Bradley Wright, associate professor in the sociology of Christianity at the University of Connecticut, has the best analysis of the Willow Creek study I have seen. Wright comes at it from a social science viewpoint, which is appropriate. He commends Willow Creek for tackling the survey, but critiques their methodology and interpretation.
Wright says that Willow Creek made the following mistakes:
- Willow Creek’s study is a marketing study more appropriate for “brands” than people.
- Willow Creek over-interpreted the data. Social science studies are more nuanced and results are less dramatic. Particularly helpful is Wright’s discussion of ‘regression to the mean’ in understanding spiritual growth.
- Willow Creek’s 4-stage spiritual growth categories are weak. Wright introduces Starke and Glock’s more detailed identification of religious categories.
- Willow Creek has no control group in its survey data. The result is that there is no benchmark to gauge how other non-WC church members or even non-church members of any group ‘grow’ compared to WC members.
- Willow Creek’s survey is a snapshot, but a longitudinal (long-term) study needs to be done to track the same group over time.
Wright’s analysis is helpful and if you can read all 11-posts on the WC survey, you’ll come away with a lot of good info. Before we all follow Willow Creek off another cliff, Wright offers solid, congenial, and helpful perspectives that should be a lesson for all churches in understanding spiritual growth. Also shows that even a Willow Creek doesn’t get it right all the time.
(Clarification: The use of the word ‘flawed’ in the headline is my choice, not a quote from Wright who avoids using that term directly. However, Wright’s 11-post series analyzing the survey design and execution led me to the conclusion that Wright is telling us there are serious flaws in every aspect of WC’s process. — cw)