In this post, Global Leadership Summit staff members will share stories of impact from Willow Creek Community Church—as we join in the celebration of Willow’s 40th Anniversary. We thank God for His work at this amazing church—truly living out the vision that the local church can be the Hope of the World!
On October 18, Willow Creek Community Church will celebrate its 40th Anniversary with a blowout celebration at the United Center in downtown Chicago. Willow’s Executive Pastor, Heather Larson (Host, TGLS 2015), said, “While each anniversary is special, the 40th is an opportunity for all campuses to gather in one place to praise God for the incredible grace He has poured on this church.”
Given that Willow Creek is the church that birthed the Summit, we wanted to celebrate the 40th with stories from the people who work every day to create the world-class leadership training we all experience at the Summit.
On our first visit to Willow, my husband and I heard Bill’s message on the beauty, the power and the potential of the church—that the local church is the hope of the world. This sermon became a defining moment in our lives. It inspired us to build a Willow Creek-type of church in South Korea, and gave both my husband and me an opportunity to work, serve and grow with Willow for the past 26 years.
Willow’s Chapter 2 era was the golden age for me as Willow was vibrantly booming with conferences that helped me grow as a wife, a mom, a creative and an international leader. New Community (midweek services) worship at Lakeside, watching my only daughter get baptized and grow up through the 90s (eventually getting married at Willow), endless lines of engaged and excited volunteers, enjoying the drama team and even being part of the choir will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve had the distinct privilege of being able to call Willow home, and over the years I have been able to see the world through Willow’s eyes to help hundreds of thousands of global leaders find the inspiration and strength to continue to impact their local communities. Happy 40th Willow!
-Karen Chae, Executive Director of International Publishing and Resources
In 1988, my boyfriend (now husband) introduced me to Willow Creek Community Church. I thought I was a “Christian,” having grown up attending church, but WOW, Willow was like nothing I’d ever experienced before! I was intrigued, more accurately, the Holy Spirit was drawing me closer to Jesus and over the next several months I got to know Him, personally!
My life prior to finding Jesus was a mess and once I accepted Christ, it became a whole new kind of mess. Twenty-seven years later and my life continues to be transformed by the ministry of Willow Creek and as one of my favorite songs from my early days at Willow says “I’m Forever Grateful.” Can’t imagine my life without your influence, Willow! Happy 40th Anniversary!
– Rhonda Jenkins, Summit Satellite Manager
As a high school student, my youth pastor brought me to Willow to expand my vision and set a new bar for ministry excellence. Willow helped me fall in love with the power and impact of the local church when it’s working right. It also seeded the dream of one day being part of such an incredible ministry. Fast-forward 20 years, and I still can’t believe I get to be part of the Willow team. Hundreds of churches have been started, thousands have been revived, and millions of leaders have been impacted by the leadership DNA of Willow.
Willow is also the place where I met my wife. After one of the services, we sat down next to each other in the Atrium with a group of friends and we shared fun banter for the first time. Those same friends would join us a couple years later for our wedding in the Willow Chapel. We are grateful for the legacy of great marriages and families that Willow is passing on to the next generation. This is truly an “only God” kind of place.
– Andy Cook, Executive Director of Operations
Dr. Bilezikian was one of my professors in college; he often spoke about a new church he was a part of…in a movie theater. I started to attend in 1978, and learned that church could be fun AND help me grow spiritually, a combination I had never experienced!
I learned about my spiritual gifts and started aligning my life around my gifts and passions. I met my husband here, raised my kids here, and today lead the marketing and development efforts of Willow Creek Association. I have the privilege of seeing first-hand how God is using Willow, and now the Global Leadership Summit, to transform churches and communities around the world. Happy 40th!
– Sue Elworth, Vice President, Development and Marketing
I started attending Willow after meeting my wife at Wheaton College in 2003. My wife’s family had been invested in Willow since the movie theater days and I was intrigued after hearing about Willow’s history. After getting married, my wife and I began serving in the high school ministry and with a business background I knew I would serve, but never actually work for the church…or so I thought.
In 2010, I was recruited by Shane Farmer to join Student Impact and in 2012 was invited to join WCA to begin working with The Global Leadership Summit team. I’m very grateful for the community, leadership development and growth opportunities that I’ve been a direct beneficiary of. I am a better leader today than I was five years ago since I first started working for a church. Thank You and Happy 40th Anniversary Willow!
– Neil Sternberg, Director of Strategic Summit Initiatives
My first experience at Willow was What a Ride – the musical created for Willow’s 15th anniversary. I was fresh out of college, having come to Christ in campus ministry. I loved the raucous, sold-out spirit of ministry on a college campus, but I had never experienced it at an actual church—until Willow.
That was the era of the West Expansion. (“What? A food court in a church?”) I quickly became involved in Primetime and Axis—Willow’s ministry for young adults—and was given the opportunity to lead small groups, ministry teams, provide one-on-one discipleship and teach. I met my husband at Willow and we were married in the Chapel. And how could you not be spoiled by Willow’s teaching pastors? In that era, we sat under teaching from Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, Lee Strobel and Nancy Beach. Many of my friends and family found new faith in Christ – including my dad, who was rocked by Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ.
In 1996, I was invited by a mentor to attend a new conference – the Leadership Summit. (It was the second year—and it wasn’t Global at that time!) I can remember where I was sitting in the Lakeside Auditorium when I heard a whisper from God to expand my leadership and pursue ministry vocationally. I was invited to join the church staff and the Summit became a can’t-miss event in my calendar. Fast-forward ten years (after a stint at seminary, small groups ministry and three babies) and God directed me full-circle, where I lead the process to select speakers and content for the Summit. I cannot believe God allows me to play a small role in this event that He is using to equip leaders around the globe. Happy 40th Willow Creek!
– Liz Driscoll, Director of Content Acquisition
I still remember my first day at Willow. I was five years old. My mom and her three little girls were running late, as usual, in order to make it to the Sunday morning service. Lucky for us, it was Daylight Saving time, and we were actually early. The building was mysteriously quiet. I remember waddling around behind my mom who wondered where everybody was. Little did I know then that this would be the place that would shape who I was for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t just Bill Hybels and John Ortberg’s teaching, among others, or my small group leaders’ encouragement, or the friendships that were built…It was the challenge to face my fears, see people differently, and discover who I was made to be and who I am in God’s eyes.
It was here that I began to understand the power of love that transforms lives. It was here, at the young age of 10, that I heard Bill Hybels talk about Mother Theresa’s life. I told my mom I wanted to become a nun, though I really didn’t know what that meant at the time. Becoming a nun was not in my future, but it was teaching like this that that changed the trajectory of my life.
These days, I walk through the same building I once did at five years old when it was mysteriously quiet, but today, years of memories flood through my mind. Some broken, and some great. I’ve laughed, cried, and grown here. And now, working at WCA, I get to see how the church spreads far beyond just the walls of a building. The reach is far more than I could have imagined.
– Rosey LaVine, Development Project and Story Manager
I grew up attending another church and was actively involved in a campus ministry when I was in college, but it wasn’t until I first started attending Willow Creek in 1988 that my engagement in my faith kicked into a higher gear. Although I initially was taken aback by Willow’s approach to ministry because it was so different from what I grew up with, as I learned more about Willow’s mission and strategy, something clicked inside me. This is how church is supposed to be!
At Willow I’ve discovered a deeper level of worship and prayer and over the years I’ve been able to develop my leadership as a volunteer small group leader, coach, mentor, and medium-size group leader in the single adult ministry PrimeTime, Couples Ministry and now the junior high ministry Elevate. I will be forever grateful for these opportunities as well as for meeting my wife at Willow and seeing our three children come to faith through the student ministries. Thanks Willow Creek! Happy 40th!
– Doug Yonamine, Vice-President of Human Resources
In the summer of 1986, I walked into Willow Creek Community Church and have never looked back. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Willow. Little did I know what an adventure my life would be. Serving in Promiseland, Willow Creek Magazine team, Frontline and seeker small groups helped develop my leadership and evangelistic skills. We had plays like What a Ride, sang He is Able and practiced the Five G’s as God’s blessings continued.
In 1989, the Rebuilders ministry helped me process through a divorce and gave me opportunities to lead, teach and train. (THANK YOU Willow for believing a woman can use her gifts in the church!) I learned how to be a servant leader. Many of us have sweet memories of the all-church volunteer leadership retreats in Chicago and Milwaukee. New Community Lakeside was a place where the family met to spur on our faith.
God opened up international opportunities for me to equip and encourage church leaders and volunteers from around the globe about care ministries. I can list names of people from my neighborhood to across the world that I can call family. And now, I get to help Christian leaders grow to maximize Kingdom impact at WCA. WOW!
All because one professor dared one of his students to live out an Acts 2 church. Only God.
– Kyndra Lynn Singer; International Marketing Manager for WCA International
I was invited to Willow Creek in the late 80’s. Our first invitation was to a musical that was being done as an outreach. I leaned over to my husband and said, “Wow…these guys are amazing! They’re wasting their time in church. They should be on Broadway or something!” Little did I know that we’d be drawn back again and again, because these same people were there every weekend leading worship during the services!
We then decided to come to an actual service. Lee Strobel taught. Being a devout Catholic, I couldn’t believe the profound difference here. I later realized it was the presence of the Holy Spirit in the people of Willow. I came to Christ on August 29, 1990—after losing my dad Father’s Day weekend, that same summer. Bill did a message called Christianity 101 and this opened my eyes for the very first time to what it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. My husband also came to Christ through the teaching at Willow, as did most of my kids. My husband passed away, and he is now in heaven as a result of the seeker sensitivity and the teaching here.
I’m eternally grateful for this church. I’ve been on staff for 16 ½ years—first with the church and now the WCA. I am part of the Ministry Operations team. Congratulations, Willow Creek!! It will be amazing to see what God has in store for the church in the decades to come!
– Marcie Knoll-Damiani, Ministry Consultant
When our three-year old son starting asking questions like, “Why can’t I see God?” my husband and I knew we needed to step up our game and find a good church where both our children could learn. Not only did our children learn, but my husband and I were propelled to another level of our Christian walk. We found answers to some of the gnawing questions in our lives and we also found a certain amount of peace. I have enjoyed small groups and have been baptized at Willow.
I found a passion for serving in the Global Hospitality Ministry and now find myself as the Lead for that Ministry. Through my work at this church, I believe I have been used as the hands and feet of Jesus, which is thrilling. Happy Anniversary to Willow Creek Church and blessings to many more years!!
– Mary Beth Temesvary, Ministry Lead, Global Hospitality
I walked through the doors of Willow Creek Community Church because I was invited to attend Christmas at Willow. What I didn’t expect that Christmas was the gift of new friends. New friends in this crazy-big church who challenged my wife Michelle and I to get involved in building our section community. Eventually we became new believers and were baptized alongside those same friends.
I can remember exactly where I was sitting, watching my first GLS at Willow, and was stirred with a holy discontent to leave the marketplace and serve with the Willow Creek Association to share all God is doing at our church and around the world through the Summit. I am thankful for the better leader I am becoming because of Willow and the GLS. Thanks and Happy 40th!
– John Jordan, Director of Digital Marketing