strategy

5 Church Leaders You Should Follow in the Post-Hybels Era

It’s hard to believe it but it’s true. We live in a post-Bill Hybels era. Over the last few months, watching from the sidelines has been heart wrenching to say the least. The resignation of the entire elder’s board, Heather Larson and Steve Carter this week does seem like the start of a new beginning for the church. Even though Bill hasn’t acknowledged what really happened, it’s evident that he stepped way out of line and hurt people in the process.

It’s hard to overstate the influence that Bill Hybels and the people of Willow Creek Community Church have had on the evangelical church world. As a result, much of what we view as “normal” within a broad spectrum of this segment of the Christian world traces its roots back to this leadership community. Just a few ways that this group pioneered what we currently do include:

  • Communicating in a way that can be easily understood by unchurched people.
  • Bringing clarity in mission and vision to drive our churches toward deeper effectiveness.
  • Small group ministry to help connect more people.
  • Gift-based serving focused on helping lead from how God has uniquely created them.
  • Employing modern music in weekend programming.
  • Establishing church marketing as a normative way to relate to the community.
  • Elevating the role of women in leadership.
  • Putting the focus on raising generous givers to fuel the mission of the church.
  • Reinforcing leadership development as a core function of church leadership.
  • Using kids’ ministry as a strategic tool to grow the church.
  • Implementing multisite church as a way to improve a church’s ability to serve the community.
  • Identifying practical acts of rendering service to our communities locally and globally as the essence of what we do.
  • … just to name a few.

On a personal level, I remember sitting in the Lakeside Auditorium as a young leader and crying during a “normal weekend” service at Willow and being astonished as I realized how effective church could be in reaching the community. Over the years, Bill’s voice has served to reinforce the irrefutable importance of reaching people far from God in my life.

So what’s next? It would seem that Bill’s inability to acknowledge his own shortcomings undid his leadership and legacy. Rather than owning up to his human weaknesses, he’s run from them and arrogantly defied accountability. What’s happened here has an uncanny similarity to what happened when Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill doubled down on his own narrative instead of humbly pursuing reconciliation with the people accusing him. It was beyond sad to watch Mars Hill unravel in a matter of weeks after that stunningly selfish act. It also has some resonance with what happened when Perry Noble from NewSpring was relieved of his role after refusing to submit to the elders’ authority at his church. I’ve been cheering from the sidelines as the leadership team at NewSpring continues to serve its community and find a new path to impact even after such a traumatic transition.

Some will say that the large “attractional church” model will die an inevitable death with Hybels and Driscoll and Noble. However, I genuinely believe that what needs to die is ego driven leadership models that are oftentimes drawn to this approach. The need of the hour is to find a new set of leaders to follow who are both impactful and have their egos in check. This holds true for pastors of very large churches down to the smallest of communities. Self-absorbed leadership is found at churches of every shape and size.

I’ve had the privilege of connecting with lots of amazing church leaders over the years and to that end, I want to help point you towards a set of leaders that you would be enriched by following. I’ve pulled together a list of five leaders who exhibit the following attributes from my point of view:

  • Humility // They have a track record of integrating emotional health into their leadership.
  • Unusual Impact // They serve in a part of the country that you don’t normally think of as a place where the church thrives.
  • Accessibility // They are willing to help leaders like you grow.
  • Personal // I’ve had some level of personal interaction with each of these leaders, which has led me to want to endorse them to you.

Bruxy Cavey – The Meeting House, Canada

Bruxy has a bit of a disarming persona. While he doesn’t fit the mold of mega-church pastor, the community he leads comprises of 5,000+ people weekly and meets in 19 locations. Bruxy has an unrelenting focus on implementing the teaching of Jesus in his life and communication. Coming from the anabaptist tradition, he seeks to live out the values of peace, simplicity and community for today’s world.

Recently, some “angry neo-reformers” have challenged him publicly, literally calling him a heretic. It’s been nothing short of stunning to see his loving, mature and measured response. You’d be wise to follow Bruxy to embrace a different model of leadership that we typically think of at the center of large impactful churches. (Sidenote: Chapters 4, 5 & 6 of his latest book are must-reads in my eyes. I’m sure that once you read those, you’ll want to dive into the rest of it!)

Church Website: The Meeting House

Social: Blog Twitter Facebook

Rich Villodas – New Life Church, NYC

Rich is the senior pastor of this vibrant multicultural church in New York City. Watching the four year succession process that he went through to assume the church’s leadership was an outward manifestation of his inner life.

New Life is thriving and making waves in the midst of some of the toughest grounds to grow churches. His blog is full of emotionally healthy conversations aimed at helping church leaders live a well-rounded life. Rich is known as a particularly profound voice on the role of racial reconciliation within the church.

Church Website: New Life Church

Social: Insta Twitter Facebook

Carey Nieuwhof – Connexus, Canada

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to see Carey up close. This ex-lawyer is courageous enough to joke publicly that he doesn’t really have the gift of compassion, but people who know him personally will tell you that’s not the case.

Ten years ago, I watched other church leaders publicly ridicule Carey and I literally saw him turning the other cheek and seeking to bless those who were cursing him. He’d say he burnt out early, and that gave him the gift of needing to live a more balanced life. Carey is definitely the sort of person you should follow closely and pattern your leadership after. In fact, his latest book is such a timely resource in the light of all that is happening in this post-Hybels era.

Church Website: Connexus Church

Social: Blog Twitter Facebook Insta

Mark Chitwood – StoneBridge Church, Omaha

I once heard Mark joke that StoneBridge is the slowest growing church in all of America. The church has steadily grown by around 10% a year for the last few decades under his leadership. Today, this vibrant multisite church is impacting thousands in Omaha and is poised to continue to make a lasting impact for years to come.

Recently, this church was deemed one of the best Christian Workplaces and it clearly shows when you begin to interact with the team. Mark’s leadership epitomizes what steady and humble leadership can do over an extended period of time.

Church Website: StoneBridge Church

Social: Twitter

Tim Lucas – Liquid Church, New Jersey

Tim is a vibrant communicator with an admirable personal life. He is particular to live out the message of Jesus in his team and his family. Unlike so many mega church-lead pastors who run 7+ days a week, Tim actually seeks a work-life balance. From my seat, he has limited his “platform building” so that he can focus on being a better dad and leader. God is using his leadership in unique ways to create a huge and enduring impact in Jersey.

Seeing him steward multiple church mergers is a testament to his humility and care for the “Big C” church. Following Tim will not only expose you to one of the most effective communicators in the church today, but will also give you actionable insights into how you can continue leading at a high level and still be rooted to family life.

Church Website: Liquid Church

Social: Facebook Insta

Who would you add to the list?

I would love to hear who you think needs to be added to this list.? Follow the pattern that I’ve set out above and tell us who we should be following in these days?

52 Comments

  1. “Follow as in “watch with interest”, OK. Beyond that there are all sorts of dangers, even with those we consider trustworthy.
    BTW most of these are white, and all are male. Any more ethnically and gender-diverse recommendations?

      1. Being a minister in a mainline denomination in the UK, I am not very familiar with the North American mega-church scene, so have no recommendations to make myself. I am familiar with Bruxy and the Meeting House as my son works for BIC in Canada. I do notice, however, when women are absent or under-represented in these lists. I suspect most women pastors work within mainline denominations and are therefore classed as too “liberal” or “heretical” by some (e.g. Nadia Bolz-Weber).

    1. You should definitely add Craig Groeschel to your list. He did an awesome job at the latest GLS at Willow Creek and the reach of his vision is awesome.

  2. I would add to the list: Pastor Rob Ketterling, River Valley Church in MN. It is an attractional church with a world impact. Huge generousity story happening there

  3. Karl Vaters, Cornerstone Christian Church, Fountain Valley, CA. He’s the ambassador for small churches which make up 80% of our churches by oft get overlooked by big church leaders.

  4. Karl Vaters, Cornerstone Christian Church, Fountain Valley, CA. He’s the ambassador for small churches which make up 80% of our churches by oft get overlooked but big church leaders.

  5. Let me just throw out a big one here. Andy Stanley. If he ever falls due to a moral failure, it’ll be devastating to the Church.

  6. Isn’t this post just setting up the same situation that allowed Bill Hybels to be above scrutiny? One leader falls so we rush to shove someone else into his place? With the implication that these people on the list are morally superior (or at least fit)? What if one of these leaders falls?

  7. Pastor John Fuller of Prairie Lakes Church in Iowa. He is a humble visionary with a huge heart for his staff and the state of Iowa. PLC has a mission to cover Iowa with churches where it doesn’t matter who you are where you’ve been what you’ve done or what’s been done to you God loves you and you can look for Him at Prairie Lakes.

  8. Disagree with comments that say this post promotes hero worship or the elevation of leaders to a place beyond scrutiny.
    Leaders, by definition, should be followed (within reason, of course, and never in contravention to following Christ).
    Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
    I think your post generates good discussion on who we feel is so Christlike and full of good fruit that they are worth emulating.
    And I would add Chris Hodges of Church of the Highlands to the list.

  9. In light of the scandal and your commendation for WC’s elevation of women, you might want to highlight the good work being done by women in the church if you’re going to be discussing this. Elizabeth Grasham and Rachel Held Evans, perhaps?

    But really this piece just serves to gloss over the crippling systemic flaws of this megachurch/McChurch complex. It’s shocking and disgusting that in the aftermath of this scandal you are still heaping praise on an abusive pastor and a church that enabled decades of abuse. Especially grotesque is the idea that we should credit WC with “elevating the role of women in leadership” when the leadership of this church ignored or enabled abuse. It does seem like you’re earnestly trying to highlight pastors who are doing good work, but this is marred by such a tone deaf reflection on Hybels and Willow Creek.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate you pointing towards some leaders you love.

      You’re right. This piece didn’t attempt to deal with the complex issues around what happened at Willow. I’m sure others can pick up that conversation.

      Rich

  10. Joby Martin and the pastoral staff (Ryan Britt, Adam Flynt, Ryan Stone, Et al) at Church of Eleven22 in Jacksonville, FL. Humility, subject to elder authority, unwilling to shape ministry for sake of popular trend or “because that’s the way it’s done.” People are meeting Jesus because of this ministry.

  11. Adam Weber at Embrace Church in Souix Falls, SD
    Olu Brown at Impact Church in Atlanta, GA
    Matt Miofsky at The Gathering in St. Louise, MO

  12. The majority of these listed that I know of are good leaders. I have been a big fan of trying to follow everyone who is rising up as a great leader in the evangelical world so that we can model them
    . However, for me, I am just looking at Jesus these days! Having been a pastor at a larger church the demand that is put on one or more leaders is too high. The everyday guy is not being discipled in a way that activates him. I am all in to see The Church rise up. I am just done with following man and striving to become a better leader so that others might see me! Those leaders who have failed and it is public is just the tip of the iceberg. We all fail everyday! I am so thankful that when Jesus rose out of the grave, He knew that it would radically change me, and you! Sorry, I am just done with looking at man!

  13. Jennie Allen the Founder and leader of IF:Gathering which is the largest gathering of women worldwide. It propels young women in ministry, global justice impact and impowering all christians to mentor others on a grass roots level. She is extremely humble, authentic and as “normal” as you could hope for. Youtube “IF:Gathering Jennie Allen” to expose yourself to her and other fantastic IF:Gathering female pastors and leaders. 🙂 Enjoy! Hillsong has a few strong female leaders as well. If anyone reading this doesn’t know any great female ministers, that means you need to expose yourself to the above Recomended inspiring ministers sooner rather than later… just saying 😊 Thanks Rich for providing a platform for us all to discover more of what God is doing! PS: For a man, Francis Chan reflects the heart of Jesus eloquently.

  14. 100% agree with your addition of Carey on your list. I have been following his blog/podcast for about half a year now and really appreciate the hunger and desire he has for bringing Christ to the world of today. Our church is slowly implementing some of his ideals…

    Also really appreciate one of your readers adding Craig Groeschel and Andy Stanley…two other really solid leaders for today

  15. A few women.

    Rachel Billups, one of the pastors at Gingamsburg in Ohio. This was one of the original mega churches that has recently gone through a fantastic transition season after their pastor of 40+ years retired.

    Carolyn Moore of Mosiac in Georgia. A female planter who had led her community for 15 years.

    Both are excellent pastors.

  16. A long way from North America…but check out:

    Ps Tak Bhana, of Church Unlimited – a multisite church in New Zealand, Australia and Tuvalu. He’s been in leadership for decades, and also heads up the ‘Beyond’ conferences…NZ & Beyond, UK & Beyond, Pakistan & Egypt, as well as running Radio, TV and online broadcast.

    Also worth checking out: John & Gillian Cameron, next generation church leaders of Arise Church in New Zealand.

    Surprised the likes of Brian Houston, Bayless Conley and Charlotte Gambil aren’t on this list.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.