Thursday, November 8, 2007

Willow Creek's Big Turn

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Pastor Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) of suburban Chicago. Hybels and WCCC have long been at the fore of the church growth movement, with an almost singular focus on making seekers as comfortable as possible in Sunday services. If not the original "seeker-sensitive" church, Willow Creek is certainly widely regarded as the prototype for this philosophy of ministry.

This philosophy played itself out in a model where Sunday services were heavy on contemporary praise music, drama and other artistic displays, while the preaching was light and "positive" with the intent of being as attractive as possible to the unsaved seekers, who found their way to WCCC in droves. The church also held midweek services, which were geared to feed the believers among the congregation. Following this model of ministry, WCCC grew to have a weekly attendance of over 20,000, meeting in a 7,200-seat theater-style auditorium.

In August of 2007, at the annual Leadership Summit of the Willow Creek Association (more on this organization later), Pastor Hybels took the stage and dropped what he presented as a bombshell on the assembled congregation. You can watch a video excerpt of his address (published on a WCCC-associated site, and slightly more than eleven minutes in length - worth watching when you have the time) here, but I'll give you a brief rundown on what he had to say in the published excerpt.

Here is the essence of it as I heard it: WCCA'S executive pastor approached him, and wanted to do some research in their congregation about how they were meeting people's needs. He put together a team, they did a survey of a sampling of members, then followed up with focus groups to try to better understand what the survey meant. The conclusion: We do a really good job of reaching unsaved, and ministering to brand new Christians, but less so for growing believers, and a poor job with mature believers. We have taught them all to expect to be fed here, but have not equipped them with the tools to feed themselves.

With that as a backdrop, let's look at some of the specifics of what Pastor Hybels had to say. In describing how their model had failed maturing believers, he confessed, "We should have taught them how to read their Bible between services." A novel concept in an evangelical church, to be sure. Further, he states, they should have "taught them how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."

As you read this, bear in mind that WCCC has been meeting together for more than 30 years, and Hybels was one of its co-founders. This is not a case of saying, "We're three years into this thing, and our converts of two and three years ago are not maturing as they should." No, this is 30 years down the seeker-sensitive road, and he characterizes the day when his executive pastor and others involved in the survey effort first presented the results to him as a dark, difficult day in his ministry.

Hybels then states that this realization was "mind blowing" to the leadership of Willow Creek.

At this point I was dumbfounded. Rev. Hybels, have you read Ephesians? Consider Eph. 4:11-13, where Paul explains God's reasons for the varied gifting of His people. The "equipping of the saints for the work of service ... until we all attain to ... a mature man." God, says Paul, equipped some as pastors and teachers for this: the equipping of the saints. If the primary purpose of the church's meeting together becomes serving up light, feel-good, non-Gospel messages, surrounded by entertaining music and arts, with any real preaching of the Word confined to mid-week meetings for the truly committed, should anyone be surprised that many never made it to maturity? Rather than trusting that the Spirit of God would enable those who would be saved to comprehend enough of the Gospel through the preaching of the Word to at least be spurred to ask questions later, WCCC subordinated the preaching of the Word to what amounted to little more than entertainment in the name of outreach.

You might expect the response of Hybels to this "mind-blowing" revelation to be tearful repentance. But that's not the response, or at least not the public one. It's not brokenness. It's not pleading for forgiveness. No, it's a plan!

Says Hybels, "This (the mind-blowing study results) has caused an incredible amount of activity." He continues, "(Our) leadership team right now are working very hard on how to rethink how we coach people to full spiritual development." No mention that they are pouring over the Scriptures in search of enlightenment on the matter.

In a tip of the hat to personal trainers and their personal workout plans at the gym, he (Hybels) concludes, "We're pioneering this thing called Personal Spiritual Growth Plans. Customized spiritual growth plans for everybody at Willow. ... We need to provide customized spiritual growth plans to people at Willow Creek so they can become self-feeders." Even here, the response is program, not the preaching of the Word.

This is, "We don't have a clue what we've been doing the last twenty years, but we have a new plan now!" Only that plan doesn't even hint that the Scriptures already lay out The Plan for growing disciples: Preach the Word. Encourage one another. Pray. Serve. Sacrifice. Suffer. Strangely, no mention of drama, cinema, or dance.

So, bottom line, the response of the leadership of WCCC to the revelation that their model of ministry has failed to produce mature disciples is another novel plan, something they are pioneering.

An analogy might be useful at this point. Suppose you learned from the local media that your local school district's high school students were receiving scores on the mathematics portion of standardized tests which were dreadfully below average. The district superintendent scheduled a town hall meeting to present his plan for addressing the deficiencies in the teaching of math in the district. At this meeting, the superintendent announced that in order to achieve better math test scores, the district had committed to upgrading all of the student computers in the local high schools from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. That's it. No mention of a new math curriculum. No mention of mandatory training sessions for faculty in the math department. Just software upgrades. Hybels was that superintendent. Without faithful, persistent preaching of the Word, the people of WCCC will continue to struggle in vain to become mature disciples. But that is not part of the plan. The plan is to coach the people better to be disciples, to try to customize a personal plan for each of the more than 20,000 people attending the church on any given week. Can you imagine the wave of hiring that will be required to accomplish that goal?

I made mention earlier of the Willow Creek Association (WCA). This organization was founded by WCCC in 1992 to facilitate the adoption of their model of ministry in other churches. Today, WCA claims over 12,000 member churches. This would represent many millions of church members around the globe. (About half of these churches are international.) So for the last 15 years, WCA has been providing inspiration, guidance, and even programs to thousands of other churches, seeking to help them adopt a ministry model patterned after that of WCCC. It was on the stage of the WCA's annual Leadership Summit, which is simulcast via satellite to a number of sites, where Hybels talked about the changes being implemented in WCCC's ministry model. So how do the revelations reverberating through the leadership of WCCC impact the message WCA is delivering to member churches? In significant ways, as you would guess. Beyond the new program focus within WCCC is the new REVEAL mega-program.

After obtaining stunning feedback from the survey of their own people, they then repeated the survey in six other (presumably affiliated) churches, and then thirty more, in an effort to see if the results validated that the entire church (as he presents it) is as bankrupt in its effectiveness in making mature disciples as was WCCC. They want to now repeat this church member survey process in 500 local churches (most undoubtedly in the WCA) and have set up revealnow.com to implement it. He presumes that every church, without limiting this to WCA churches and those following similar models, would find the same kind of "mind-blowing" results if they were to participate in the study.

There's more to tell, however. On the same page where you can watch the video of Hybels, there are two video clips linked featuring Greg Hawkins. Greg is the WCCC executive pastor who first approached Hybels about conducting a survey to gauge the effectiveness of WCCC's model. Kudos to Greg for asking the question. He is also the co-author of the book behind the REVEAL strategy. (According to the REVEAL site, "REVEAL is a way to discover best practices and how they could apply to your church." The management consultant's approach to growing disciples.) He appears to believe completely that what WCCC does is normative for the Church in America at large, and, one supposes, the Church throughout the Earth. How does he describe the WCCC leadership's response to their mind-blowing discovery? "We take out a clean sheet of paper, and we rethink church." How about taking out the New Testament and scouring it for a pattern of ministry instead of starting with a "clean sheet"?!?

But here is the truly shocking admission from Hawkins: They started this process in 2004. 2004! Three years after this discovery that their programs and philosophies were falling short of the mark began to dawn on the WCCC's leadership, they break the news to the thousands of churches, charged with shepherding many millions of God's people, that the programs and pattern of ministry they were taking from WCCC and implementing in their own churches were an utter failure when held up to the standard of the Great Commission. Three years they continued to allow those thousands of pastors to pattern their own ministries after the supposedly successful Willow Creek model, all the while knowing that there were enormous problems with what they were pushing.

Even if you buy into the belief that REVEAL and Personal Spiritual Growth Plans are the correct response to the deficiencies of their model which were uncovered (which I clearly do not believe), how do you justify waiting three years to share that revelation with thousands of church leaders who look to you for guidance in fulfilling their own calling?

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