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How to Read Hybels: Book Review of Axiom by Bill Hybels

Axiom by Bill Hybels

Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. It is probably the most influential church in the United States and also one of the largest with a weekly attendance of some 23,500 people. In Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, Hybels gives 76 leadership tips and briefly describes each in 2-3 pages. Most will find the book inspiring and thought-provoking. But this is a book that will be incomprehensible to others and revolting to a few.

If you sense that churches are too often poorly managed, their programs shoddy, their staff aimless, and their efforts mediocre, you will love this book. Hybels's father expected him to take on the family business but instead Bill decided to plant a church and he has managed it better than most businesses.  Hybels sees no reason why the doing things well is inconsistent with God's work.

But, if you think the pastor's role is to be a nurturing shepherd and that a church should never grow beyond the size where the pastor can know everyone's name, then Hybels's advice will be incomprehensible to you and likely disgust you. The kindly parish priest—who preaches, administers the sacraments, and visits the sick—Hybels is not.

The insights of Hybels—many of which assume a large paid staff—will apply best to the pastor of a church with 500 or more weekly attendance because at this size it is difficult for the pastor to oversee everything and his or her role begins to entail significant staff supervision. According to Duke sociologist Mark Chaves in Congregations in America, in 1998, "71 percent of [U.S. congregations] have fewer than one hundred regularly participating adults" (p.17-18). The size of the church radically changes the way a pastor functions. (See also his post Congregational Size). Roy M. Oswald writes in "How to Minister Effectively in Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate Sized Churches" of the smallest size of congregation,

This small church can also be called a Family Church because it functions like a family with appropriate parental figures. It is the patriarchs and matriarchs who control the church's leadership needs. What Family Churches want from clergy is pastoral care, period. For clergy to assume that they are also the chief executive officer and the resident religious authority is to make a serious blunder. The key role of the patriarch or matriarch is to see to it that clergy do not take the congregation off on a new direction of ministry. Clergy are to serve as the chaplain of this small family.

But one need not confront the family of the church antagonistically, one can learn to thrive as a pastor of a smaller congregation by soaking in the rich work of Eugene Peterson, enjoying the delightful little book The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen, and learning from the example of the wise Father Tim in the fictional Mitford series by Jan Karon.

Another complication besides size for some readers will be that many denominations closely define the role of the pastor and the local church with policies and committees. Hybels had the freedom and danger of making these structures up as he went along as the founder of an independent nondenominational church. I would recommend the writings of Will Willimon, Patrick Keifert, Alan Roxburgh, and Mark Lau Branson for advice about navigating leadership and effectiveness issues in an established small denominational church.

Finally, there are those who argue that a church with 500 plus weekly attendance and multiple staff loses much of the intimacy and flexibility of what a church should be. To Alan Hirsch, David Fitch, Neil Cole and Frank Viola, Hybels's tips would probably be evidence of the corporate, cold, impersonal and bureaucratic dark side of the large “attractional model” church. However, even they might find the insights of Hybels valuable in their efforts leading large church planting organizations.

Despite the disclaimer that pastors of small churches, ministers of denominational churches, and critics of large churches may be turned off by this book, let me praise this book for what it is: candid insights by an extremely capable church leader. A sign of Hybels's considerable leadership ability is that he could not help but start a huge consulting arm called the Willow Creek Association and a widely-acclaimed annual leadership conference The Leadership Summit—there was huge demand for his advice.

The 57-year-old's tone is intense. He sounds like a drill-sergeant, a CEO, or a tough football coach. This week Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun was hospitalized for dehydration. A nurse asked him, "Are you type A?" to which he replied, "What's beyond that?" I thought of Hybels. Hybels writes, "Those who know me well know that I'm intense and activistic. For me, the bigger the challenge, the more I like it. I've always pushed myself hard to solve problems, raise the bar, and make as many gains for God as I possibly can" (142). Hybels's personality reminds me of the apostle Paul, the Puritan Richard Baxter, Methodism founder John Wesley and the energetic Dietrich Bonhoeffer—they are all driven and intense. Out of the 76 tips, all but about a handful suggest the need for harder and more strategic work. Still, Hybels tells of a few ways he has learned to soften his approach and slow down his pace. See for example, 9. "The Fair Exchange Value," 58. "Create Your Own Finish Lines" and 75. "Fight for Your Family."

The 2-3 page tips and stories are a great medium for his thoughts. He illustrates and explains his ideas clearly. It is an easy read. If you liked this book, also read the 99 practical hints in Simply Strategic Stuff by Tim Stevens and Tony Morgan.  Both these books give the uninitiated and naive church leader a glimpse of the nuts and bolts of the dreaded "administrative" part of pastoral ministry.

If you are not turned off by Axiom, perhaps you belong serving in a larger church where these leadership and organizational skills are highly valued. Chaves points out that more and more people are attending large churches so it is not correct to see them as an anomaly: "the median person is in a congregation with four hundred regular participants" (p.18). Or you may resonate with Hybels and play the thankless but necessary reforming role in the small church. Or you may take his insights and apply them to the pioneering entrepreneurial work of a new church plant.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hear the candid thoughts as over a lunch conversation from one of the most important American church leaders in the last 25 years.  Hybels may eventually write an autobiography but much of what is fascinating about him he has generously already shared in Axiom.