complex. We can help, and council, and bless each other a little bit but one of the toughest things I've ever been through is the first five or ten years of planting Willow," he said.
Leaders with a heart for church planting are being encouraged by experienced pastors at Exponential to move past the difficulties they will encounter when they start their houses of worship.
Church planting is not for the faint of heart, say organizers of the three-day conference, which began Tuesday. More than 4,000 new churches start each year, which means upwards of 20,000 planters are "in the trenches in years 1-5, many of whom are discouraged and have considered quitting," according to information on the conference's website.
The conference theme is "Sifted," emphasizing the church planter's spiritual, physical, and emotional health as the "very foundation for reproducing."
Hybels appeared on stage during a panel with his wife, Lynne, and two adult children, Shauna and Todd. Dave Ferguson, lead pastor at Community Christian Church in Illinois, interviewed the family about their early struggles and triumphs as church planters.
"We didn't have anybody giving us any direction or council," Lynn Hybels said. "We weren't a part of any organization. There were no church planters' organizations that we knew of back then."
Still, her husband and her were able to make some good decisions, she said.
"We made this decision that if we had to choose between disappointing people in our congregation or our kids, we will disappoint the congregation because if they don't like us they can go to another church, but our kids are stuck with us," Lynn Hybels explained.
Her husband stressed the importance of keeping focus on the family while taking part in a church plant.
"When these two kids arrived, nothing ever touched me as deeply as these kids. The thought of leaving these kids in the jetstream of a fast moving church was unconscionable to me," he explained. "This group here (he said while pointing to his family) is my ultimate, lifelong small group. They are my permanent community. So, what do you have when you drive away from your church after 35 to 40 years if you don't have an ultimate community?"
Hybels said that once a church planter has established his fundamental commitments and decided not to quit, it's just a matter of "commitment management."
"The idea of bailing on this – I don't mean this unkindly – I think it's the coward's way out. I think it requires more courage to be a covenant keeper, your covenant with your calling to God, your covenant to your marriage, your covenant to your children," he said.
"I had to settle with God, [praying] unless you take my life or release me from my call at Willow, I'm going to serve this church with my heart, soul, mind, and strength every day. I'm not breaking that covenant."