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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

See also the excellent summary of different recent postings about this at Leadership Networks Leanings blog "Reveal Squeal gets louder on the web" by DJ Chuang.

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