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The Bifurcated Church - A Biblical Assessment of the New Leadership Model of Willow Creek Church

A few weeks ago, Willow Creek Church announced a major leadership transition. Founding and Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels, will be retiring in October of 2018 and a new leadership will take the helm. There is nothing unique about leadership transitions in churches, but the new leadership model that was adopted by Willow Creek is unique. Rather than going the traditional route of simply replacing the Senior Pastor, the church has decided to create a dual-Senior leader model. One person will serve as Lead Pastor and the other will serve as Lead Teaching Pastor.

When I first read about this new model that Willow Creek is embarking on I could not help but think about how this fits in with the Biblical model of church in the New Testament. In this article I will use the Willow Creek leadership model as a case study for critiquing the larger issue of church leadership structure and whether it falls in line with the Biblical precedent for the church.

Background of the Early Church

The initiation of the church is seen in the Book of Acts. Jesus commanded his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came upon them and then they would be witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:8). A few verses later, the Holy Spirit comes and the disciples begin to have unprecedented impact in Jerusalem. Peter preaches with power and 3,000 people are saved (Acts 1:41).

The proceedings of the first church are seen in Acts 2:42. There are some notable things that stand out that show what the priority of the early church was. First and foremost the new church was dedicated to the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42). This teaching was based in the disciples understanding of the Old Testament and its connection to Christ (Luke 24:45) as well as their personal experience walking with Jesus himself. Truly, preaching the word was of utmost priority in the church. This is demonstrated when the apostles’ started to feel the pressure of ministry with the growing demands of the daily distribution. Rather than give time to the distribution, the disciples appointed others to take this on so they could devote themselves to the preaching of the Word (Acts 6:2-4).

The early church was dedicated to fellowship. The Greek word koinonia implies a close intimacy that the early church had with one another. There was joint participation and close association. Within this close association the “breaking of bread” was common. Which included meals together as well as communion. In addition, the early church was dedicated to praying together.

It was these three aspects of the church - teaching, fellowship, and prayer that created a unity and care among the believers which gave them favor even among the non-believers. It was this powerful trio, combined with the power of the Holy Spirit which contributed to the growth of the church (Acts 2:47).

The Church Today

It would seem that the early church was a time in church history that many would long to return to. There is certainly a sense that church was less complex and more focused - words that do not tend to describe the modern church. Now, I am not suggesting that the only pure form of church is a total return to the church of Acts. Clearly, with the passing of time and the change in culture there are certain aspects to the life of the church that need to morph. What I am suggesting, however, is that as the modern church adjusts to accommodate different demands, it would be essential that the priorities of the early church remain the priorities of the modern church.

The danger is that more demands and more complexities create a scenario that could compromise the priorities of the church. Does the preaching and teaching of the Word, fellowship, and prayer still hold the place that it should in the modern church today?

Bifurcating the Church

In the dual-senior leadership structure at Willow Creek, Heather Larson will serve as Lead Pastor over all of Willow Creek and Steve Carter will serve as Lead Teaching Pastor.

What is the difference between these two roles? According to the church’s press release, the Lead Pastor position will focus on vision and direction for the church, personnel, staff development, finances, and property. The Lead Teaching Pastor will focus on congregation care and content for preaching and teaching.

Willow Creek has adopted a model that I have termed the “bifurcated church model.”

Willow Creek has bifurcated the church into a corporate business entity on one hand and a New Testament local church on the other hand. The new leadership direction makes this distinction quite clear.

On first glance this might seem like a creative and wise solution to the growing complexities in churches - especially those as large as Willow Creek. However, there is another side to this that is worth exploring.

In Willow Creek’s scenario, it is clear that the Lead Pastor role has the overarching authority over the church, yet this role does not focus on teaching, fellowship, and prayer - the three main priorities of the church laid out in the Book of Acts.

From the Book of Acts all they way through the letters of Paul and Peter, it is clear that the leadership model of the early church quite clearly designated those who taught the Word as being the overseeing authority for the church (Acts 6:2-4; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 1 Timothy 3; 1 Timothy 4:15-16; 2 Timothy 4:2).

It seems to me that Willow Creek has created a confusing leadership structure where the Lead Pastor guides the overall affairs of the church, but not in the area of preaching. By default this makes the role of the teaching and preaching secondary to the organizational aspects of the church.

The structure in and of itself, whether intended or not, implies a diminishing sense as to the three priorities of the church. How can the church be effectively led if the person responsible for these purposes is sitting in a secondary leadership chair? This seems to be a departure from the model of the early church.

A model like this has the potential to create confusion. It is hard to fathom a congregation looking to one leader for teaching and another leader for overall direction.

I have no problem with a church bifurcating leadership if the complexities of the church call for it. What I question is placing a leader over the direction of the church who does not carry the responsibility for teaching, fellowship, and prayer.

Final Thoughts

Although the church has changed since the times of the apostles those things that defined the church then should certainly define the church now.

The church must dedicate itself to clear and powerful preaching and teaching of the Word, fellowship and unity with one another, and prayer. As was seen in the early church, it is this powerful trio that will allow the church to have the influence that it is meant to have today. With this, the church leadership structure should reinforce this. Anything less is confusing at best and compromising at worst.

Although I question the model of leadership chosen by Willow Creek I do not intend to question their passion for the Gospel. Rather, my challenge to any church would be to consider the clear foundations for the church laid out in Scripture and structure their leadership accordingly.

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