Book Review: Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, by Bill Hybels
During the past thirty five years, few people have shaped evangelicals’ vision for the church as decisively as Bill Hybels.
And, after thirty five years as the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, along with well over a decade of leading the Willow Creek Association and the annual Global Leadership Summit, Hybels shows no signs of slowing down, nor is his influence abating. A great many pastors and other leaders look to Hybels as a definitive guide on leadership, and guidance on leadership is exactly what Hybels’ recent book Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs seeks to provide.
SEVENTY SIX BITE-SIZED LEADERSHIP PROVERBS
The book is a collection of seventy six “axioms”—leadership proverbs and principles—which Hybels has created and practiced throughout his ministry (12), each of which is explained and illustrated in three pages or less. The book is divided into four parts: vision and strategy, teamwork and communication, activity and assessment, and personal integrity. The book is a quick, smooth read; the quality of Hybels’ writing matches the style of his proverbs in pith and clarity.
AN UNSURPRISING ASSESSMENT
My assessment of this book is not likely to surprise anyone who is familiar with the critiques of the seeker-sensitive movement that David Wells and others have offered. That is, I would suggest that while this book contains much biblical wisdom and time-tested good sense, it is grounded upon and conveys a philosophy of ministry that owes too much to contemporary corporate thought and not enough to a robust biblical theology. I’ll briefly mention some of the biblical wisdom and good sense before turning to an examination of what is less helpful.
BIBLICAL WISDOM AND SIMPLE GOOD SENSE
In axiom 5, “Vision: Paint the Picture Passionately,” Hybels lays bare his fervent love for the local church and his committed confidence in God’s purposes for it (30). While I take issue with much in Hybels’ vision for ministry, he’s exactly right on this point.
Further, a number of Hybels’ axioms are straightforward applications of biblical teaching, including “Disagree without Drawing Blood” (Ch. 34) and “Help me Understand” (Ch. 36; a practical outworking of Jas. 1:19).
Axiom 23, “First Tested,” takes 1 Timothy 3:10 seriously and exhorts pastors to consistently create hands-on tests for potential leaders—without letting the potential leaders know they’re being tested.
Axiom 17, “Only God,” humbly and correctly asserts that only God can sustain us in ministry, change people’s hearts, and bring about the spiritual fruit we long to see.
On the good sense front, most of the book’s axioms offer practical, straightforward help with the economic, relational, and administrative challenges of leading a church or another organization. Since many of Hybels’ proverbs assume that a pastor is heading up a fairly large, complex organization, these chapters will be most relevant to pastors of large churches with large staffs, and less so to others.
QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING
Yet, despite this wisdom and good sense, many of the proverbs or their illustrations convey a worldview that derives more from contemporary corporate practices than from Scripture. In order to get at these worldview-level issues, I’ll discuss and illustrate a series of questions which I would suggest that anyone who reads this book (or, for that matter, many other contemporary evangelical works on pastoral ministry) ask as they read.
1. Is this counsel in line with Paul’s goal of ministering in such a way that believers’ faith would not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5)?
The first question I’d encourage readers to pose to any of this book’s bite-sized bits of counsel is, Is this counsel in line with Paul’s goal of ministering in such a way that believers’ faith would not rest in the wisdom (today we could say “creativity”) of men, but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5)?
In chapter 10, “The Value of a Good Idea,” Hybels recounts a time when Willow invited NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs to speak at their weekend services. When their production team met to finalize the plan for the service, Hybels remarked that there was nothing “really cool” about the service, nothing that would make people “scratch their heads in disbelief, thinking, ‘How’d they come up with something as creative as that?’” (44). So, in a rapid-fire brainstorming session, the team came up with the idea of transitioning between the introductory video clip and Gibbs’ talk as if the stage were a NASCAR pit stop. When the moment arrived, and a mock pit crew burst into a thirteen second flurry of rolling, straightening, and shining before jumping over a fake pit wall into their front-row seats, “It absolutely blew everyone’s mind and in the end was the highlight of the entire service, even by Joe Gibbs’s assessment” (45).
While it’s easy to understand why this would register with many people as the highlight of a church service, its spiritual utility is less obvious. If Paul took pains to ensure that he did not preach the gospel in an eloquent, rhetorically flashy way that would draw attention to himself, what message does it send when a church’s leaders turn something completely incidental into an entertaining showcase of creativity?
2. Does the Bible require a pastor to do this?
While Hybels’ discussion of the fake pit crew is merely meant to illustrate the value of a good idea, it’s worth asking another question of it: does the Bible require a pastor to do this?
Granted, much of Hybels’ counsel in this book falls within the legitimate domain of prudence, pragmatics, and best practices. But when he illustrates his counsel with examples like this, it can lend the examples themselves an imperatival force. When pastors read things like this, some can’t help but feel that they’re not giving God their all if they don’t stage a dazzling production every Sunday morning.
Thus, in addition to the danger of fostering an entertainment-based church culture, there’s the troublesome fact that the exemplary force of this anecdote—together with Hybels’ exhortations to make “bold moves” (Ch. 6) and resist the “kiss of death” of “incrementalism” (Ch. 15)—can lay a heavy yoke on pastors’ necks which God doesn’t intend for them to bear.
Our response should be to ask, “Does the Bible require a pastor to do this?”. And if the answer is negative, then whatever the merits of such counsel, a pastor should refuse to allow it to bind his conscience.
3. Does this recognize the sufficiency of Scripture, or compromise it?
In chapter 7 (“An Owner or a Hireling”), Hybels uses the example of the apostle Paul going to Jerusalem despite the suffering he knew would come (Acts 20-21) to argue that, “At some point in their leadership journey, every leader gets a vision from God” (37). In chapter 5 (“Vision: Paint the Picture Passionately”), Hybels writes, “God meant for you to feel as deeply about his vision for you as you do about anything. I mean that! Anything” (31).
According to Hybels, this private, specific vision which every leader will at some point receive from God sets the standard for that leader’s entire ministry. It’s by his faithfulness to this vision that a leader’s followers will assess him (35). It’s faithfulness to this vision that determines whether a leader is an “owner” or a mere “hireling” (37). And it’s faithfulness to this vision that will earn Christ’s commendation on the last day (37).
Here’s a question that I would suggest is especially relevant to Hybels’ discussion of “vision”: Does this recognize the sufficiency of Scripture, or compromise it?
Regrettably, when a leader’s private, subjective sense of vision from God is held to be the guiding principle for his entire ministry and the standard by which he will be judged in this life and on the last day, I can’t help but to conclude that “vision” has functionally supplanted Scripture as our sufficient and authoritative rule for faith and practice. And, as with calls to creativity and “bold moves,” this vesting of authority in “vision” lays a heavy yoke on pastors’ shoulders. Further, it threatens to distract them from the yoke they are divinely commissioned to bear. That is, pastors are commanded by God to faithfully teach the whole counsel of God, which is revealed in Scripture, and to lead a church to conform as closely to God’s divinely authoritative instruction as possible. Pastors will be judged according to their faithfulness to a vision, but that vision is God’s, revealed in Scripture.
4. Does this counsel wrongly import any goals, methods, values, or standards from the corporate world into the church?
A fourth question worth asking is, Does this counsel wrongly import any goals, methods, values or standards from the corporate world into the church?
Of course there is some overlap between leading a church and running a business. Of course pastors can learn from talented leaders in any sphere. But often, pastors can uncritically absorb goals, methods, values, or standards of the marketplace which actually run counter to God’s economy.
In chapter 18 (“Plus-Side/Minus-Side”), Hybels describes how, in the face of mounting budget problems, he eventually resorted to tallying up which church staff added revenue to the church (by offering services which drew more people, and therefore tithe dollars, to the church), and which staff merely spent revenue (whether by giving money away or simply by virtue of doing work which didn’t tend to bring more people to the church). When he did this, he came to the realization that Willow needed to add some “plus-side people into the equation, or else we’ll fold as a church” (66).
While Hybels appropriately adds a few caveats (such as the fact that giving away money to missions can be a really good thing!), his counsel in this chapter boils down to the need for churches to strike a balance between the amount of “plus-side” and “minus-side” people on their staff.
Many things could be said about this, but the point I want to suggest here is that Hybels is operating within too simple an equation: more staff that meets people’s needs and adds value to the church experience equals more people coming to church. While I don’t doubt that some such trend is often evident, the problem is that this assumes that the church is a purveyor of religious goods and services, and that in order to continue to attract more people, the church must offer more religious goods and services.
The problem, in other words, is that this logic has wrongly imported standards from the corporate world into the church.
5. What does this counsel assume about the nature and source of church growth?
In Chapter 6 (“Bold Move”), Hybels writes, “As the years went by, my teammates and I began to notice that the primary reason we were making significant progress as a church was that we had enough people making ‘bold moves.’ They were thinking fresh thoughts, pioneering cool new programs, and trusting God to accomplish significant kingdom-building activity in their midst” (33).
I’m glad Hybels speaks of trusting God to accomplish kingdom-building activity, but I fear that his emphasis on creativity, novelty, and “bold moves” betrays an assumption that church growth results from our ingenuity, and is something that is readily observable and quantifiable. Both of these assumptions run counter to Scripture, which tells us that God’s sovereign blessing in the source of the church’s growth (1 Cor. 3:7) and that true church growth consists not merely in numbers of attenders or other quantifiable data, but in the spiritual fruit of lives lived in increasing conformity to the character of Christ (Col. 1:28).
So I’d encourage readers to ask, What does this counsel assume about the nature and source of church growth?
This list is far from exhaustive, but I hope it provides a useful starting point for bringing a biblical philosophy of ministry to bear on some of this book’s more questionable assumptions.
My point in discussing these critical questions is not to argue that there’s nothing of value in this book—far from it. But I hope I’ve shown that, along with much biblical wisdom and good sense, there are a number of assumptions and values in this book that don’t square very well with Scripture.