Monday, 29 October 2007

Willow Creek Repents? Why the most influential church in America now says "We made a mistake."

Few would disagree that Willow Creek Community Church has been one of the most influential churches in America over the last thirty years. Willow, through its association, has promoted a vision of church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive. This vision has been heavily influenced by the methods of secular business. 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.”

If you’d like to get a synopsis of the research you can watch a video with Greg Hawkins here. And Bill Hybels’ reactions, recorded at last summer’s Leadership Summit, can be seen here. Both videos are worth watching in their entirety, but below are few highlights.

In the Hawkins’ video he 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.

Hybels confesses:

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 other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

Does this mark the end of Willow’s thirty years of influence over the American church? Not according to Hawkins:

Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet. From the UR blog of Christianity Today


Anonymous said...

Rarely I have been more proud of a church leader than when Bill Hybels recently repented for doing church the wrong way. I love Bill's honesty and respect him even more than I did before his repentance.

I also found his confession deeply affirming. I have been endeavoring to teach, write, model and call pastors and leaders and fellow believers to do simple church by focusing on the basics.

Excellent programming and systems was the Willow Creek claim to fame. What Bill Hybels did was issue a public statement repenting for some of their leadership practices. After an in-depth evaluation of the success of their programs they had concluded that much of their programming had not resulted in true spiritual growth. Their conclusion was that a church that builds a dependency on programs for discipleship will ultimately fail. Bill and the Willow Creek team concluded that Bible study, prayer, discipleship and missional community are all practices that must be instilled into people in a way that makes them depend on God for growth. It always just comes back to the basics. You can't program the basics, you have to instill them into people through one-on-one personal discipleship in a small community of outward focused people.

Reading about Bill's repentance confirmed to me that we are on the right track in emphasizing the following three "basics" as the only foundation for training and discipling leaders and workers in the kingdom:

1. Love for God by cultivating a lifestyle of prayer, fasting and reading the Word

2. Love for each other as members of the same community by intentionally investing and discipling in one another

3. Love for those who do not yet follow Jesus

I would like to quote the following article from another website about the Willow Creek Repentance to give you more background.

May God strengthen us all in our commitment to live a life of simple yet focused obedience,

Floyd McClung

From an email from Floyd

Andrew Kenny said...

If you want to check out the original video from WCA leadership summit hit the link below.

Anonymous said...

The Truth About REVEAL

I’m thrilled to see the high level of interest and energy behind the blogosphere comments about REVEAL. But I’ve read enough postings to think that it might be helpful to provide a few facts on three issues that keep coming up. Trust me. I’m not into “spin control” here. I just want to fill in some gaps.

1. It’s Not About Willow

REVEAL’s findings are based on thirty churches besides Willow. In all thirty churches, we’ve found the six segments of REVEAL’s spiritual continuum, including the Stalled and Dissatisfied segments. And these churches aren’t all Willow clones. We’ve surveyed traditional Bible churches, mainline denominations, African-American churches and churches representing a wide range of geographies and sizes. Right now we’re fielding the survey to 500 additional churches, including 100 international churches. So, while REVEAL was born out of a Willow research project in 2004, the findings are not exclusive to Willow Creek.
2. Willow Repents?

The Leadership Journal blog started with this question, and the answer is NO. Repenting, in my mind, deals with confessing sin. There is absolutely no sin involved in this deal. Just good, old fashion learning. What you are seeing is a set of leaders coming to grips with some new facts and deciding to do something about it. This is nothing new for us here at Willow. We are passionately committed to learning. Redeeming this broken world through the love and power of Jesus Christ is just too important for us not to be in a constant state of learning. We’ve always been a church in motion and REVEAL is just another example of Willow trying to be open to God’s design for this local church.
3. Is Willow Re-thinking its Seeker Focus?

Simple answer – NO. Hybels would say that Willow is not just seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed. The power of REVEAL’s insights for our seeker strategy is the evangelistic strength uncovered in the more mature segments. If we can serve them better, the evangelistic potential is enormous, based on our findings.
I hope this was helpful. In any event, I’m enjoying following the dialogue. Keep it up! And let me know if you have any questions you’d like me to address.

Greg Hawkins

Anonymous said...

A.W. Tozer summed this condition up years ago in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, "We have lost our spirit of worship and our ability to withdraw inwardly to meet God in adoring silence. Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience the life in the Spirit. This loss of the concept of majesty has come just when the forces of religion are making dramatic gains and the churches are more prosperous than at any time within the past several hundred years. BUT THE ALARMING THING IS THAT OUR GAINS ARE MOSTLY EXTERNAL AND OUR LOSES WHOLLY INTERNAL."

Our seeker churches are a mile wide and an inch deep. The heartbreak is we have nurtured a whole generation of believers, especially our children on "God Lite."

The GOOD NEWS, God is the great I AM and is sovereign!
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem... how often I have wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

It's time to repent, turn from OUR wicked ways and seek His face! Stop the surveys, focus groups,man's the one who knows!!!
Thomas Gibson

Anonymous said...

It is indeed encouraging to see this "Reveal" initiative by Willow as an authentic way to lead.

While it is great to start realizing how critical it is to help Christians to be self-fed in our walk with Christ, i have to say that this is FAR from sufficient.

I strongly believe the necesscity in adding the following:
a) Churches must produce disciples who are not just "self fed" but also "MAKE OTHER DISCIPLES" i.e. producing other disciples by discipling others. This is how Christ commissioned us in Matt 28:18-20. Missing the "Reproducing attribute" misses the essence of discipleship. Not taking Christ's great commission (of making disciples of all nations) seriously to the heart of the church is missing the whole point. A serious in depth Bible study on Matt 28:18-20 and on Discipleship is very much warranted.

b) Disciples are followers of Christ who are obedience to Christ by taking up our cross daily to follow Him. Complete OBEDIENCE & SACRIFICE is the KEY to follower of Christ. Disciples of Christ must be able to hear the voice of CHrist (John 10:27: Christ said: My sheep hear my voice and I know them) and follow in obedience.

c) The Power of the Holy Spirit should have been the center Figure for this whole reengineering -- and seems to be missing from the center stage. I believe the Holy Spirit is onto something big with North American Christians who are mostly self-centric instead of Christ centered. Much prayers for revival is needed. I pray that Prayers for the Power of the Holy Spirit takes priority over more research and survey (which is important but only second important).

Sincerely pray that the Holy Spirit will bring true repentance of our self-centered-ness and steer us to let God's passion of the Great Commission be what we live for! If we do this not by our effort but by counting on the power of the Holy Spirit -- HE can change the world through us and our submission to CHRIST! (A Totally different thing from we tried to change the world)..

Blessings to you all.

Anonymous said...

When I heard that Bill Hybels said
"this rocked my world...we made a mistake" I let go with the most vindictive, vicious, triumphant obscene, gloating laugh I have ever bellowed in my entire life.

Then I wept in utter despair for all the people hurt over the past 22 years I've known of Willow Creek.

Back in the late 1980s I was a regular at The Creek and Hybels launched his "fully devoted follower" mode of preaching. I told Bill flat out "this isn't going to work, you're only going to end up threatening, intimidating and alienating people and they'll leave and never come back".

Hybels flat ignored me and three years later one of his staffers told me to "believe or leave".

And I knocked the dust off my shoes and left.

What will Willow Creek and God do to salve the thousands of wounds that resulted from this misguided and failed approach to discipleship and fellowship???

That will take a lifetime to answer and I have the sinking feeling that for a lot of people, it will be too little too late.