Pastor David Dummitt addressed Willow Creek Community Church’s vision for the future by citing Luke 15, saying God's people must follow Jesus' vision for His church by relentlessly pursuing the lost.
“This church was founded on a conviction that lost people matter immensely to God,” Dummitt said in his sermon last Sunday titled "The Greatest Visionary."
“And we ought to have the heart of the Father that we will relentlessly pursue, we will do everything short of sin, we will go after people because they have an immense worth to God,” added Dummitt, who became senior pastor of the church back in April.
Willow Creek, which had a weekly attendance of over 18,000 people before its former senior pastor Bill Hybels resigned after sexual harassment allegations in 2018, went without a senior pastor until Dummitt’s selection. After Hybels resigned, the church’s attendance fell by around 7,000 people.
Dummitt’s plan to increase church attendance started with getting more use out of Willow Creek’s many large campus buildings. Dummitt used restaurants, sports and meeting venues aft his former church as a way to draw non-Christians into faith, he said. Once they were comfortable with visiting the church building, people often became Christians, he said.
“Willow, you pioneered church buildings that took out stained glass windows and pews and other religious symbols because you wanted to make irreligious people feel more comfortable in the environment,” he said.
The internet has also helped Willow Creek reach more people with the Gospel, Dummitt said. And while he's looking forward to one day resuming in-person meetings, the pastor noted that the most successful businesses today master communicating with people both in-person and online. Once, Sunday service was our culture’s biggest public space; now, our biggest public space is the internet, he added.
“In the past, we’ve spent millions of dollars to reach thousands of people. We now have the opportunity to spend thousands of dollars to reach millions of people,” Dummitt said.
According to an update on Willow Creek’s website, the church has decided to postpone in-person services until 2021. Dummitt did not say when exactly in-person services will resume next year.
To increase membership while doing online-only services, Willow Creek’s church body has had to spread the Gospel and form close-knit communities to develop new Christians, said Dummitt. Church must be as much about sending people out as about sending people in, he said. This evangelistic work starts in small groups.
“I don’t want us to be a church with small groups; I want us to be a church of small groups,” he said.
New church plants will also bring in new members, Dummitt said.
According to research released by LifeWay following its 2015 National Church Planting Study, new churches grow faster and attract more non-believers than older churches. And they baptize three times as many churches as older churches.
“Church planting is the most effective way to reach lost people and to evangelize the world. It just is,” Dummitt said.
Willow Creek opened its most recent campus five years ago. Within the next two years, Dummitt said he wants to open a new campus, a new church in the United States, and a new church internationally.
For the church to continue to grow, Dummitt said Willow Creek needs to recreate a sense of trust after its recent crises. Leaders must show transparency to their congregation on decisions, he added.
Some of this transparency, he said, would come from a new “diversity champion” who would make sure a smaller proportion of white people are in church leadership.
“We’ve implemented dashboards to track our staffing against community demographics to hold us accountable to empowering people of color and women at all levels of leadership. And we’re putting a diversity champion on our executive team, helping us to not only pursue compassion and justice out there, but to make sure we’re seeing it happen in here as well,” Dummitt said.
The Christian Post reached out to Willow Creek for more details about the diversity staffing plan, but the church did not respond by press time.
“We’ve been a church recently polarized by race issues and how we should be responding,” said Dummitt. “I say we lean into what my good friend Albert Tate says: ‘I don’t follow the Donkey. I don’t follow the Elephant. I follow the Lamb.”
Over the next few months, Willow Creek will flesh out the ideas, host fundraising meetings, and host prayer nights — in that order, Dummitt said. He asked the church for its assistance in donations and prayer.
“I have never seen a significant move of God happen apart from God’s people praying,” he said.