Friday, December 08, 2006

Similarities and Differences Between Hybels and Warren

I have looked on with admiration and wonder as God has used Bill Hybels and Rick Warren to build churches that have effectively evangelized many people. Both churches are averaging about 20,000 on weekends at the present time. Interestingly, there are both similarities and differences in their philosophies.


Both churches have attempted to contextualize their message without compromising it so that seekers will hear it presented clearly and effectively. Hybels emphasized this important principle:

“We believe that the church should be culturally relevant, while remaining doctrinally pure.”

Lynne and Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church: The Story and Vision of Willow Creek Community Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 187.

Warren also stressed that Jesus’ disciples “were to adapt to local customs and culture when it didn’t violate a biblical principle.”

Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 195.

Michael Hamilton gave a description of growing churches that could be applied to both Saddleback Community Church and Willow Creek Community Church:

“History seems to show that dynamic, growing churches require a combination of spiritual wisdom, cultural discernment, visionary leadership, talented management, favorable demographics, and adequate financial resources.”

Michael S. Hamilton, “Willow Creek’s Place in History,” Christianity Today 44, no. 13 (November 13, 2000): 68.


Hybels disagrees with two of the key principles of the classic church growth movement as espoused by Donald McGavran, while Warren agrees with both. McGavran defined the homogeneous unit principle:

“People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”

Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, third edition, revised and edited by C. Peter Wagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 163.

In an interview with Bill Hybels in 1994, Michael Maudlin and Edward Gilbreath asked, “Do you endorse the idea called the ‘homogeneous unit principle’ in church-growth circles?” Hybels answered, “I never have. I think a church ought to reflect its neighborhood. If the neighborhood is diverse, I hope the church would be. If the neighborhood is not diverse, it’s pretty hard for a church to be.”

Michael G. Maudlin and Edward Gilbreath, “Selling Out the House of God?” Christianity Today 38, no. 8 (July 18, 1994): 24.

In a forum held in 2005 and moderated by Edward Gilbreath and Mark Galli, however, Hybels said that at one point in his life he thought the homogeneous unit principle was true:

“It was the homogeneous unit principle of church growth. And I remember as a young pastor thinking, That’s true. . . . I marvel at how naïve and pragmatic I was 30 years ago” (emphasis in original).

Noel Castellanos, Bill Hybels, Soong-Chan Rah, Frank Reid, Mark Galli, and Edward Gilbreath, “Harder than Anyone Can Imagine,” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (April 2005): 38.

In contrast, Warren endorsed the homogeneous unit principle as he discussed the evangelization of people who were like those in his church:

“The people your church is most likely to reach are those who match the existing culture of your church. . . . Whatever type of people you already have in your congregation is the same type you are likely to attract more of.”

Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 174.

McGavran defined the receptivity principle: “Evangelism can be and ought to be directed to responsive persons, groups, and segments of society.”

McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 187.

Rather than trying to evangelize responsive non-Christians, Willow Creek Community Church has emphasized evangelizing any non-Christians that are in the sphere of influence of Christians. Verne Becker emphasized that the church evangelistically targets particular groups for reasons other than responsiveness:

“Men are targeted, according to associate pastor Don Cousins, only because they are harder to reach.”

Verne Becker, “A Church for Bored Boomers,” Christianity Today 33, no. 14 (October 6, 1989): 25.

In contrast, Warren clearly endorsed the receptivity principle as he explained his strategy for reaching a community:

“Jesus taught in the Parable of the Sower and the Soils (see Matt. 13:3-23) that spiritual receptivity varies widely. . . . For evangelism to have maximum effectiveness, we need to plant our seed in the good soil—the soil that produces a hundredfold harvest. . . . We need to be strategic in reaching the world, focusing our efforts where they will make the greatest difference.”

Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, 181.