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.
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.
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.