Now no less a church growth icon than Bill Hybels says they "made a mistake":
James Twitchell, in his new book Shopping for God, reports that outside Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country.
So what happens when leaders of Willow Creek stand up and say, “We made a mistake”?
Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.”
. . . Hawkins [says], “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”
Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities 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.”
Speaking at the Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings this way:
Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.
Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake up call” of his adult life.
I will cop to being a minor Willow Creek fanboy. I attended the church leadership conference in 1996, was blown away, won to the movement, has a visit to Dieter Zander's Axis service plant a seed in my heart for some of the things I'd like to do with Element, etc. Bill and Lynne Hybels' Rediscovering Church was a great influence on my early approach to ecclesiology, and re-reading it last year, I still found large portions of it very helpful and instructive.
So this has nothing to do with glee over Hybels' "wake up call."
My assumption, actually, has been that Willow Creek has been one of the few seeker-type mega-churches that have been doing an awful lot right, especially in terms of discipleship.
But I think there is something in the air. People all around are waking up to what the last 25 years in evangelicalism has wrought. What is the fruit? Every shift in evangelical ecclesiology even in the short span of the last 40 years or so appears not to be a natural, evolutionary outgrowth of the fruit of a previous movement, but a radical reaction to what came before.
So the Baby Boomers' seeker-centered church growth model is a pendulum swing away from their forefathers' fundamentalist traditional approach. And the emerging church movement of today appears to be a pendulum swing away from the seeker thing.
Thus modern vs. postmodern, seeker vs. missional, traditional vs. contemporary, etc.
Lord help us if we are just setting ourselves up for another pendulum swing.
When your car begins to veer off the road, you turn the wheel back to correct it. But in our frantic turning, out of sheer fear of going off the road on the left, we can over-correct and just end up crashing into the wall on the right instead.
I think what the Reveal survey is showing us is twofold:
a) the attractional worship paradigm attracts and can lead to conversion, but its track record for growth is lousy
b) you can't offer a bunch of goods and services and expect that to lead to spiritual growth
But listen to how some are interpreting the data. Hybels surmises:
We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.
In so far as he's talking about equipping and training, I think he's right on. And I would never presume to suggest I know better about how spiritual growth is done than the one and only Bill Hybels.
But this self-feeding thing can be very dangerous. I have heard it quite a bit in different quarters recently.
If it only means training and equipping Christians to practice spiritual disciplines, to take responsibility for their spiritual growth, then I think it is right. But if it is merely a reaction, sort of a "Well, they obviously don't need the church, so let's help them not need us," I think it can be one of those over-corrections that just leads to a whole new set of problems.
The last thing we need today, in a culture of lonely people practicing loneliness together, among people who from the beginning of time have been broken by pride and self-idolatry, is a concentrated focus on further lone ranger Christianity. Is more individualism really the answer?
The Church is the Body of Christ, and we need it. We need community. We need the sustenance the community provides.
Jesus asked Peter a question: "Do you love Me?"
Peter said yes.
And Jesus didn't say, "Then teach my sheep how to self feed."
What this means is not an end to churchly provision. What it means is an end to The Program as key to spiritual growth. What it means is we cannot install an event, and when we see it doesn't work, install another event and hope it succeeds.
Discipleship is about following Jesus. And people have to want to do this.
Rather than attempt to program churchgoers into discipleship, why don't we try this:
a) proclaim and exemplify the gospel as often as possible.
Isn't it odd that for so long we have begun with the idea that we must demonstrate how practical and applicable to every day life Christianity is, yet so few people are actually being matured by the process that begins that way? I think it has something to do with the fact we aren't beginning by addressing the real problem. We assume it is dysfunction or lack of success, when really it is sin.
b) express and exemplify the need for community as often as possible.
Many churches are finding that simply introducing a small group program doesn't magically make their folks want to do small groups. You have to demonstrate the need for it to them by authentic preaching in worship gatherings and by setting up opportunities between people to share their hearts, arranging mentor relationships, etc. Maybe this means testimonials from the stage. Maybe this means returning to an on-campus small class structure with the aim of eventually transitioning them into home groups. But this is something that has to be cultivated, not just programmed.
c) focus on, center on, orient around Jesus and worship him as God.
What good is it to win people to the life of a church's programs if they aren't in love with Jesus? We have been stunning failures at Christ-intoxication. Exalt Jesus as more than a role model who teaches how to handle your finances, and those who see him as the Door rather than merely the doorman to success will be all the more ready to follow despite the cost.
d) trust the Holy Spirit.
This something that convicts me personally, and I lump myself in with shame: We don't pray enough.
Are we trusting our programs, or are we trusting God?
I don't believe the right response to "the programs aren't working" is to conclude the life of the Church is not the place for Christians, new and "old," to be fed. I don't believe the right response to "our goods and services aren't having their desired effect" is to work on creating more independent Christians.
We just have to further and more fully devote to the proclamation of and the living out of the Gospel of Jesus. In community. Feeding each other. Having all things in common. Caring for the least of these.
That's life together.