Some of you are familiar with one of the mothership mega-churches, Willow Creek in Chicago. Seeker-sensitive, heavily programmed, “innovative,” determined to reach out, bring in those seekers and make disciples out of them. In the 90’s, the Willow Creek Association was formed to link up and assist other churches around the country and the world who wanted to follow the Willow Creek model.
Well, one of the hot discussion points around the evangelical blogs this week has been a talk given by Willow Creek founder and pastor Bill Hybels in which he calls into question the effectiveness of his own model. There’s a summary at this blog, associated with Christianity Today.
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.”
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.
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.
Another blog, reflecting on this,summarized the findings this way:
Here’s the backstory: Greg Hawkins, exec pastor at Willow Creek, surveyed Willow Creek members to determine the effectiveness of WC’s programs — small groups, worship, service groups, etc. Participants had four choices to describe their spiritual lives:
- Exploring — not yet Christians, but interested.
- Growing — new Christians and growing in faith.
- Close to Christ.
- Centered in Christ.
The survey results produced what Bill Hybels calls “the wake up call of my adult life” –
Survey Says: After a person left Stages 1 & 2, church programs did not help them love God or love people more. And, to make matters worse, people in Stages 3 & 4 said they wanted to “be fed.” Some even left Willow Creek altogether.
Conclusion: Church programs are helpful initially for new and growing Christians, but as people mature in their faith church programs are inadequate and ineffective. (Watch the videos and look at Willow Creek’s new REVEAL website for their next move.)
My Take: People are looking for God. After a seeker learns the basics of the Christian faith and makes a commitment to Christ, they want to experience God, not just learn about God.
The survey indicated that people continued to grow, not through programs, but through the practice of spiritual disciplines — Bible reading, prayer, and other expressions of personal commitment.
The striking things about this two me are:
1) Thinking through Hybels’ understanding of church – it being, fundmentally a school. A place to be taught and formed. The old WC model saw it as a life-long school, but now he’s saying “Graduate!” It’s a strange kind of either/or landscape, isn’t it? If “programs” that come from the institution don’t “work,” then the only other option is for you to do it on your own.
2) The Catholic understanding of Church is, of course, so much different, and I think the WC experience and research shows, once again, why caution has to reign as we look at these “rapidly growing” entities. First, they are not as “effective” as they seem, and secondly, they are rooted (obviously) in a Protestant understanding of church, and what Hybels is discerning as a “failure” of sorts just might be related to what this understanding of church leaves out of their definition.
It should be a wake-up call to Catholics trying to figure out and do evangelization in the contemporary world to read this and contemplate what the second blogger pulls out of the study – that
After a person left Stages 1 & 2, church programs did not help them love God or love people more. And, to make matters worse, people in Stages 3 & 4 said they wanted to “be fed.” Some even left Willow Creek altogether.
Being a disciple of Jesus begins in answer to a call..but then the road continues.
Sometimes people get enthused about “Catholic identity” or “the treasures of our Catholic faith” in a way that leaves the impression it is all about a wonderful, unique club that you really should appreciate because it’s, well…Catholic. And it’s good to be Catholic. Come be Catholic with us! Join our community! Enjoy our treasures!
But that’s not the “treasure of our Catholic faith.” The treasure of our Catholic faith is Jesus Christ, and not words about Him, but Him. Present. When you take a good, broad and deep look at the whole picture, what you find is that (for lack of a better word) this “system” of being Catholic is essentially 2000 years of helping people love God and people more, and “feeding” them – in ways deeply rooted in the Gospel, growing organically from the apostolic Church and doing so in amazingly diverse ways, fitting for every time and place and types of people.
And the reason for this all goes back to ecclesiology. What is the Church? A school to teach me about Jesus and then leave me on my own with my Bible…or something else?
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you
are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the
household of God, built upon the foundation of the apos-
tles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the corner-
stone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and
grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also
are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.