Willow Creek & the Death of the Program-Driven Church

        Like many other pastors of my generation, I have been so blessed by the ministry of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church.  They model a consistent, broken-hearted passion to reach far-from-God people with the gospel.  Their ministry is marked by creativity, risk, authenticity, change– and deep joy. 

       The approach to local church ministry developed by Willow Creek has been packaged,  marketed and copied by dozens of churches across the world.  They are the church-growth grand-daddy of all program and event-based church ministries.  Over the past couple of years, Willow underwent a rigorous self-study– and didn’t like what they saw.  And when Hybels and other Willow leaders made some astonishingly honest confessions about their take on Willow Creek’s ministry health, it is worth a notice.  Out of Ur posted the following summary:

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.”

       What are Hybels and Willow confessing?  That they should have been spending more time and invested more resources, creativity and thinking on long-term disciple-making.  Discovering how to make disciples– one at a time– who live the Christ life with faithfulness, joy and sacrifice is the call of the church.  It’s not about jumping into and out of programs and events.  It’s about shaping lives. 

       That’s why it’s so important to have a strategic, well-considered apprach to disciple-making.  It’s hard work…but worth it to be faithful to our calling.

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2 responses

  1. […] II: David Head at Ponder Anew has an excellent post on this development. UPDATE: The classy Amy Welborn gives a Catholic […]

  2. This article touches on what I’m dealing with concerning my view of church right now and what to do about it

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