Willow Creep

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The resignation of Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago this past week follows the dispiriting pattern of mea culpas we have seen in the secular world, when issues of impropriety are exposed.

Something creeps in to the church, a bracket creep in which the church edges its way towards the crisis management style of the world without realising it is doing so.

A bracket creep in which the church wakes up in the midst of a crisis of its own making, and in searching for the tools to deal with it, only has worldly tools at hand.

And it’s always a crisis that exposes how similar to the world the church’s thinking and resultant actions are when it comes to dealing with these things publicly.

First comes the accusations, often historical, and then the denials.

Then comes the counter claims; accusations towards the accusers (often women), that they are making things up to discredit the integrity of the person, or the business, or – in this case – the ministry.

Things then become public, and hit the media.  Those who have fallen afoul of the organisation and been forced to leave in silence come tentatively – at first – out of the woodwork, before finding voice as the spell is broken.

Then come the claims that there was a cover up at board or management level, denials about that, before, eventually there comes a resignation from the accused leader, whose parting shot contains an apology that doesn’t quite apologise about anything in particular and certainly doesn’t apologise to anyone for anything in particular.

All very familiar, and in Hybels’ case, all very sobering, as his church led the way in the seeker sensitive church movement that launched a thousand baby-boomer equivalents.  Bill is being perceived creep, and the reverberations will continue for some time.

The Chicago Tribune, which launched the initial investigation into the allegations stated:

…the pastor had been the subject of inquiries by church leaders into claims that he ran afoul of church teachings by engaging in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation — including employees — allegedly spanning decades. The inquiries had cleared Hybels.

A bit like the police opening up an investigation into police conduct.

And just this week in the wake of Hybels’ resignation the opening line of the Tribune’s article was “They sought his repentance, not his resignation”.

Yet that thought – that repentance is the way forward for Bill and a compliant board that has been complicit in a cover up – never seems to be the obvious conclusion when bracket creep is operating.

What we’ve gotten is exactly what we got when the Mars Hill system went down.  A long drawn out, painful process that ends with resignation, but never admission of wrong doing, never repentance.

Did Mark Driscoll when he wrote his first chapter for an edited book with fellow authors ever envisage the day when his church would be spending thousands of dollars buying up copies of his book to ensure it make number one on the New York Times best seller list?  He would have laughed in your face if you’d suggested it back then.  Yet here we are.  Bracket creep at work.

Whether you’re the zealous X-Gen alpha male type leader who crushes leaders, or the smooth Boomer leader who has a crush on leaders, there is a dispiriting sameness to the way this unwinds.

But it does make sense doesn’t it? The reason the church has crept towards the crisis management style of the world is that it first crept towards the management style of the world in the first place.

The church baptised that management approach with all sorts of theological parlance, running workshops and conferences espousing, publishing any number of books, and offering incentives to churches that take that approach on and come under their umbrella, often with the promise of “the keys to the executive bathroom” in the form of webinars, special access to the leadership, insights etc that mere mortals around the edges would not be privy to.

The real insight that we needed however, was not the management style of the leadership, but its approach to godliness, and how it dealt with sin in the camp. And that wasn’t part of the church growth handbook.  It was one of the “it goes without saying” comments that these things get when some rogue in the gallery posits the question about transparency, or raises the matter of leadership qualities that accord with the Pastoral Epistles.

The results has been a deep plausibility structure across a wide swathe of the church operating under what is essentially a completely secular framework.  How did that happen?  Through bracket creep.  A little bit here. A little bit there.  Until it’s viewed as the only way forward.

This week’s developments in the church that Lyle Schaller says is “the most influential church in America”, fires a warning shot across the bows of the evangelical church in general, and across those churches involved in bracket creep in general.

Or more to the point, it’s a sign that the warning shots, so often ignored, are now hitting  their targets below the waterline.  This big evangelical mega church thing is taking in water, whether it’s soft evangelical Boomer style or hardcore patriarchal X-Gen style.

The soberly written blog post by Vonda Dyer,  one of the women accusing Hybels’ makes for painful reading. But not surprising reading in that it has been how secular workplaces have operated for so long.  Why should we be surprised when the church, in its desire to ape the success of the business world, operates in the same manner in times of crisis?

Which brings us to the creepier aspect of bracket creep; the bracket creep of unrepentant sin in which leaders (and others) justify their behaviour over time.  You cannot read the reports of Vonda Dyer (and other women) without sensing the way in which the accused leader normalised behaviour that earlier in their ministry they may have been horrified by.

Yet that’s how our sinful hearts work – through bracket creep.  We never get presented first up with a big steaming pile of evil, because we’d run a mile.  But incremental parcels of sin, presented in attractive and enticing packages? Well we’re all suckers for that sort of bracket creep.

In other words, without the heart of repentance that the Holy Spirit gives us we will find ourselves in either the equivalent of Driscoll’s book buying technique, or Hybels’ alleged woman seducing techniques, in our own areas of sin and brokenness.  And without a leadership in their churches that had the spiritual bravery to hold them back, these gifted, but flawed men, fell for the bracket creep of their own weaknesses.

Hebrews 3 reminds us not to “be hardened by sins’ deceitfulness“, and part of that deceitfulness is the imperceptible bracket creep game that sin plays.  Hebrews 3 provides the antidote as  “encourage one another daily“.  Somewhere in the Mars Hill and Willow Creek mix, both sides of that exhortation fell by the roadside.

For those of us involved in ministry roles, let’s resolve by the grace of God to never be uncovered as a creep.  More to the point, let’s never remained covered as a creep, because one day God will expose every creeping creature to his holy light.