LANDOVER, Md. – Tens of thousands of pastors, ministry leaders and corporate leaders gathered at over a hundred sites across North America for Willow Creek's 15th annual Leadership Summit.
The summit has become the go-to event for leaders who are serious about being better at what they do – whether it's shepherding a flock, growing a business, or becoming a more passionate follower of Christ.
Before digging into his notes for the summit's first session on Thursday, Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., made it clear that the summit is not a "hand-holding therapy group" where leaders whine about how lonely it is at the top. Neither is it a hyped-up motivational seminar where leaders gloss over the struggles.
And it's definitely not a two-day church service with bad choirs and endless preaching, he said.
"We are realistic leaders who are trying to lead better in the world," the well-known megachurch pastor simply put.
"[The summit] is a leadership development event that is unashamedly Christ-centered. But in addition to that, it's intellectually challenging and it's a high-intensity environment. We're results-oriented here at the summit. We actually want every one of you to get better at whatever you lead," Hybels said.
After beginning with 245 leaders at the South Barrington campus in 1995, the summit has grown to involve some 100,000 leaders from all spheres of society in 76 countries. The two-day event is beamed live from Willow Creek to sites in the United States and Canada and later broadcast at sites throughout the world. This year, the Willow Creek Association aptly changed the title of the event to "The Global Leadership Summit."
Hybels, who has led his flock of now more than 22,000 for nearly 35 years, kicked off this year's event offering attendees a simple piece of wisdom.
"Leaders move people from 'here' to 'there,'" he said. It's a lot tougher than it seems.
Many people are comfortable with the "here" and refuse to make the move to "there," he said from experience. And making "there" sound amazing won't make them budge.
Instead, when vision-casting, the leader has to make "here" sound awful, Hybels has learned.
The Willow Creek pastor reminded attendees of the significance of hearing from God when trying to go "there."
"The smartest moves I ever made as a leader didn't come from my human wisdom," he stressed. "It came from promptings, a wisdom beyond my own."
Promptings or whispers from God are what led Hybels to start a church and later to serve pastors with resources and events like the leadership summit.
Challenging attendees on a different level, Jim Collins, best-selling author of Good to Great, provided a more technical view of great leadership.
The acclaimed business thinker has long studied successful corporations and most recently looked into how great enterprises fall.
"Anyone can fall," he said. "No company, no church, no nation, no society, no individual person is immune."
After researching organizations, Collins found that though many of them look strong and healthy on the outside, they could actually already be in stages of decline.
Highlighting a critical point, he noted: "These stages are largely self-inflicted. Organizational decline is more what you do to yourselves than what happens to you."
He identified five stages of decline. In order, they are: Hubris born of success, undisciplined pursuit of more, denial of risk and peril, grasping for salvation, and capitulation to irrelevance or death.
Collins, who has studied 7,000 years of corporate history, revealed a finding from his research that he found quite surprising. What separates great leaders from the good – the "level 5" leaders from "level 4" ones – is humility.
"I cannot overstate how surprising this was," he said. "The greatest leaders in our studies – their signature was their humility."
He also noted that big enterprises don't get in trouble when they get complacent or slow down. "That's not how the mighty fall," he said.
Overreaching and too much expansion and adventure are what bring down the mighty, he said.
What got attendees most fired up and on their feet on Thursday was the passionate testimony of Christine Caine, pastor at Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia.
More than anything, it was preaching on Jesus that stirred up the leaders.
"I am still old-school enough to believe that Jesus Christ is the hope of the world," she said. "Jesus is still in the business of saving people."
Caine is founder of the A21 Campaign, an organization dedicated to the care and healing of victims of human trafficking. She said her heart broke when she tried to comfort a young girl in a brothel with a testimony of how great God is. The girl responded angrily saying, "If God is so great, why didn't you come sooner?"
There is a sense of hopelessness all over the world and a generation crying out "where are you?" Caine told attendees.
While the world is wondering if there is hope, Caine underscored, "We have that hope!"
As a woman who grew up in a Greek Orthodox family where women are not encouraged to rise up, who immigrated to Australia only to be marginalized, who was abused by several men, and who found out at age 32 that she was adopted, Caine urged Christians to lead people who are in darkness to a place of hope just as she was led.
"I'm not talking about wishful thinking. That's what the world offers," she said. "I'm talking about confident expectation that this Word is true, that Jesus Christ is still in the business of fixing broken lives and if he did it for me, he can do it for you."
To this day, Caine does not know the facts of her conception – whether she was born out of wedlock or the result of rape. But rather than hold anger or sadness, the Hillsong leader passionately holds on to God's Word, in particular Jeremiah 1:5, which states: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you."
Scripture doesn't say you are the result of rape but it says you are His creation, Caine declared to loud applause from attendees at the Willow Creek campus and at the satellite site of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md.
"I'm passionate because once you have tasted of this hope, you can't lose sight of it. It's Jesus," she said.
The job of the Church is to take the hope, the light inside of them and to penetrate the darkness, she stressed.
"Every bit of light matters," she said.
"Our hope does not lie on the size of our churches, our hope does not lie in the size of our budget ... on what resources we have. I'm living proof. I don't have any of that. Our hope lies in this fact that Jesus Christ came from heaven to earth, died on the cross, and rose again from the dead so that every single person ... can have forgiveness, a brand new start and a hope for the future. Our hope lies in Jesus!"
In a standing ovation, the summit crowd responded to the passionate testimony with one word, "Wow."
The Global Leadership Summit continues Friday with speakers including Daniel Pink, former White House speechwriter; Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, Inc.; and Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric Company.