Church Unique Snapshot: The Inside Reveal on Willow Creek Community Church’s Return to the 5 G’s

During the booming days of Willow Creek’s influence, the church hosted conferences for thousands of church leaders across the country, teaching and spreading their model of ministry. The hallmark of these events was an inspiring and contagious use of crystal clear language and rich imagery that planted the Willow’s Vision Frame in the hearts and minds of church leaders.

What did that content include?


MISSION – To turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ. (the term “fully devoted follower” is most photocopied mission statement of the last three decades)

VALUES- There were ten values that are still intact today, the most memorable (and photocopied) including

  • Lost people matter to God and therefore matter to us
  • Full devotion is normal for every believer (95% devotion is 5% short)
  • Life change happens best in small groups
  • Excellence honors God and inspires people

STRATEGY- Willow taught a 7-step linear strategy for years, which became de-emphasized around the year 2000

MISSION MEASURES- The definition of “full devotion” was based on 5 G-terms that were deeply integrated into the life of the church. During the late 90s there were entire sub-ministry conferences including Small Groups and Children (Promiseland) that produced tons of curriculum utilizing the 5G’s

  • Grace
  • Growth
  • Groups
  • Gifts
  • Good Stewardship

Many churches also copied or modified these G-terms for use in their ministry. For example, Clear Creek Community Church in Houston utilizes a revised 7G list and Grace Point in San Antonio has 5Gs they have modified.


At some point Willow stopped talking about the 5Gs even though they continued selling 5G based products all over the world. The loss of clarity at Willow is a complex subject. I have had the privilege of talking to many people through the journey. This list summarizes a few reasons that surfaced over the last decade. Note: I appreciate the humility of many of these leaders who have testified to these learnings in public at different times and places.

  • Bill Hybels began traveling more internationally and got distracted from leading the church.
  • Staff turnover hurt the church’s opportunity to stay focused. They lost three senior leaders in a two month window.
  • The seeker model went out of vogue. With the beginning of a missional reorientation, lots of leaders lost interest in learning from the model. (Some of the this was the saturation of its own success.
  • After launching their first multi-site initiatives, Jim Tomberlin departed; Bill Donahue, their long-term groups guru, departed.
  • Randy Frazee came for 2 years with an entirely different mission measure. He was given permission to undo the 5G’s and install his 30 core competencies from Pantego Bible Church.  But the installation of a neighborhood small group strategy did not work, further unraveling their clarity.
  • Greg Hawkins began the extensive research project represented by the Reveal Study and followed up by the book, Move (a must read book, by the way). After one-on-one conversation with Greg, I am convinced that his humble and passionate pursuit of learning (and brilliant findings) happened at the expense of  increased complexity of Willow’s ministry and less clarity in their language.


Three months ago, the senior team at Willow decided to bring back the 5Gs. When I asked Greg Hawkins why, he summarized his answer by saying,

“People need some kind of ‘handles’ to define full devotion. We had this language for years and then just stopped using it. We realized we didn’t have to reinvent the words, so we decided to bring them back.”

I was totally surprised to hear the news. Evidently much of the work represented by Reveal, and specifically the four stages of the “spiritual continuum” (Exploring Christ, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ and Christ-centered), did not create new language for guiding ministry and shaping culture.


  • We say at Auxano that “Success assaults clarity.” Clearly Willow was a victim of its own success and was not able to manage the “opportunity creep” of its most influential years.
  • Be careful hiring outside talent. A shooting star in a different church culture may flame out in yours.
  • Don’t take your “eye off the ball” when it comes to language. Hybel’s first Axiom in his leadership book of 72 leadership principles  is “Language Matters.” Given the number of Axioms in the book we will cut Bill some slack on forgetting this one for the last decade.
  • Don’t communicate vision or create new language without process. In this case at Willow, it applies several ways. First, new language was brought in without due process, including Randy Frazee’s 30 core competencies and perhaps the Reveal language introduced by Greg Hawkins.  Now with a decade gap, I am wondering if they moved too quickly to return the the 5G’s. I talked with one relatively high-level staff member who was struggling with the language. There was no vehicle for his interaction and input.

Please don’t mistake the critique in this post for a lack of appreciation for the role of the seeker model. Also, I am personally grateful to Bill Hybels for his giant kingdom contribution and thought leadership on leadership.  Thousands of us are better leaders, whether we drive seeker models or not, because of Willow’s influence.


Read Bill Hybels excerpt on  Language Matters

Read Church Unique Tool on Measures as the Portrait of Discipleship (includes the 5Gs and 30 Core Competencies)


Read more from Will here.

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Will Mancini

Will Mancini

Will Mancini wants you and your ministry to experience the benefits of stunning, God-given clarity. As a pastor turned vision coach, Will has worked with an unprecedented variety of churches from growing megachurches and missional communities, to mainline revitalization and church plants. He is the founder of Auxano, creator of and the author of God Dreams and Church Unique.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Robert Huckleberry — 07/15/13 12:42 pm

Superb article! It is very rare when space is allowed for such open reflection. The only emphasis I wish to inject regards going through an exhaustive environmental discernment process, which is not missing, but just a particular interest of mine. Our vision and strategies are informed by a missional awareness of our community---what I call Community Mindedness. That unveils the context of ministry of our dynamic North Amerrican culture. Thanks again for publishing this piece.

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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