Friday, October 19, 2007

You Can't Program Discipleship

First Sally Morgenthaler, perhaps the most influential proponent of the attractional worship paradigm, says the paradigm doesn't work.

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.


co_heir said...

Your ideas sound a lot like the writers of Simple Church. The church should be about moving people to spiritual maturity.

There is a sense though, that the leaders should teach the people to not just depend on others to "feed" them.

Jared said...

Co-heir, I think I agree with that. But one of the initial tenets of the gospel appears to me to be self-deficiency.

As I said, so long as self-feeding means taking responsibility for our maturity, practicing spiritual disciplines, contributing to the church as a means of receiving from it, I'm down wit it. But as far as it means that the church should train people not to depend on others or not to need others in order to grow, I think it is very wrongheaded.

Hope that makes sense.
I am not anti-program so much as I am anti-program-centrism.

Will have to check out Simple Church.

David said...

Thanks for the post. This has been on my heart as well.

With all of our Bible studies, we rarely teach people to simply read the Bible. With all our books about prayer, we rarely just pray. In all our activity, we rarely actually fellowship

Now off I go to read my Bible and pray. And hang out with some other disciples.

must_decrease said...

Awesome Awesome stuff, yesterday, today and other times I have stopped by. I am thankful to find like minded leaders of ministries who are willing to count the cost and challenge their people to live differently, even if it is not comfortable or popular


Anonymous said...

agh. i just wrote this comment and tried to publish it, and server disconnected. awesome. hope i remember what i wrote before. here's the abridged version.

a lot of this post resonates with me as a minister. the pendulum swings: trying to recognize them, avoid them, avoid contributing to one.

it seems to me that whenever we focus on reaching, someone says we're abandoning discipleship and whenever we focus on discipleship, we're abandoning evangelism.

my simplistic take is that real evangelism (speaking and living the Gospel) grows you and that following Jesus more closely (discipleship) will, naturally, spread the Gospel. it's cyclical and, ideally, balanced.

whenever we teach a familiar passage some may say, "i'm not being challenged or growing. i already know this. i'm not being discipled." where i would say, "yeah, good, we all know this. it's not just knowing it that grows us. it's living it."

i think the sadly overwhelmingly accepted definition of discipleship/growth is in-depth Bible study. my uneducated and, again, simplistic definition is "becoming more like Christ." that involves knowing and doing. the knowing part is the easy half. if more of the world's "mature" Christians were actually doers and not just hearers, we'd see a lot more Christians, period. converts and disciples ... and converts becoming disciples.

just my two cents. i think about this frequently. maybe i should post on it myself!


cavman said...

Liked Simple Church...

One light bulb came on for me while preaching through Eph. 2. When we are made alive and raised up with Christ, we have an interest in spiritual things- the power of the Spirit creates that hunger and thirst. WE, as pastors, can't put that in people.
Another thought is that too often we think we are only to do a part of the Great Comission. Some evangelize, get a profession of faith and move on to the next person. They fail to see that now they continue to relate to that person (circumstances permitting anyway) and help them grow, interacting with them about life coram deo so that together we are progressively obeying more of what Jesus commanded us.
There is a tension in Scripture between being responsible (by grace) for my maturing in Christ, and recognizing the need for community for that to really take place instead of seeing it as "me & Jesus". To only embrace one side of that tension is to drive off the road of discipleship.
my 2 cents anyway.

Bill said...

Fabulous post, Jared, as always. And I echo a lot of what has been written in the comments thread already. I especially like what was said about balance - man, enough with the pendulum swings, the car swerves, and falling off the horse, church. Please! It's one of the scariest human tendencies . . .

The saddest quote in your post:

"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."

First off, it just seems like Hybel's is saying they should have tried harder doing what I know they were already doing. The "feed yourself" philosophy has been around the seeker movement for a long time.

Of course, there's a lot of truth to it. But it's a swing of the pendulum too far. The proper balance is a pastor feeding his flock, and that flock also working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, and learning to feed others too.

That quote made me just want to throw my hands up. It sounds like he's saying "we're still not going to feed you. We'll just work harder to convince you to feed yourself."

And I, too, respect Hybels.

Anonymous said...

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."

I think we shld look at this comment with the context in mind. Bill is not saying he will not feed his flock anymore, in fact he said that as a preaching pastor he wld spend a huge chunk of time in the morning everyday of the week preparing his sermon for the week end gatherings...
most of us reading this may not be coming from the seeker movement mindset thats why it is dangerous to simply quote this w/o the context in mind.
The REVEAL survey was done with the willow's context.
my take on this? feed the flock, help new believers to feed themselves as well as they grow in their walk with Christ, and coach them to feed others...the goal is for the believers to become devoted followers of Christ.

just my two cents.

BTW, had a dinner with bill hybels and wayne cordiero here in the philippines last week with 5 pastors of large churches.

Gbu, Jared. tnx for the post.

-ferdie cabiling of victory-ortigas, Philippines