Out of Ur, Christianity Today’s blog, features Dr. Brad Wright and his analysis of the Willow Creek survey and REVEAL. Of course, this blog had that info on my January 8 post, Willow Creek Study Flawed Says Prof. If Out of Ur picked it up here, it’s nice to be noticed. But whether they did or not, it means that Dr. Wright’s analysis is getting noticed by the wider blogosphere, which will be helpful for all of us in the church conversation. I encourage you to read Wright’s 11-post analysis for yourself. Good insights.
After discovering that their church programs did not help people love God or others more…
Willow Creek had two choices —
- Reinvent themselves or
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
Today’s spiritual earthquake
Several years ago, I was in Taiwan on business. About 2 o’clock in the morning, I gradually awoke to the sound of the bathroom door repeatedly slamming into the wall. The bed was shaking, too. As the fog of sleep cleared from my head, I jumped out of bed, only to find the floor was moving. I was in the middle of an earthquake!
Fortunately, the quake subsided quickly, and the damage to Kaoshiung was minimal. But I never forgot the experience of having the world shift under my feet. The same thing is happening in the world of church today — the ground is moving under our feet.
Six major shifts are taking place in churches — large and small — and here’s how your church can benefit:
- The shift from observation to participation. A 23-year old graphic designer recently said about her generation, “We’re creators.” We are in the age of the prosumer that Alvin Toffler predicted in Future Shock — those who create and participate in their creation. Content on the internet is the prime example. The age of the spectator in worship, learning, and service is over. People want to creat worship and participate in ministry, not just watch someone else.
- The shift from religious education to spiritual formation. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the education model drove church programs. Church buildings were designed with small classrooms. Churches enlisted “teachers” and planned curriculum. Now the shift is to spiritual formation. Willow Creek has just discovered that church programs, based only on an educational model, don’t make better disciples. Spiritual formation — building in the practices of faith in everyday life — produces “self-feeders” that Bill Hybels now says he wants to produce.
- The shift from “what does it mean” to “what does it say to me” in Scripture reading. Ancient practices like lectio divina make followers of Christ aware of what Scripture is saying to them, not just what it means in its historical setting. Paul wrote, “All Scripture God-breathed.” The old view interpreted that text as the explanation for how scripture was inspired. The new view interprets that passage as meaning God is present today in the pages of Scripture speaking to us now.
- The shift from “hereafter” to the “here-and-now.” Following Christ is no longer just about going to heaven when you die. Rick Warren’s PEACE plan for aid to developing countries, and his ministry to those with AIDS has broadened awareness of God’s work now, not just in eternity. Care for creation, service to community, and engagement with culture are examples of good news in this life, too.
- The shift from the individual to the community. For the past 100+ years, we’ve focused on the individual in personal salvation and spiritual growth. We now realize community is both the incubator and facilitator of our spiritual lives. New expressions of community are helping people find their calling, their passions, and a new relationship with God.
- The shift from belief to practice. People want to actively express their spiritual life, not just agree to a set of beliefs. More church groups are now focused on “doing” rather than “talking.” In pre-industrial society, the apprentice learned by doing, not just listening or watching. The spiritual director of the ancient abbeys provided guidance in how to live, not just what to believe.
Your church can benefit from these shifts in the religious landscape by offering your congregation new ways of living the old story. Experiment with small groups. Do short term projects. Introduce ancient spiritual practices. Try on new ways of being Christian yourself.
Of course, many of your members will be more comfortable keeping things as they are. But new generations of younger adults want the experience about which John wrote,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. — I John 1:1
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.