Willow Creek Community Church, one of the nation's largest and most influential churches, is celebrating its 34th anniversary this weekend.
Attendees from all of Willow Creek's six campuses throughout Illinois are joining together at the main South Barrington site for the first time to mark the special occasion.
Over the last three decades Willow Creek has grown from 100 members to more than 22,000. The church was founded in a movie theater in Palatine, Ill., and later experienced a growth explosion after purchasing its own property in South Barrington.
"When I was a brand new Christian, I actually wondered just how good my new heavenly father was capable of being," Bill Hybels, senior pastor of the megachurch, said in an e-mail to church members. "Decades later I no longer wonder. I simply bow my head reverently, list my multitudes of blessings, and then pour out my worship. I know you do the same."
Every time Hybels and members who have been with him since the beginning of the journey drive onto the South Barrington campus, there's a lot of emotion, he said.
"Most of you drive on this property and appreciate its beauty. Some of us drive on this property and fight off tears," he told the congregation last week.
Recalling the early years, Hybels described the difficulty they found themselves in when they were being kicked out of the movie theater they were meeting in for worship. With most of the members then in their 20s, the money they collected to purchase property in South Barrington fell short.
One Sunday morning, Hybels asked the small congregation to join him if, willing, at the bank to take out a personal loan. To his surprise, more than 200 people showed up and took out bank loans which helped Willow Creek obtain the desired property.
"We got this property on the backs of people who'd pay bank loans," Hybels said.
The first service in the new building was held in February 1981.
From that point on, the church has seen incredible growth and has expanded to five other sites.
Willow Creek is famed for drawing the unchurched or "seekers." But two years ago, the well-known megachurch found that many of its long-time attendees and more committed Christ followers were stalled in their spiritual growth and were not as satisfied as the newer attendees.
Known, and sometimes criticized, for being a seeker-sensitive church, Willow Creek has made some changes to cater to all of its members, including the more mature Christians. At the same time, the church insisted that it has not backed away from reaching seekers and rather is looking to increase evangelism effectiveness.
Their mission statement remains: "to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ."