confession of Willow Creek Community Church leaders
COLUMBUS, Ohio (BP)--If you are older than 40 the name Benjamin Spock
is more than familiar. It was Spock that told an entire generation of
parents to take it easy, don't discipline your children and allow them to
express themselves. Discipline, he told us, would warp a child's fragile
ego. Millions followed this guru of child development and he remained
unchallenged among child rearing professionals. However, before his death
Dr. Spock made an amazing discovery: He was wrong. In fact, he said:
"We have reared a generation of brats. Parents aren't firm enough with
their children for fear of losing their love or incurring their
resentment. This is a cruel deprivation that we professionals have imposed
on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it with the best of intentions.
We didn't realize until it was too late how our know-it-all attitude was
undermining the self assurance of parents."
Something just as momentous, in my opinion, just happened in the
evangelical community. For most of a generation evangelicals have been
romanced by the "seeker-sensitive" movement spawned by Willow Creek
Community Church in Chicago. The guru of this movement is Bill Hybels. He
and others have been telling us for decades to throw out everything we
have previously thought and been taught about church growth and replace it
with a new paradigm, a new way to do ministry.
Perhaps inadvertently, with this "new wave" of ministry came a de-emphasis
on taking personal responsibility for Bible study combined with an
emphasis on felt-needs based "programs" and slick marketing.
The size of the crowd rather than the depth of the heart determined
success. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry.
Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists,
marketing research, meeting "felt needs" and sermons consistent with these
techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in.
Doctrine didn't matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn't "cutting
edge" and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation
and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and
Thousands of pastors hung on every word that emanated from the lips of the
church growth experts. Satellite seminars were packed with hungry church
leaders learning the latest way to "do church." The promise was clear:
Thousands of people and millions of dollars couldn't be wrong. Forget what
people need, give them what they want. How can you argue with the numbers?
If you dared to challenge the "experts" you were immediately labeled as a
"traditionalist," a throwback to the 50s, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to
change with the times.
All that changed recently.
Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the
effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study's
findings are in a new book titled "Reveal: Where Are You?," co-authored by
Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek
Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings "ground breaking,"
"earth shaking" and "mind blowing." And no wonder: It seems that the
"experts" were wrong.
The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many
years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing
solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets
worse. Hybels laments:
"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."
If you simply want a crowd, the "seeker-sensitive" model produces results.
If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it's a bust. In a
shocking confession, Hybels states:
"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 services, how to do the spiritual practices much more
aggressively on their own."
Incredibly, the guru of church growth now tells us that people need to be
reading their Bibles and taking responsibility for their spiritual growth.
Just as Spock's "mistake" was no minor error, so the error of the
seeker-sensitive movement is monumental in its scope. The foundation of
thousands of American churches is now discovered to be mere sand. The one
individual who has had perhaps the greatest influence on the American
church in our generation has now admitted his philosophy of ministry, in
large part, was a "mistake." The extent of this error defies measurement.
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all in this revelation coming out of
Willow Creek is in a summary statement by Greg 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."
Isn't that what we were told when this whole seeker-sensitive thing
started? The church growth gurus again want to throw away their old
assumptions and "take out a clean sheet of paper" and, presumably, come up
with a new paradigm for ministry.
Should this be encouraging?
Please note that "rooted in Scripture" still follows "rethink," "new
insights" and "informed research." Someone, it appears, still might not
get it. Unless there is a return to simple biblical (and relevant)
principles, a new faulty scheme will replace the existing one and another
generation will follow along as the latest piper plays.
What we should find encouraging, at least, in this "confession" coming
from the highest ranks of the Willow Creek Association is that they are
coming to realize that their existing "model" does not help people grow
into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Given the massive influence this
organization has on the American church today, let us pray that God would
be pleased to put structures in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere
numeric growth, but growth in grace.
Bob Burney is Salem Communications' award-winning host of Bob Burney
Live, heard weekday afternoons on WRFD-AM 880 in Columbus, Ohio. This
column originally appeared at Townhall.com. Reprinted with permission.