Willow Creek’s Dilemma

After discovering that their church programs did not help people love God or others more…

Willow Creek had two choices —

  1. Reinvent themselves or
  2. Develop a new program to replace the old programs that didn’t work.

They chose number 2 — another program.  Reveal is the new program and has a book, a conference, and is being rolled out to the Willow Creek network.  I can understand their choice because Willow Creek is not just a church, they’re a movement, an informal denomination, a network whose “seeker” philosophy has served them very well if what you want to be is a high-profile “front door” into the Christian faith for thousands.  That is a very good thing, but certainly not all there is to the Christian experience.   Which is why their programs didn’t work after “seekers” became growing “followers.”

Willow Creek should have chosen to reinvent themselves.  Here’s why:

  1. The seeker model is running out of steam.   The baby boomers they attracted are aging.  People are no longer afraid of religious jargon or symbols, and surveys say most consider themselves “spiritual.”  In other words, the seeker philosophy needs rethinking.
  2. Maturing followers need ways to express their faith.  They could have done what Rick Warren did with the AIDS crisis, or his PEACE plan — give maturing believers something to do with their faith.  Not just more stuff to learn.  Hybels said maturing members needed to be “self-feeders” but maybe they need to be “servants.”
  3. The world is changing.  This is related to #1, but different.  In the 1970s when Willow Creek started immigration, AIDS, poverty, global economy, spirituality, diversity, and a host of other discontinuous changes had not rocked our world.  Seems like it makes sense that new challenges demand new answers. 

Small churches have advantages Willow Creek doesn’t have

This is where small churches have an advantage.  As I noted in an earlier post, small churches don’t need millions of dollars to reinvent themselves.  Small churches don’t have a big budget to feed.  Small churches can connect with specific segments of the community better than large churches.  Small churches can experiment with new forms of church.  Small churches can engage people in real conversations about their real lives.  Rather than adopting new programs, we’re trying to reinvent ourselves here in Chatham, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

2 thoughts on “Willow Creek’s Dilemma”

  1. I hope they are still in the discovery stage. Could Reveal be a means to an end (the conversation, survey or program, at first, which would lead to reinvention of themselves)? Inviting the larger community into this discovery could benefit churches in the network, and then WC may discover they need reinvention as you stated.

    But I see your point, they created another program for the network, perhaps to help network churches discover what WC discovered on their own.

    I love your point #2. If not on a grand scale of developing your own PEACE Plan, local churches could get growing believers into going servers by catching a vision for something, let’s say, like the Great Commission… adopting an unreached people group, developing partnerships with churches overseas and in “pioneer” areas, getting people excited about what God is doing and then joining Him in that task. But even this too could become just another program.

    I just finished a teaching series called “Secrets of the Vine” and Bruce Wilkinson suggests that if we desire to bear much fruit (as apposed to no fruit or some fruit or more fruit – John 15) the key is not doing more for God, but being more with God (abiding). Church programs bring people only so close to God. Abiding is where people really connect with God, and it is a shame to lose these people from the community of faith (those connected with God but discontented with the church).

    How did the early church maintain their intimacy with God? Not by going to church more, reading the Bible more, praying more, tithing more, serving more… they had a dynamic walk with the living God. This is what the modern church may be missing, and it’s hard to package that into a program.


  2. 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.

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