SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. - With his boyish face and cool blue eyes, dressed in khaki pants and a Ralph Lauren denim shirt, the Rev. Bill Hybels greets a line of visitors inside Guest Central, a brick-and-glass room with a flickering fireplace in the middle of Willow Creek Community Church's atrium.
The soft-spoken visionary behind the "seeker-sensitive" movement had just returned from a trip to Germany, where he taught 11,000 pastors how to make their churches more welcoming to those who rarely attend church.
Mr. Hybel's pioneering approach to reaching "unchurched" people has spurred Willow Creek to become one of the nation's largest churches, drawing 20,000 people to five services each weekend. Easter weekend, the church held seven services with reserved seats booked through online "e-tickets."
Last fall, Willow Creek moved into a $72 million addition to its existing $30 million complex, opening a 7,200-seat auditorium with twin escalators leading to a mezzanine floor, a waterfall cascading from the heights of a five-story glass-lined atrium, and two 25-by-14-foot LED televisions flanking the sanctuary's hydraulically controlled stage.
"I never set out to build a big church," Mr. Hybels, 53, said in his 1995 book, Rediscovering the Church. The only goal, he asserted, was to find ways to "crack the cultural codes" and "see redeemed people become the church."
Groomed to take over his father's hugely successful produce business, Mr. Hybels opted for the ministry instead but took along the many real-world business lessons his father had taught him.
Since the 1980s, Willow Creek has been at the epicenter of the cultural quake that has shaken the modern church. Not only are there 10,500 churches that belong to the Willow Creek Association, countless pastors are implementing some of Mr. Hybels' "seeker-sensitive" concepts into their ministries.
A year ago, Mr. Hybels came to Toledo to help Temperance's CrossRoads Community Church and its pastor, the Rev. Glenn Teal, begin a building campaign. This fall, he is scheduled to come back to town to help the Rev. Lee Powell and CedarCreek Church observe its 10th anniversary.
"I remember when we were a tiny little church, just 100 people in a rented theater, and whenever anyone was willing to come and help us, it meant a lot to us," Mr. Hybels said in an interview at Willow Creek.
"Leaders like Glenn Teal and Lee Powell, these are extremely high-caliber leaders who are building fantastic churches," he said. "Whenever I can crawl under their talents and help them in building a building or going to the next level, I just think it's a wise investment of my time. These kinds of churches are going to have enormous impacts for Christ."
Mr. Hybels said he is always keeping an eye on society to find new ways to bring people to church.
"The social landscape of seekers is in a state of evolution," he said. "It used to be that 15 years ago, the average seeker was very geared for information. They wanted to come to a church to hear facts. They wanted to spectate, consider the facts, and leave.
"We find nowadays that a lot of seekers say, 'Show me. Demonstrate for me the power of God in your church. Take me with you to serve somewhere in the name of Christ. I'm looking to participate in a compassion-oriented experience or serving opportunity, and I'll make up my mind as we go.'●"