Thursday, November 01, 2007

Willow Creek Repents?

Willow Creek Repents?
Why the most influential church in America now says "We made a mistake."

Few would disagree that Willow Creek Community Church has been one of the most influential churches in America over the last thirty years. Willow, through its association, has promoted a vision of church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive. This vision has been heavily influenced by the methods of secular business. James Twitchell, in his new book Shopping for God, reports that outside Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country.

So what happens when leaders of Willow Creek stand up and say, “We made a mistake”?
Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.”

If you’d like to get a synopsis of the research you can watch a video with Greg Hawkins here. And Bill Hybels’ reactions, recorded at last summer’s Leadership Summit, can be seen here.

Both videos are worth watching in their entirety, but below are few highlights.

In the Hawkins’ video he says, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”

Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

Speaking at the Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake up call” of his adult life.

Hybels confesses:
We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

Does this mark the end of Willow’s thirty years of influence over the American church? Not according to Hawkins:
Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.

read more here and here


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Blogger Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Alex, for this post - I missed it. It reaffirms the age old tradition of spiritual formation of prayer, bible reading and relationships!

8:51 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi kar yong,

the oldies are the goodies

6:52 PM  
Blogger Paul Long said...

Very helpful link. Lots of thought provoking matters to serioulsy think about and act on

4:16 AM  
Blogger pearlie said...

Hats off to them for having the courage to do what they did - to question their practice, to talk and tell about it, that they have done wrong. They got it right on that count.

10:41 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi paul,

we need to seriously review how we do church. In a way, I am glad that Bill Hybels have the courage and transparency to speak up. How many of us have the courage to say the word 'mistake' in public.

Again the reminders we need to go back to the basics.

11:28 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi pearlie,

at the risk of sounding cynical, I hope they mean what they say and is not the launching pad for a movement to form "seek-feeding" churches.

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks again for a thought provoking post. I was at Willow Creek several years back: it was run like a corporation, smooth and highly organized around outreach programes to reach the unchurched. If they sincerely admit and change, it would be interesting how it may change the church landscape in USA as many churches are in association with it.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Paul Long said...

I think Willow Creek is not going to change their approach in too radical a manner.
Their programmes will still run as usual as their research has shown that for the 1st 2 stages, their programmes do a good service in helping seekers and new Christians

I think programems such as "Becoming a contagious Christian" is actually very good as it provides the basics.

What I am interested to see is who they work out the other 2 levels (ie with the goal of developing "self - motivated and independent" Christ centered disciples)

Hybels still has my greatest respect for his passion for God and even more now for his honesty and humility in listening to his staff (and God) and beingh willing to rethink a lot of the things he used to do for 30 years!

Without the basics and bringing people who would once would not even consider going to church to Christ, we can't even talk about going deeper in our walk with Christ.

One thing churches like Willow Creek have, though I am not totally comfortable with the sizes of such churches and "franchising" (for want of a better word) is that it does have a high view of the church which can be easily neglected by many today. Wanting Jesus but not the church is to me not a good thing at all!!

Just my 2 1/2 cents

3:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who have serve for sometime will realize that having too many programs will soon have the people in church burn out.

Seen it happen when leaders want to launch too many programs & not enough people to run it not to mentioned people are doing church.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the other hand, we also can't run church like in the past too. Society changes. Most teenagers have ipods & mp3 players so the church need to recognize the tools suitable to reach the people they are called.

So we need to strike a proper balance

10:51 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi paul and blogpastor,

I am keeping on keen eye on what they will do next. It is my fear that they latched onto to spiritual formation and developed a program about it.

It is my hope that they go back to the basics of bible study, prayer, fellowship, hospitality, service and solitude.

12:51 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi james,

welcome. I agree with your comments about keeping a balance.

First, in church programs being too many with too few people to run it and in the end burning out the leaders.

Second, in engaging the present culture in the church without the church becoming part of the culture. We can use the technology but not let the technology use us.

Authentic Christianity is always counter-cultural.

12:54 AM  

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