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Willow Creek's Discipleship Problem: How to Fix the Seeker-driven Church

Update, December 10, 2007

As I suspected, the interpretation and methodology of the Reveal study are deeply flawed.  I like Willow Creek's ministry model but they have really bungled this survey. 

See the Review of Reveal by Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut. 

Here’s a selection from Wright’s conclusions:

The conclusion draw by the study’s authors, and loudly echoed by critics of Willow Creek, is that the Willow model is flawed. The data presented here are sufficiently ambiguous to make such strong claims. Given the weaknesses of the study design and analytic strategy, it’s possible that the results indicate strong support for the Willow Creek model . . . Simply repeating the Reveal study with hundreds more churches potentially adds very little knowledge.

Though Willow does not need to repent for its ministry strategy (though we could all repent for our ministry strategies to some extent - whose is perfect?), those who published this sociologically unsophisticated research probably need to apologize to seeker-sensitive church proponents everywhere. It is hard to say if Willow’s reputation will ever recover from the tidal wave of publicity saying that the Reveal quantitative data discredits Willow’s approach.

Still, all is not lost. The idea of doing quantitative research is a good one. But next time Reveal needs to do it right. Those who are part of Reveal need to do a serious crash course in American religious sociology: Christian Smith, Mark Chaves, Robert Wuthnow, Scott Thumma, and Nancy Ammerman.

For an example of a more a more sociologically sophisticated study see the U.S. Congregations Study which surveyed 300,000 congregations in 2001.

U.S. Congregations Survey

U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 2001, Random Attenders

Or see the:

National Congregations Study

Original Post October 19, 2007

Though Willow Creek continues to reach "people far from God" they admit that they are not doing as good a job at helping those people become "fully devoted followers of Jesus" as they thought they were.  Of course a lot of critics are saying "We told you so" but it is good Bill Hybels and friends are broadcasting their "mistake." (Leadership's Out of Ur blog post "Willow Creek Repents?" brought this to my attention.  There are 120 comments there now on that post).  They also have an updated post with a response from Willow Creek: Willow Creek Repents? (Part 2): Greg Hawkins responds with the truth about REVEAL.  They are not giving up their seeker approach.

Below I have summarize what Willow Creek has realized in the last few years in five quick statements.  Then I have described Willow Creek for those who are unfamiliar with it.  Finally, I have tried to put in perspective their five realizations. 

"Willow Creek's Five Realizations."
1. They want to be good stewards.  They want to use the financial resources they are given in the offering plate wisely. 
2. Research helps. They did a survey. 
3. They are still effective with seekers. They find that people who are exploring Christianity or are new Christians still rate what Wilow is offering very highly. 
4.  Consumer discipleship is not working.  There are many people who are highly involved in activities (i.e. consuming the religious goods they are offering) but are not growing in Christ that much. 
5.  Many mature Christians are unsatisfied with the church. There are a number of people who are strong Christians but are dissatisfied with their church.  But, Willow has concluded, the issue is not just offering people more meaty options, rather people need to learn to feed themselves.

All of this is available on their new website (August 2007) "Reveal."  You can hear executive pastor Greg Hawkins and founding pastor Bill Hybels describe the findings in their own words in 13 minute video presentations.  (I had to use Internet Explorer rather than Firefox to make them work).   Or you can buy the book which is only available from Willow Creek Resources.  (Why not have Amazon distribute it too?)

Who is Willow Creek?
If you don't know who Willow Creek Community Church is, it is the "second most influential church in the nation" according to a survey commissioned by Leadership Network. 

Still, many mainline church leaders (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran) have never heard of Willow Creek, which is something I have become increasingly sensitive to.  Those people have other churches they admire.  They wouldn't admire Willow even if they knew about it because they place much more value on continuity with the the great tradition of Christianity as passed down through church history and denominations. 

Anyway, Willow Creek Community Church (i.e "Willow") is led by Bill Hybels who founded it 30 years ago in South Barrington, IL which is about 45 minutes from Chicago in the suburbs.  It is a non-denominational church with weekly attendance of about 23,500 according to Hartford Seminary's database of megachurches.  It was designed specifically for "seekers" or what they now call "people far from God."  As the story goes Hybels, walked around the area going to door to door asking people why they didn't go to church and they reported things like "they are always asking us for money," "boring," "irrelevant," "nothing for the kids." So Hybels and friends started a church in a movie theater that had upbeat music, relevant sermons, and no offering plates.  As the church grew exponentially, they formed a consulting branch in 1992 called Willow Creek Association which sells resources to churches like bible study materials, sermon tapes, etc. and also holds conferences.  Churches can become a member of the Willow Creek Association but all this really means is that the pastor subscribes to their resources for about $249 a year. 

Perspective and Context on Willow Creek's Five Realizations.

1. They want to be good stewards. My comment: Amen.  May they continue to wrestle with the problem.  When you see Willow Creek's facility, you are either envious or disgusted.  There is a 7400 seat auditorium complete with state of the art lights and audio.  The building includes a bookstore, coffee shop, and expansive facilities for children.  Most people say, "It feels like a mall."  These facilities were intended to make Willow a comfortable place for people who were turned off to church and needed to hear about Jesus in a place that was more familiar than a gothic cathedral.  I think this makes sense given their philosophy of ministry.  Still, it is very good to hear them saying, "We want to welcome people well but we don't want to spend a penny more than we have to.  Are we spending God's resources appropriately?  Are there other ways that God might be calling the wealthy North American church to use its resources?"  Additional note: Willow Creek has never had a major financial scandal and their books, salaries, etc. are public.

2. Research helps. My comment: Make sure this research is done well.  Randy Frazee, author of The Connecting Church, has been a pastor at Willow for a few years now.  He is one of the preeminent people in the evangelical world insisting that we need to measure and assess the development of people's discipleship.  As pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Texas, he came to see the need for assessing whether small groups actually help people become better disciples.  He even made up a tool to measure discipleship called The Christian Life Profile

I was glad to see Willow hire Randy because I knew he would encourage them to evaluate how they are doing beyond the kneejerk way it is often done, i.e. the ABC's (Attendence, Buildings and Cash) or the three B's (Bodies, Buildings and Bucks). 

I would simply urge them to continue to get good advice about how to do sociological research well.  There are many people out there doing research on the American church and for this I'm thrilled.  Here are some that I'm familiar with: Barna Group, Gallup Poll, Baylor Surveys of Religion, Natural Church Development, Pulpit & Pew: The Duke Center for Excellence in Ministry, National Study of Youth & Religion, the Louisville Institute, Hartford Institute for Religious Research, the new book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion
by Robert Wuthnow (chair of the sociology department at Princeton University), Church Innovations, the Alban Institute.  But the devil is in the details.  Numbers can be manipulated to say most anything.  We, as church leaders, have got to pay more attention to appropriate use of statistics.  I am not saying we need to use statistics less.  Actually, I think we need to do so more but we need to deal with those statistics and studies in a better way.  We need people who know statistics and who understand sociological research so that our numbers mean something.  (Are there any sociology majors and professors at Christian colleges out there listening to this?)  We need people who can sort through all of these statistics in such a way that it makes sense and in a way that is meaningful for congregations.  It drives me crazy when I hear stats like, "You know you need to add another service when 80% of seating is filled up" and "You know children who sit in the worship service with their parents continue to attend church after they have left home better than those who just go to youth group."  Sure, these have a glimmer of truth but they are more conventional wisdom (i.e urban legend) than solid analysis.  People build entire ministries on statistics like this.  For more outrage at evangelical misuse of statistics, see Christian Smith's "Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics: Mistakes were made" from Books & Culture February 2007 and "What Scandal? Whose Conscience? Some reflections on Ronald Sider's Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience." by John G. Stackhouse, Jr. from Books & Culture August 2007 .   

3.  They are still effective with seekers. My comment: Willow Creek's gift to the wider church has been its passion to see unchurched people become followers of Jesus. Willow Creek, along with Andy Stanley's North Point Community Church, is still one of the best examples of an effective seeker model.  They see many people who were not Christians become Christians.  In this way, they are a model of contextualizing the gospel so that nonChristians can learn about it and begin to follow Jesus.  Though there are other ways of doing evangelism by the church, the seeker model is still one to be reckoned with because most the other approaches are so ineffective.  (Are lots of adults becoming Christians at the churches you know?) 

One of the principle problems with the seeker approach is that they replace Sunday worship with Sunday evangelism services.  Willow though still does have a worship service on Wednesday nights called "New Community."  Though some would see Sunday seeker services as a tragic terrible flaw, I think it is a valid move because of the lack of evangelism happening through other methods and because I place less value on the traditional-handed-down-for-centuries liturgy. 

Other resources on this topic: I recently wrote a reflection on this: Download The Seeker Model Paper.doc.  See Andy Stanley's Seven Practices of Effective Ministry for the most persuasive compelling case for the seeker-driven approach.  See my category Andy Stanley for more that I've written about him.  For a critique of the seeker approach, see The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies by David E. Fitch

Many mainline denomination (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran) people who have a heart for evangelism put forward the Alpha course as the best evangelism program going right now.  It, like the seeker approach, allows people to learn about Jesus in a non-threatening way, with informational talks about the basics of Christianity by the winsome Nicky Gumbel, a meal, non-directed conversation in a non-churchy atmosphere.  The Alpha course comes from Holy Trinity Brompton in London, England.  They do this on a Tuesday night and then have regular worship services on Sundays.  Thus, you keep the tradition on Sundays but have effective evangelism program during the week.  For many people, this is the ideal approach. 

Interestingly though there are some mainline people who want to imitate seeker driven approaches (e.g. United Methodist Bill Easum and  Episcopalian Tom Ehrich).   

  4.  Consumer discipleship is not working.  My comment: Programs have limited usefulness.  It sounds good to put a system in place as Rick Warren suggests in The Purpose Driven Church (p.130) where people move from 101 (first base - discovering membership) to 201 (second base - discovering spiritual maturity), to 301 (third base - discovering my ministry) to 401 (home - discovering my life mission).  But discipleship is not an assembly line and it just doesn't work (for long) like that.  After working at seeker-driven megachurch, my friend wrote me: "I think discipling people may only be able to be done a few at a time."

Another friend wrote me about his experience working in a megachurch, "The megachurch approach can truly breed an unhealthy consumerism mentality. Specializing in everything to cater to our every need (affinity groups, a cafe in the lobby, Sunday school programs for children that are incredible, etc) isn't always bad, but can foster a 'it's all about me' mentality."  This is the concern of basically all of the critics of the megachurch approach. 

5.  Many mature Christians are unsatisfied with the church. Their conclusion is that people need to learn to feed themselves.  My comment: I think probably people want tradition and depth not just a personalized spiritual growth program. John Ortberg, now pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian (PCUSA), was a pastor at Willow Creek for many years.  He has written one of the very best books on "feeding yourself" called The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People.  These were originally sermons at Willow.  It is not new to Willow to feed yourself.  Thus, I think they probably need to dig deeper in order to find out what the path forward should really be. 

Hybels says that one thing they want to do is help people design a personal spiritual growth plan.  On the one hand, this still sounds consumeristic.  But on the other hand, my experience in theological education does lead me to believe that when mature Christians want to dig deep intellectually in order to further grow in their faith, they have very different interests as is evident in any list of course offerings at a seminary.  (See Fuller Seminary's School of Theology courses or Duke Divinity School's list of courses). 

This leads to my other point.  I think some of the mature Christians who are dissatisfied with what they are receiving at Willow, want a better connection to Christian history.  You find this in spades here at Duke Divinity School.  People want to connect to Augustine, Aquinas, Barth - someone with more worldwide and historical importance.  Traditional liturgical churches have a taste of those resources in the music and liturgy of every worship service.  The most extreme form of being unsatisfied with the nondenominational church is converting to Catholicism which a few of my friends have done.  Because church tradition is the one thing Willow decided to systematically expunge during its founding, its people miss it.  Like most churches, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. 

If Willow's mature believers long for history, there is no quick fix.  But here are some suggestions. 

  • Give each of the staff a subscription to Christian History
  • Encourage mature Christians to take seminary correspondence courses. 
  • Foster connections with local Roman Catholic priests and nuns to do spiritual direction. 
  • Attempt to introduce a modified Anglican eucharist to the mid-week service (Invitation, Confession, Gloria, Word, Eucharist, Benediction). 
  • Use Robert Webber's outstanding eight volume Complete Library of Christian Worship which gives us an easy to use reference for deepening worship through the insights of the centuries. 
  • Have the staff and congregation work through some of Richard Foster's Renovare resources like Devotional Classics and Spiritual Classics
  • Have learning sessions with mainline people who have confessional (orthodox) theology and are pro-evangelism who are positive about things like the Alpha course (described above).
  • Listen to North Park New Testament professor, amazing blogger, and Willow Creek attender Scot McKnight.
  • Ask Mark Noll, preeminent historian and former Wheaton College professor, now at Notre Dame and author of Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

If those solutions seem too far removed from the Bible-centered non-denominational tradition, then at least read the very best Biblical Studies people that you can find (which I am told Randy Frazee is now doing).  I recommend An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry by David R. Bauer or Commentary and Reference Survey: A Comprehensive Guide to Biblical and Theological Resources by John Glynn as a way of sorting through the vast array of commentaries out there.   When you are preaching, you should always (if possible - I have always been near a theological library), consult commentaries.  Use these resources to find some good ones.  When you begin a series, invited your congregation members to buy a commentary and read through it with you.

Update.  Here are a couple of "I told you so" articles:

"Willow Creek Repents?
by Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith.  Book description: "A detailed survey of progressive church growth in recent decades reveals how non-evangelical, neighborhood churches are flourishing without emulating the tactics of mega-churches, in an analysis that counsels Protestant readers on how to remain authentic to denominational traditions while promoting one's spiritual community."

A Shocking “Confession” from Willow Creek Community Church
by Bob Burney, a Christian radio host in Columbus, Ohio


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The seeker model will continue to find success among consumers and, due to its pragmatic success, I do not expect to see dramatic changes in the megachurches. This study does, however, demonstrate the value and wisdom of traditional approaches - much to the delight of those of us in still in these circles.

I have several friends who grew up in megachurches, either at Willow or in Colorado, who have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. They value the tradition and liturgy, but they haven't cast off some of those "seeker" elements, particularly music that continues to touch them deeply. I'm guessing the best approach is really somewhere in the middle. Openness to non-Christians and good conversations and willingness to try new styles all integrated with a deep understanding of and appreciation for the past and tradition.


I just read through your most recent blog on Willow Creek. I found it
interesting because I recently started attending there regularly, in
fact, I just went jumped into an area group.

Some of your accusations I found somewhat off. After having only been
in attendance for a couple months, I already sense a real, genuine
desire on behalf of the staff and the few congregants I have met, to
give and serve, both financially and physically, locally and globally,
especially with the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

In fact, just a couple weeks ago, during their Wednesday evening
service (New Community), the pastor of Lawndale Church (founded a
church in a rough neighborhood on the south side of Chicago about 25
or 30 years ago) came and spoke about how to serve in an urban setting
as a "white and wealthy" (my words) church. He spoke about how to
make an impact in the Kingdom without taking away the dignity of the
people living there. It was the best sermon I've ever heard in regard
to this topic, and there was nothing watered-down about it.
Certainly, there was plenty of opportunity to grow (discipleship).

Actually, I have been impressed with the Wednesday evening services.
I've heard Randy Frazee every time so far, and he even recommended
getting ahold of the commentaries being used by the pastors for the
series they are in right now on Moses. Further, this series on Moses
is very impressive to me, as every week, both on Sunday and on
Wednesday evening, every area of the church is studying God's work
through Moses, children through adult. They also have a 105 page
booklet, which contains a couple pages on how to do good biblical
reading (Inductive Study methods). It is easily the most
comprehensive and thorough devotional I've ever seen a church handout.
It has sections for personal reflection, small group discussion, and
family discussion, not to mention sections for taking notes during the
sermons, and a questions and answers section. The series in only 5
weeks long.

The Sunday morning services consistently present the gospel clearly,
as they are meant to do. But, sometimes, the pastor speaking says
things that would not be considered "seeker-friendly" by many
Christians. What I mean here is that I do not hear Willow giving an
exaggerated amount of emphasis to grace over truth.

I couldn't help but respond to your blog. I definitely think Willow
has a long way to go with discipleship, and I certainly have some
questions about how they spend their money. But I also know that they
do a lot both locally and globally with their resources (however, I
cannot say what the percentages of the budget look like). Also,
during the 2006 Leadership Summit, which I attended, one of the themes
was about the AIDS crisis in Africa and the responsibility of "every
senior pastor [in America] going to Africa to see it first hand."
(Bill Hybels). The interview with Bono left a huge impact on those in
attendance, and I know from being on the pastors' retreat with my home
church this past May, that Bono and Hybels challenged our church
leaders with the stewardship and giving of the resources they have.

I do have some questions about your suggestions:
1.) I found your hypothesis of a deeper knowledge of church history
really interesting because i just bought Augustine's Confessions and I
am interested in what some of these Church Fathers said, believed, and
did. But why do you think this will lead to mature believers being
more satisfied with their church? I'm not saying it won't, but
curious about your reasoning.
2.) I can't think of any reason to connect mature believers with a
Roman Catholic priest or nun for spiritual direction. Certainly,
simply on the basis of doctrine, roman papacy, and the differences in
church services is enough reason to suggest there might be a better
answer. What is your thinking here?
3.) Tell me about the Anglican Eucharist. I'm not familiar, and it
is hard for me to connect with anything highly liturgical. Maybe this
is from my church upbringing, but high liturgical services seem rote,
magical, and disconnected from God. I'm missing the connection
between this form of the Eucharist and keeping mature believers
around/developing believers into deep followers of Christ.

Andy, I hope I have not sounded too defensive or offensive. I love
the discussion, and I appreciate your posts. Sorry this got long, and
please don't feel like you need to write some huge response back to
me. I know you're a busy man with your studies and your family.

Hope to hear from you soon,


Here are my comments to someone who says they have been very impressed with Willow's discipleship practices and has started attending there recently.

I like Willow! I'm glad you are there.

You are right that I didn't communicate all of this very well. As opposed to the many negative comments on the Out of Ur site, I was trying to be constructive and analyze the real strengths of Willow Creek. They reach non-Christians well and they have their New Community services mid-week. But they themselves say that having people go to New Community and be involved in area groups and small groups does not (long-term) lead to deep growth. Participation does not automatically lead to growth. Of course nothing automatically leads to growth but I wanted to point out the particular areas that they edited out (tradition) have some potential to bring deep growth. There is a deep well of resources there.

Still, fundamentally I agree with their emphasis on evangelism and biblical studies. I am still at heart an evangelical. Still, what we lose in emphasizing the contemporary (evangelism) and biblical studies (early church) is tradition.

I agree with all you have said. Yes, lots of results from Frazee on discipleship. I had my students read his book Connecting Church as an attempt to think through what large scale discipleship might look like.

Sorry, about the commentaries thing. Good to hear Frazee is encouraging that. I'm not surprised because of what Tom ___________ I forget his last name did at Pantego Bible Church when Randy was there.

They (Willow) are the ones who are saying that mature believers aren't satisfied. I am suggesting that they have purposefully (in their seeker nondenom model) expunged (edited out) all tradition. That is an area of weakness in the model. Thus, their people are unconsciously saying to themselves, "isn't there more to Christian history than just when Willow was founded 30 years ago? Isn't there something between the book of Acts and 1977?"

Your concerns about encouraging "Roman Catholic practices" . . . I can't get into this too much for lack of time but I think that a Roman Catholic priest is more in touch with the history of Christian spirituality between the book of Acts and 1977 than most nondenom folks. I just read Rowan William's Wound of Knowledge (he is an anglican) on the history of Christian spirituality. Or see James Houston's work (one of my profs at Regent College).

Similarly, the Anglican eucharist (which I think you would enjoy if you were to go to an Evangelical Episcopalian) service because of its richness theologically, traces its roots back to the early church fathers in the second and third century AD, as opposed to just picking three random Chris Tomlin / Matt Redman songs and calling that worship. Don't get me wrong - I love contemporary Christian worship but I also think it makes sense to acknowledge that we did not invent Christian worship in 2007 and that the history of Christian worship might teach us something.

I hope you are reading jesuscreed.org with Scot McKnight because he attends Willow but has this sense of the importance of tradition as well.

As always, Andy, thanks for a very helpful summary and resources related to the REVEAL study. The "I told you so" skeptics (i.e. Burney) express surprise about those (i.e. Willow leaders) who say--yes, as they have before--we need to rethink church. Greg Hawkins reflects a purely pragmatic (arguably a scientific) mindset, the telos of which is bound to disturb Reformed Christian thinkers. It is surprising to me, however, that those whose approach is manifestly pragmatic (case in point: Burney's article appearing in TOWN HALL, WHERE YOUR OPINION COUNTS) are so inclined to condemn fellow pragmatists! --Bob

Thank you Bob. Yes, that is helpful terminology for the seeker approach: "pragmatic" "scientific"; "driven by social science assumptions" perhaps. On the other side, yes, Reformed people - that is good; Karl Barth as the principle example who rejected social science (natural theology) assumptions. But Roman Catholics as well. Stanley Hauerwas here at Duke draws his similar priority on theological assumptions from John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite. So there are multiple voices within the Christian tradition who don't want all of "doing church" to be determined by "what works." Still, perhaps because I am an evangelical and interested in seeing which people are reached with the gospel, I am interested in data on the human side (crassly called "results.") I want to prioritize theological assumptions though.


Hi Andy.

I've been pondering this statement and without a definite conclusion:

"They reach non-Christians well."

On the surface it surely seems that way. However, if, as they say, Willow has a problem with discipleship, is it reaching non-Christians well? or simply with a lot of enthusiasm but with little affect.

Glad to find your blog.

Sharing your experiences is very good and you have described very well about the Willow Creek and helping the poor and fully devoted followers of Jesus is very good service towards them is appreciable and thanks for sharing your description with very good realizations.

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