Willow Creek Study Says Church Programs Don’t Work

The ground has just shifted under the evangelical world.  Willow Creek, that combination mega-church and mini-denomination, has just discovered that church programs don’t work.  Here’s their conclusion —

…increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities [church programs] 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. 

[thanks to Out of Ur.  Watch the entire 13-minute segment with Greg Hawkins here, and Bill Hybels comments here.] 

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:

  1. Exploring — not yet Christians, but interested.
  2. Growing — new Christians and growing in faith.
  3. Close to Christ.
  4. 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.

Small churches have a real opportunity here.  We don’t have or need the “millions” that WC says they have spent on programs.  We don’t see people who come to our church as “customers.”  For those of us in small churches, newcomers have names and faces.  They’re our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives.  They know we have found a community of faith we love.  They come looking for the same thing.  And in that atmosphere, where real people have real experiences, we all encounter God together. 

That’s our strength.  Hopefully we don’t need a survey to remind us. 

14 thoughts on “Willow Creek Study Says Church Programs Don’t Work”

  1. Ummm … wow, it’s too bad that the Gospels and epistles don’t have anything to say about faith and works. Maybe they could have saved all of those millions.

  2. Hey Chuck, this is amazing stuff. I would love to see the rest of this survey. Where can I find it?

  3. Hi, Matthew, thanks for your comment. If you go to the link for Reveal in my post, it will take you to http://www.Revealnow.com site where you can see the direction WC is going. I think you have to buy the book to see all the survey results. You might email Willow Creek and ask that question. Thanks. — Chuck

  4. I read the Alban Institute article…and was completely impressed. Thanks for this little review. I, too, pastor a small Baptist church and see the same strengths. My fear is that the congregation has drunk a little too much of the Willow kool-ade. Keep us in your prayers.

  5. Chuck,

    I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately. Many churches struggle with the dynamic of creating/nurturing disciples. Even St. Paul wrestled with this. I am beginning to think that there has to be a constant awareness of the various stages people are in…and that Christian maturity is not a four-step process with clear marks of moving between steps. It is gradual, circuitous transformation.

    Willow and all of us could learn from Christian “practices” and step away from programs. Programs may bring some people in, but no church has succeeded in making Christians with programs. We can make one mean social club, though! Yahoo! 😉

  6. Thank goodness we actually have it in writing that having to prove our faithfulness by attending church ‘programs’ does not produce true spiritual growth once we have learnt the basics. For those who truly want to grow in Christ the chief path is service in finding & using your gifts & abilities for the Lord through helping other people. That’s what brings satisfaction especially when you know that you are doing what God intended you to do with your life.
    The problem is that in almost all churches the main people who get to do this is ‘the ministry,’ those in leadership, the rest of us are left to do the jobs around the church ‘the ministry’ doesn’t want to do. The sooner we have churches that allow others to participate in services equally & services that encourage this the sooner we will stop much of the revolving door syndrome in churches.
    We also need to teach people how to interpret their Bibles (hermeneutics), this knowledge should not be the domain of ‘the ministry’ – then we would develop well balanced Christians who won’t so easily be enticed to new & wonderful doctrines or practices.

  7. I would love to see the report that includes Bill Hybels comments. I tried to click on the link but it says its either outdated or broken. Is there a way to get that?

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