There really is an important difference between the two. One is a church and the other is an association of churches. While they are lead by the same people and one is an offshoot of the other, they have different functions. Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) states that their mission is:
"...to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ."Where as the Willow Creek Association (WCA) states their mission is:
"To inspire and equip Christian leaders to lead transformation-minded churches."There is a fundamental difference between the two. One exists to teach theology and doctrine while the other exists to teach Christian leaders how to lead. I might disagree with some of the theology and decision of WCCC but it is a whole different thing to recognize that there are things that I can learn from both WCCC and the WCA. It is also worth noting that there is a big difference between having former President Bill Clinton being interviewed about leadership during a WCA event (which happened) and having him address the congregation during a WCCC worship service (which did not happen). I wasn't at that interview and I have not seen a video or read a transcript. So I don't think that it would be completely fair for me to judge that particular event. It could be that it was a very bad move on the part of the WCA and Senior Pastor Bill Hybels. Although, in general, I don't have a problem with hearing from non-Christians speaking at Christian leadership development events.
At the risk of sounding heretical let me say that Christ is THE TRUTH and all truth comes from God but that does not mean that the church can claim to be the sole possessor of all truth. In order for that to be so we would have to claim that EVERY bit of discovery and knowledge uncovered outside of the church to be false. This doesn't mean that everything that the world holds to be true is in fact true. What this means is that there are always going to be things that the church can learn from the world. (I realize that saying this might put me at risk of waking up in the middle of the night to loud angry mobs with pitchforks and torches demanding my excommunication.) We can learn from those outside the church however we must carefully sift through and discern what is worth keeping and what needs to be discarded.
In the past I have learned solid leadership principles from non-Christian sources. When we look at examples of good leadership in the world we need to realize that they work because someone is following the truth of God whether or not they realize or acknowledge that he is the source of that truth. These leadership principles are not true because they work. They work because they are based upon the truth that God infused into the foundation of the world. Whether or not a physicist recognizes God as the author of the law of gravity does not change whether or not the law exists and works.
The Apostle Paul also recognized that there are things that we can learn from the world. His imagery of the Armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18 was using the Roman soldier as an example of how we should equip ourselves. Paul is saying that we should not engage in spiritual battles without the proper equipment in the same way that the Roman soldiers would not think of going to war without their equipment. Paul also used the imagery of Olympic athletes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. Paul is telling us that we need to have the same self-discipline as those athletes that win. I am sure that there are plenty of things about Roman soldiers and Olympic athletes that Paul wouldn't want us to emulate but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the good aspects.
And that is my approach to Willow Creek and the Global Leadership Summit. There is plenty good to learn and there is plenty bad to leave behind. And one of the side benefits to having non-Christian speakers come and speak at a Christian event is that we rub off on them. This past week we heard from a tearful Carly Fiorina of how she has come back to her faith in Jesus Christ as a result of her involvement with Willow Creek and Bill Hybels. We also heard how Jim Collins, who has been speaking at the Global Leadership Summit since 1997, is starting to very seriously explore Christianity. It sounds like he could make a commitment to becoming a Christian in the near future. I may have issues with Willow Creek on a theological and even an ideological level but I do not think that all that they do is reprobate or irredeemable.