It is Thursday night and the auditorium is packed. This midweek believers-oriented service—one of two held weekly—represents all that is going right these days for Willow Creek Community Church, the megachurch in South Barrington, Illinois, that is preparing for megagrowth.

As the prelude's last guitar riff fades, Bill Hybels steps on stage and the crowd applauds. The senior and founding pastor tells the crowd that the previous weekend's attendance topped 20,000, up from the usual 17,000 who pack six seeker-oriented worship services. The church has seen a 20 percent increase in attendance in the past five years.

These are exciting days, Hybels says. That's why Willow Creek needs to build.

In his annual vision-casting sermon in January, Hybels, 47, announced a new building project on the church's 155-acre suburban Chicago campus costing as much as $70 million.

Groundbreaking for a 49,000-square-foot office building is set for June. In late summer, plans will be unveiled for a classroom building for workshops and a new auditorium with approximately 7,000 seats, a 50 percent increase over seating in the 20-year-old worship center.

The project, coinciding with the church's twenty-fifth anniversary, is more than a building campaign, according to David Staal, director of communications. "We're calling it Chapter Two. The first chapter was incredible. This is our vision for the next 25 [years]—how we will reach people locally, regionally, and around the world."

Hybels told the church that the greatest limitation to its ministry is physical capacity. "This is our opportunity to maximize the use of our campus," Staal says.

"There are 750,000 unchurched people who live within a 30-to-60 minute drive of our campus. The drive is a problem. Are we talking new churches? Satellite locations? Yes, but a whole lot more."

"We really do have a sense that we are moving into a new era," says Jerry Butler, vice president of membership and communications for the Willow Creek Association (WCA), an alliance of 5,200 seeker-sensitive churches. Excitement is growing, but the challenges of expansion—financing, zoning, permits, and traffic congestion—are beginning to set in.

Willow Creek is counting on its core, those midweek attenders who are outnumbered two-to-one by weekend seekers, to fund the building projects. The church downplays money in most services. "We're looking at the people who call Willow Creek home to support this," Staal says.

The church is also counting on good relations with South Barrington village to smooth zoning and traffic issues. "Willow Creek is a respected and valued member of our community," says village administrator David Pierce. But "traffic is a major concern," he adds.

Willow Creek is about a mile from a major Interstate, and only one of the roads leading to the property has four lanes. "That is a very active congregation, with services not only on the weekends. Traffic gets backed up on weeknights, too," Pierce says. The church spends $125,000 annually for off-duty police officers to direct traffic.

The existing facility will be retooled for Axis, the church's Generation-X ministry, which now worships in the gym.

Related Elsewhere

See our past coverage of Willow Creek Community Church:

Willow Creek's Methods Gain German Following (Apr. 26, 1999)
Hybels Does Hamburg | Will Willow Creek's model float in Germany? (Jan. 6, 1997)

Read Christianity Today's 1994 cover story, "Selling Out the House of God? Bill Hybels answers critics of the seeker-church movement" (Part 1 | Part 2).

Willow Creek's Web site offers more information about the church, but not much about the expansion.

For a sociologist's view of Willow Creek, see Laura M. Kaczorowski's Willow Creek: Conversion Without Commitment at the University of Virginia.

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