Some folks complain that all megachurches basically look the same. So “Willowback” and “Saddlecreek” have been coined as generic nicknames for any large, seeker-sensitive megachurch.
If you think there’s something vaguely familiar and yet oddly unsettling about the terms Willowback and Saddlecreek, don’t worry. Your instincts are operating correctly. Basically these two terms were invented in the early 2000s by splicing together the names of two very large and influential megachurches: Willow Creek Church in Chicago plus Saddleback Church in California equals Willowback (or Saddlecreek) of Anywhere, USA.
It’s a rule of thumb in linguistics and language studies that when a person purposefully mispronounces or deliberately distorts a name, then the person is most likely speaking in a derogatory or critical manner about whoever or whatever is being referred to. The rule of thumb holds true here. People who use the terms Willowback and Saddlecreek are typically conveying a derogatory or critical attitude toward megachurches, toward seeker-sensitivity, or toward what they perceive as churches that have grown too lax. It may be helpful to read the definitions for seeker-sensitive and seeker-driven to get some idea of what people are finding fault with.
Willowback n. [Willow Creek Community Church + Saddleback Valley Community Church] An often derogatory term for a *seeker-sensitive or *seeker-driven church whose church services and evangelism strategies resemble those of *megachurches such as Saddleback Valley Community Church (Lake Forest, CA) or Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, IL), whose founding pastors are Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, respectively.
• 2001 next-wave.org (Feb.) : Pastors across this “great country” are … wishing that their program was as big and aspiring as First Willowback, Saddlecreek or over there on Mars Hill. 2003 dashhouse.com (2 Sep.) : I get frustrated with the Willowback model of church, yet, as Jordon points out in the comments below, I still attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, and Richview’s even doing Saddleback’s 40 Days of Purpose. 2005 billstreger.com (24 Jun.) : The modernist megachurch … like the garden-variety Willowback model church … still fails to address the ultimate need—the need for a spiritual life. 2006 Stetzer, Putman Breaking the Missional Code 47 : [Rick] Warren explains that it has nothing to do with being contemporary, seeker-sensitive, etc. It is just that those methods, combined with some Willow Creek emphases, demonstrated a certain style (sometimes called “WillowBack”) that many pastors tried to copy in their community, and it worked in some places and not in others. 2008 boundariesandbridges.blogspot.com (10 Oct.) : Man did I have plans to explode that church and become the next megachurch in Macon. My philosophy was a blend of Willow Creek and Saddleback—“Willowback,” if you will. 2009 solofide.blogspot.com (20 Dec.) : One of the models is that of the Saddleback/Willow Creek megachurch model (which I’ll refer to as the Willowback Model). 2011 Tennessean (Nashville, TN) (10 Jan.) : Stetzer points to what he calls the “Willowback phenomenon” as a cause. Thousands of churches now follow the methods of two super-size megachurches—Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Ill., and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Both stress contemporary music and sermons and services that make the unchurched feel at ease. Both downplay doctrines and denominational differences. 2013 toddrhoades.com (22 Jan.) : Why the need to compare our church with the big dogs like Willowback? … Does it really matter what Willow Creek or Saddleback is doing? Why do we care what Bill Hybels or Rick Warren is doing?
Saddlecreek n. Also Saddle Creek. [Saddleback Valley Community Church + Willow Creek Community Church] Syn *Willowback.
• 2001 next-wave.org (Feb.) : Pastors across this “great country” are … wishing that their program was as big and aspiring as First Willowback, Saddlecreek or over there on Mars Hill. 2003 rbohlender.blogspot.com (11 Mar.) : It seems that the happiest churches I find are the ones who know who they are. They may sample models and styles, but they’ve come to a comfortable place with who they really can be and they enjoy that spot in the Kingdom. Those who are constantly striving to be the next Willowback Saddlecreek Community Mosaic are generally very sad places with frustrated pastors who don’t understand why their community won’t respond. 2004 grrrlmeetsworld.com (27 Jun.) : I won’t name or link the “church” in question—I’ll just make up a pseudonym for it. Let’s see. I’ll call it SaddleCreek Christian (a hybrid name of some of those other mega-churches). 2005 acousticguitarforum.com (10 Nov.) : Some of us still do it “the old way” on Sundays—We’re not all the beneficiaries of a Rick Warren “Saddlecreek” model. 2005 freerepublic.com (22 Nov.) : The part I thought was interesting was people saying that what was really important in these megachurches is the small groups, yet they reject small churches. Protestant churches have been having small group bible studies my entire life. The “saddlecreek” method is just slick marketing. 2006 greggsweger.blogspot.com (10 May) : Attractional. Missional. Promotional. Mainline. Traditional. Emergent. Conservative. Charismatic. Willowback. Saddle Creek. Whatever. Look, I’m all for working to define concepts and principles in ways that will aid in communication and the exchange of ideas between churches, pastors, leaders, laity, and so on. But we’re spending so much time on these issues and defending our positions so adamantly that we’re losing focus on the matters that count. 2008 topherspoon.blogspot.com (25 Oct.) : I often struggle with the SaddleCreek/WillowBack Mega church models, methods, and ministries.