I’m still digesting what I’ve read and watched about Willow Creek’s latest project: Reveal. To really understand what this is about, you really have to go watch this video presented by Greg Hawkins, the executive pastor at the church.
The basic premise Hawkins lays out is as follows: Megachurches like Willow have defined themselves with the following method:
- Churches exist to make disciples of Christ. Hawkins describes a disciple of Christ as someone who has “increasing love for Christ, and increasing love for others.” (Jesus used a similar formula when asked to sum up the Law…)
- Churches make these disciples by creating stuff for people to get involved in: Service projects, small groups, worship services, bible studies, etc. After the initial step of belief, involvement in these programs turns people from new believers into disciples.
- Taking these first two points, you can then make the case that a church’s success is going to be determined by the congregation’s head-count. The more people are involved in more programs, the more disciples are produced.
But Willow’s recent research indicates that things don’t actually work out this way. Instead, those who consider themselves most devoted to Christ are those also getting the least out of the programs and activities provided by the church. In fact, in Willow’s own surveys, they found that people self-described as “fully devoted followers of Christ” were the most likely to be thinking about leaving the church. Individuals who had gotten past the initial rush of exploring and diving into faith were progressively less and less interested in all the “stuff” that had brought them into Willow Creek in the first place.
In this video, Willow founder Bill Hybels talks about the new direction the church is going as a result of these findings. He offers the opportunity for other churches to run the same survey, gather the same data, and join along on Willow’s course. Maybe I’m missing something, but the new direction Hybels lays out doesn’t look that different from the old.
Hybels talks about how his team is going to begin providing “customized personal spiritual growth plans,” explaining “You go to a health club, and you get a personal trainer who tells you how can do physical conditioning in the way you need it. Well, we need to provide customized personal spiritual growth plans to people at Willow to get them to become self-feeders.” Hybels goes on to say, “We’re gonna up the level of responsibility we put on the people themselves so that they can grown, even if the church doesn’t meet all their needs.”
To be blunt, this whole thing is pretty gut wrenching. All the standard megachurch criticisms can be made–that the whole thing is boardroom-slick and marketing-savvy–but what particularly gets me is how it leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to just do His work. Would C.S. Lewis’ growth plan have read “marry a divorced woman with a terminal illness”? Bonhoeffer’s, something like “join a secret organization dedicated to rescuing Jews and speak out against Nazi power.” Lazurus’ would be short and sweet: “Die. Trust us.”
Even while watching the videos, I was holding out hope. I kept expecting a record-scratch sound effect to interrupt. An old woman to start pounding out “The Church’s One Foundation” on a creaky upright. Someone to open up a Bible. Anything that might snap the whole thing back to something close to orthodoxy. I guess I was just expecting to see the cross.