Monday, April 14, 2008

Willow Creek Does a 180 Toward "Getting It"

Setting aside any cynicism one may have about their new efforts, Willow Creek is to be commended for their continuing to sort the problems out honestly and quickly.

Out of Ur reports (read it all, please):
Today, Greg Hawkins, executive pastor at Willow, recapped the study and then shared some changes that the church is now making in response to the research. He said they’re making the biggest changes to the church in over 30 years. For three decades Willow has been focused on making the church appealing to seekers. But the research shows that it’s the mature believers that drive everything in the church —- including evangelism.

Hawkins says, “We used to think you can’t upset a seeker. But while focusing on that we’ve really upset the Christ-centered people.” He spoke about the high levels of dissatisfaction mature believer have with churches. Drawing from the 200 churches and the 57,000 people that have taken the survey, he said that most people are leaving the church because they’re not being challenged enough.

Because it’s the mature Christians who drive evangelism in the church Hawkins says, “Our strategy to reach seekers is now about focusing on the mature believers. This is a huge shift for Willow.”

One major implementation of this shift will occur in June when Willow ends their mid-week worship services that had been geared toward believers. Instead the church will morph these mid-week events into classes for people at different stages of growth. There will be theological and bible classes full of “hard-hitting stuff.” Hawkins said most people are very enthusiastic about the change.

On the seeker end of the spectrum, Willow is also changing how they produce their weekend services. For years the value people appreciated most about the seeker-oriented weekend services was anonymity. This is what all their research showed. People didn’t want to be identified, approached, confronted, or asked to do anything. But those days are over.

“Anonymity is not the driving value for seeker services anymore,” says Hawkins. “We’ve taken anonymity and shot it in the head. It’s dead. Gone.” In the past Willow believed that seekers didn’t want large doses of the Bible or deep worship music. They didn’t want to be challenged. Now their seeker-sensitive services are loaded with worship music, prayer, Scripture readings, and more challenging teaching from the Bible.

Willow has been wrestling with the research from REVEAL since 2004. Hawkins said, “We’ve tried incremental changes for four years, but now we know we have to overhaul our whole strategy.” Small steps are no longer the method; Willow is revamping everything. “It would be malpractice for us to not do something with what we’re learning.”

Yes, yes, yes.

They're not going to nuance this thing, finesse this thing, spin this thing. Hawkins and Co. are clearly saying "The thing is broken and we're not going to put a Band-Aid on it."

Contrast Willow's hard-learned admission that mature Christians drive the church, including evangelism, with the white-knuckled hold some seeker churches still have on the idea that a worship service is for seekers and mature Christians should keep their mouths shut while they pour into a machine that isn't designed for their edification and equipping.

The report here still refers to Willow's weekend services as "seeker sensitive," although I guess that could still be up for debate when the services will contain more worship music, Scripture readings, and larger doses of Scripture in "deeper" messages.
It's certainly not your dad's seeker service, but in any event, I've thought for a long time we've overestimated the sensitivities of seekers anyway.

This is good stuff, people. Skepticism may be reflexive (ie. Are they just replacing old program-driven growth with a new program-driven growth? Are they just changing their market for their goods and services?), but let's pray for this effort. As stated here, it is very, very promising, and the big church that influenced countless churches to adopt its philosophy and methodology for "doing church" may just inspire countless churches to reevaluate the realization that IT'S NOT WORKING.

Godspeed, Willow Creek.

(Bold in the excerpt is mine. HT: Vitamin Z)


gavin richardson said...

i happened to be up there last week jared. i am happy to see them making change. but some of the change stuff i was hearing of is oh so very dated, ie. part of church traditions.

what i have learned and would hope others learn, don't put all your learning into one entity. stuff i heard last week from willow staff & types were things i have read from my own church tradition, leonard sweet, and even saddle back community church some 8 years ago. the reveal stuff is pretty cool, but i don't know how much actual spiritual depth change it is going to bring them.

i am trying to be one of my best selves an not be some elitist about it all, but it boggles the mind.

thus i come to my learning thing. i don't need to drink just my own kool-aid for i might be in a similar boat in the next 10 years

Jared said...

Gavin, could you be more specific? Is it b/c it is still relying on programs?

I don't have a problem with churches doing stuff that traditional churches have done or going down trails already blazed by others, so long as they actually nurture the discipleship culture of the church doing them.
Are you saying that the stuff they're looking at doing doesn't really work? Or just that it's not anything new?

With you 100% on the kool-aid.

gavin richardson said...

specifics, from the youth side that i remember being expressed were engaging youth in participation, sensory/experiential experiences were brought up, social justice participation were three things. social justice is a big part of the traditional churches both mainline and catholic. experiential elements bring to mind the alt worship scene or our emergent scene, but it also brings back the words of leonard sweet and his "e.p.i.c." model of spiritual learning (experiential, participatory, image driven, connected). the youth leadership is a core teaching element of united methodist youth ministry, but i also have heard doug fields speak of this years ago as part of the saddle back youth ministries.

i don't have problems doing other churches, but saying this is new is misleading. i doubt that a church with such stature hasn't heard of any of these cases over the past 8 years (when post-modern pilgrim, len sweet was printed) so to all of a sudden take notice feels odd to me. maybe it is honest, maybe not.

plus, since this stuff has been developed and discussed, why create new resources and programs except to keep something going...

i don't know, maybe i am not smart enough to see it all. it just doesn't feel right to me.