Monday, December 31, 2007

Willow Creek Repents

This is one of the top ten posts from Out of Ur (see the column at the right). Insightful and accurate. PD

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.


rgeorge61 said...

This is a very interesting turn of events but I think good. I work in an office environment and have noticed that the church uses many of the same ideas that the world of business does to measure their success and it isn't a good measuring stick. The world measures things in a way to look good whether a company is doing good or not. Its called a numbers game and whether a company is doing good or bad doesn't seem to be the issue anymore. Its a matter of what the perception is of a company.

To try and make our Christian life mirror this idea and perception is wrong. I remember as a kid when there wasn't a lot of money. My Mom would buy a few pounds of hamburger and make it into pattiies and then freeze it. Of course you get the picture that we ate a lot of burgers because it was cheap and convenient for a single working Mom and we as kids didn't care because we ate what was put in front of us or we didn't eat at all. I would help my Mom make the patties. I was shocked at what the grocery store butcher would do. He would take the older hamburger meat that was not red anymore and cover it on the outside with fresh red hamburger meat and when I would dig my hand in to make a patty I was shocked the first time I saw this. I was only a kid but knew what he was doing. I complained to my Mom that this wasn't right but she didn't care because we got it at a good deal and I would be told to shut up and make patties. We went along with this and bought the cheaper meat and acted as if it were normal (but it wasn't).

The way of the world, and it would seem ours, is to make the outside look good not having regard of whats going in on the inside. If there is a perception that things are good then they are good. I work within a ministry in a church and was bothered when a leader came to me and discussed numbers but never touched on how the ministry is going or how any individuals are doing. The spotlight was put on the number of attendees and the individual (people) was never discussed. In my heart I feel that sometimes we do things just to do them because we always did it that way. I agree that it is good to have structure and its greatly needed but when structure takes over for ministry are we really being affective? This is something I ask myself more and more. I am learning more and more to pray about situations and individuals from a perspective of what God wants. When I start to rely on what I know or what I perceive to be right I get detoured in my walk.

I cannot live this Chirstian life by what used to be or what someone wants me to be. I have to study and seek God in prayer on an individual level because thats Gods way. My decisions cannot be based on what I feel because feelings will fail me. A car runs better when I pump the gas into the gas tank instead of into the trunk. Both methods fill my car with gas but only one method works to allow my car to run.

I thank God that these men of God had the heart to admit there was a mistake because that shows a willingness to be open to God. Are we willing to admit mistakes that maybe we are making? We may need to rethink this walk (and the plans we set in place) and see our ministry as a discipleship based ministry instead of a herding or numbers ministry. It seems Jesus started with individuals and worked with them on an individual basis which is much harder. You actually have to deal with situations and goals and faults and failures.

The numbers game doesn't demand one on one and is easier. Or is it? Will it come back to bite us? Will we constantly do things just to do things because thats the way we always did it?

The numbers game doesn't work unless there is actual discipleship and one on one discipleship only works when your not worried about the numbers but are concerned for an individual. The image only demands a perception that things are good whether they are or not. This will not hold water and will eventually fail. I would hope we would not just read these articles and say what a shame but take it to heart and move towards actual discipleship.

I would hope that instead of cramming so much into a lesson that we could slow down and actually discuss an issue and maybe help someone who is sitting there with no idea what is going on. I see our classes becoming an impersonal atmosphere but its definitely easier to manage. I feel that I can grasp things pretty good but when I go to a class and get nothing out of it because I can't even keep up with writing down the answers it gets frustrating to me. I walk away with little from the lesson but tons of material that I will never go back and study because its just too much. We are given enough material to last for a month and trying to cram it into an hour lesson. We don't seem to talk about how to apply these ideas into our lives and before we can discuss it and write down the answer we are moving on. We are told to study this in more depth at home but why not study it in more depth while in the class? If I am having a hard time getting anything out of it I wonder if others are having the same problem? Maybe we need to shorten the lessons, not harp on hurrying up (which we always do) and actually discuss these ideas and how they apply to us. Is our teaching and class curriculum actually affecting someone or do we actually think about this? I thank God we at least have these classes but maybe we need to stand back, evaluate, and change if we need to.

Thank God for this article that it may stir us up to be thinking Christians who are able to change when necessary. And thank you Pastor for putting this out there and stirring up our stagnant brains to shake some of cob webs off.

Paul M. Harrison said...

In light of the new Atheist books, and what I believed were lame Christian responses to them, I started to write about what it would take to convince an atheist that Christianity was true.

I found, "I Sold My Soul On Ebay" and "Jim and Casper Go To Church." Both books have a pastor or marketing professional taking an atheist to various churches, emergent churches, and megachurches, asking them what they thought of the worship, the service, the pastor, the message, the people, the relevancy, etc. and then offer that research to curches.

My thought is if Christianity is true it should be plainly demonstrated as so and the unbeliever must choose based on the best case possible for Christianity. It's that simple. Marketing is usally done when your product isn't selling or in demand. The more popular Christianity becomes, the further from the teachings of Jesus that you will be hated on account of him for the offense of the Gospel you become.

The more bells, whistles, and hype you need to spin something, the more it cannot speak for itself. The more you have to ask me what I want so you can sell it to me, the more I know there is nothing worth being sold.

How does the church compete with culture? By speaking the truth and getting its head on a chopping block, certainly not by building an American subculture, baptizing it with Bible verses, then caling it Christianity. Christianity is not a popularity contest - you will be hated.

Linda said...

Wow. I would sign my church up to take the survey.

I think if we as a church did listen to one another, take the time to care... we would be so much further off than we are today. And yes I do realize that we are a busy world... and have jobs and responsibilities... but we are also responsible to one another.. and that is the hard part (nothing good is in side of us), it all comes from He that began a good work in us and He is faithful to complete it.. I'm so thankful for that...

rgeorge61 said...

Yes I admit there are problems within the Church and there will always be but the bottom line is Christ is the only way and thank God he works through us imperfect people with imperfect lives. Its one thing to see problems (which all of us do at times) but the real test of strength comes in seeing a problem and trying to fix it. I thank God we are even able to talk about this subject here on the web. I turned away from God for 7 years and know all about making every excuse for not participating in church and finding fault with Pastors and churches but there came a time when God spoke to my heart so clear I couldn't turn away. In one night he spoke to me, changed my heart and gave me an experience with him I could not imagine if I tried. I have aetheist and agnostic friends and to be honest most of them are good friends who I love to talk to, not debate, but just talk about things, eat lunch and just hang out. I have found out its not just a matter of opinions. There are standards in the church and outside that are used because they work. I have found we need standards in Christianity and with Christ and we need them in the world. When I see a one way sign it is right whether I obey or not. I may not agree with it (and sometimes don't) but its a fact that if I'm caught driving the wrong way I will get a ticket. There is actually more evidence to justify a creator than most theories about creation apart from God. Can I prove I'm right? I think so but that really doesn't prove anything to anyone. Knowing the facts isn't the same as knowing God. I remember the scripture James 4:17 If I know what to do whats right but don't do it then its sin. One could say this is narrow minded but more than knowing the scripture is knowing the God who breathes life into that scripture and convicts me. Its not about knowing scriptures by heart but having a heart that knows God. Thats something that can't be learned from a book or figured out in any humans mind, including myself, and I have tried. As of right now I have completed 14 Berean Bible classes and its not the classes that are great (some are not). In the midst of seeking this God of Wonders through these classes he somehow works when I take a step towards him. This is Faith. I know what its like to stay away from church and proclaim my own gospel. It didn't work. I found that this God who I turned from cared enough about me to demonstrate his love toward me while I was in sin to reach out to me. This does not make sense but thats because God is love. We would not understand love except we see a good God calling out to a wicked people or a wicked person like myself. You could have labeled me more of an agnostic that an aetheist but its seems God didn't care about the label. He cared more about me than I cared for myself. Jesus came to reach out to those who need help even when we didn't want it. My whole point is that no matter what we say and think up God still loves us. Its up to us to choose because he has already chose to love us and no human will be able to stand before God and say anything that will condemn him. While I was in sin, living my own life, this God came in and said its time to come back and I did. Each person has to make their own choice and I don't condemn anyone or even their views. Its doesn't mean I don't disagree but it means I am learning to love like God loved me. Yes there were some bad marketing done in the name of Christ but God is still God and doesn't flinch in light of it. Can a Christian convince an aetheist that God is real? Never. Then again its not our job. My job is to draw close to God and not judge my life according to those around me. My job is not to lead you or anyone to Christ by schemes. My job is follow Christ and reflect his attributes in my life. Your right Paul in many respects but I can honestly say that God called me back when My heart was far from him. I don't totally understand this but what I learned from it was the depth of his love. Please give me a call sometime and I would love to get together and not try to convince you to be a christian. I would rather like to talk to a dear friend who I shared a portion of my life with and talk about tourniquet and the fun times we had in youith group.