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.
Greg Hawkins responds with the truth about REVEAL.

Last week’s post about Willow Creek sparked a lot of conversation. It all flowed from comments made by the church’s leaders following a three year self-evaluation of Willow Creek’s ministry effectiveness. Your comments caught the attention of Greg Hawkins, Willow’s executive pastor. Below Hawkins reponds to your thoughts, clarifies what Willow has learned, and discusses the church’s future.

Friends, 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 first blog started with this question, and the answer is “yes”. But repenting is not a new experience for us. We’ve made a number of major course corrections over the years – like adding a big small group ministry for the thousands of new Christians coming to faith at Willow, and adding a mid-week service for our Christ-followers. 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. My boss 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
Pyromaiacs say they watched the video on this topic, but “frankly there’s not a hint of “repentance” in it. It’s just a slick announcement about Willow Creek’s latest program. So am I the only one who finds it both ironic and disturbing that when the framers of ministry philosophy at Willow Creek finally are faced with the desiccated fruits of their program-driven approach to ministry, their instant response is to announce a new program?

Really, I would love to sound more positive and affirming about Hybels’ “wake up call.” But critics of Willow Creek have been pointing out for years that the seeker-sensitive ministry philosophy severely stunts Christian growth.

Even worse, Willow Creek’s methodology seems to multiply the number of almost-converts who dabble in spiritual matters until they are no longer amused, and then fall away without ever coming to authentic faith in Christ. Hybels has blown off all those criticisms for years. He only reluctantly and partially accepts them now because he can’t very well wave aside his own staff’s opinion-poll data.”
A: This is a courageous step for Willow’s leadership to admit that a mistake was made for the past 30 years. So many churches are around for hundreds of years and never admit their mistakes. Though, unfortunately, I believe this took too long to realize, especially for a church that has had such an immense influence and because I’ve met so many people over the years that have been disillusioned and hurt spiritually due to the lack of discipleship at Willow.

B: Seems like too many people are seeing the REVEAL project and it’s impact on Willow. To me the challenge is to look at my church. What are we doing and how effective are we being? Are we wisely investing God’s money so that it has the greatest Kingdom impact? Are we being good stewards of all of the people that God puts in our paths?
Instead of us trying to use REVEAL to prove or disprove our view on the value of Willow, why not use it to raise important questions in our lives and our churches.

C: Just wanted to say of Greg and Bill that the heart, tone and approach they take as leaders being open and honest about their journey as leaders is such a gift to all of us. Thank you for being humble, secure and honest people setting an example for leaders everywhere.

D: Please. This is faux repentance. Nothing has really changed. They still have a commercial focus to ministry. In fact, their approach to handling a newly perceived need in the flock is to create yet another program to address it. That is the only way they know to minister. Their rollout of this new program is way too polished, just as an advertising campaign for a new product. These “smooth words” are engineered to make people fawn, flock, and buy. If you look to Rev. 18 you will find their commercial ways a key attribute of Mystery Babylon before it is destroyed.
The church as we know it, especially in America, is apostate in the extreme. This is why God is calling to His people to come out of her. That is why mature Christians are leaving, because they hear the voice of God calling them.

E: It’s easy to say that the American church “is apostate in the extreme” but when you say that mature Christians are leaving it where, pray tell, are they going to? Abandoning the church isn’t a mark of maturity. Frustration, disappointment, anger, confusion…yes. But not maturity.

F: ….. On Sunday morning, we should be gathering as fellow followers of Christ to celebrate and co-carry the weight of life with Him! If we havent read our bible all week, or prayed, or spoken of hope in Christ to a depressed neighbour, or fed the poor, we have nothing to celebrate.
Songs of encouragement only help those who are looking with hope for encouragement. They will not help those who come with no intention of letting worship change them.
Wake up…church…your feet have fallen asleep! Perhaps from sitting too long?

G: I am a pastor in Arlington heights IL…in the back yard of Willow Creek. I am personal friends with many people on staff and know that most have hearts looking for Gods path for the future of The Church. Good folks. I find it unfortunate that many on here are taking the opportunity to jump on Willow for its honest attempt to continue following God into the next 50 years. Personally, I am excited about what God is doing at Willow Creek…how can I not be excited about what my God is doing? How can I not be excited about fellow Christians doing their best to be The Church.

H: what i find most revealing is: “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.” notice what he DOESN’T mention: getting the message from educated bibliolaters who have put God in a box through their obsession with doctrines and systematic theologies. i cannot stress enough: it’s why this stuff worked for thousands of years when it was passed down as stories from family to family, from generation to generation. the emphasis was not on the details, or on the facts, but on letting the story reveal the truth to both the storyteller and the listener. just like in jesus’ use of parables.

I: Spiritual disciplines, not mega church result in spiritual growth. On one hand I’m not shocked, on the other, that Willow has made this confession is shocking and shows some real leadership and integrity.

J: Many of us are likely saying, “Well duh,” but we didn’t have the research to back up the conviction. All I personally had was anecdotal evidence.
At around the same time my small church grew into a large church, I had taken a spiritual downturn; I was hiding in the crowd and not growing in Christ. I was still participating in church activities, but no one ever asked me about how I was doing with Jesus, and consequently I wasn’t doing anything with Him.
Sad to say, I probably could have hidden just as well in a small church — so many churches are more interested in programs than discipleship. They think that’s the best route to becoming a large church. But Jesus called us to disciple, not to create new activities.

K: Well, duh … The key to discipleship, growth, and fellowship is small groups. But we just seem to be all about those programs and extravaganzas, don’t we? Glad to see that North American Christianity is slowly becoming less about the “Jesus Show” and more about becoming truly Christ-like.

L: This past week has seen a blogging frenzy* erupt over Reveal, a spiritual growth conversation headed by Bill Hybels and Greg Hawkins of Willow Creek Community Church. These two leaders have each posted videos on the Reveal website admitting that their previous model of doing local church ministry has flaws. Through the Reveal conversation they are seeking to create a new, more effective ministry model. While some have taken a critical attitude, many have pointed out Hybel’s humility.
Hawkins video is candid and earnest. When he speaks of the distraction a church leader feels on Sunday morning I felt as though he was pulling thoughts from my own mind. Skip the short version and watch the 13 minute one. It’s worth it.

M: The study is pretty insanely revealing, not only in its bringing into question Willow’s effectiveness in ACTUALLY fostering spiritual development and transformation, but the rest of us as well. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Reveal folks are actually continuing their research by examining 500 churches across the country to explore their effectiveness in doing what they say they aim to do. We’re pretty stoked at our church because we were selected as one of the churches they’ll be looking at. In all, I think the study is a sign of maturity and a steadfast commitment to being the Body of Christ. Though they are sometimes criticized, you’ve gotta give it to the Willow people on this one.