Willow Creek History

Willow Creek Community Church started as a whisper in a college classroom in 1972.

In a New Testament class at Trinity College, 20-year-old Bill Hybels sat captivated by the beautiful picture that Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian painted of the first church as described in Acts chapter 2. “He described a community of people who took off their masks and lived authentically, who loved each another, used the gifts God had given them to create a church where people came to know God—and where everyone’s needs were met,” Bill recalls. “When I left Dr. B’s classroom that day, I went out to my car, put my head down on the steering wheel, and cried. The dream of being part of such a church had taken root in my soul.”

Bill and some friends were leading a high school youth group in Park Ridge, Illinois at that time, and as they began to apply the Acts 2 principles taught by Dr. B, the number of teens in the group began to skyrocket. “Kids were coming to faith in Christ,” Bill says. “Their lives were being transformed, and they were loving one another with the kind of unconditional love you see described in Acts 2.”

Bill and those friends sensed God’s call to launch a church for teens and parents alike—a church that could reach their community with the love of Christ. They rented Sunday-morning space in the Palatine's Willow Creek Theatre, and 125 people showed up for that first service on October 12, 1975.

Using the same Acts 2 model Dr. B had described in that New Testament class, the church quickly outgrew their space at the theater. In 1977, the congregation pooled their resources, emptying their savings accounts and many waiting in line at a local bank to take out personal loans.

“The level of personal sacrifice from those early members of our church still blows me away,” Bill says. “They were deeply invested—not just financially, but also personally.” The group raised enough money to purchase a plot of land in South Barrington—the site of Willow’s main church campus today. Construction began in 1980, and in February 1981, the fledgling church met for the first time in its new, permanent home.

God has taken Willow on quite a ride since those early days. And throughout the past 42 years, the Acts 2 vision that gripped the hearts of Bill and those founding members of Willow Creek has transcended individual leaders, ministries, and eras. The mission of helping people become fully devoted followers of Jesus remains Willow’s heartbeat, and being an authentic community that loves God and loves others is part of Willow’s very DNA as a church.

Today, more than 25,000 people attend weekend services at eight regional locations throughout Chicagoland. Willow is committed to encouraging and equipping other churches and partners around the world. On its 40th anniversary, Willow congregants gave more than $2.5 million to help 55 congregations in developing countries complete building projects for their churches.

On its 42nd anniversary, Bill Hybels announced his intention to step down from his paid staff position as senior pastor at Willow Creek in October 2018. He and Willow’s Elders introduced the two leaders who will step into the role of leading Willow Creek into a new era: Executive Pastor Heather Larson will transition into the role of Lead Pastor over all Willow Creek locations, and Teaching Pastor Steve Carter will transition into the role of Lead Teaching Pastor.

From its earliest days to today—and into this new era—Willow Creek remains, above all else, a local church of Christ followers, a place where people matter to God and to one another, where together we seek to live out God’s vision of being an Acts 2 church.

“It has been my life’s greatest honor to serve the God I love at the church I love,” Bill says. “I fully believe Willow’s greatest days are ahead, and I feel a sense of release from my role as senior pastor. During this year of transition, I’ll give my best efforts to coach, mentor, and encourage our leaders in their new roles, and to serve our church and the God I love, because he’s only ever given his absolute best to me.”

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