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.
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.