Not so friendly
The user-friendly approach to church growth, promoted by the Willow Creek and similar movements, is not so friendly after all, it seems. Evidence for this comes from Willow Creek itself.
In recent years, the Willow Creek church in Chicago has been conducting a ‘spiritual life survey’ which uses ‘new scientific insights that help organisations measure the unseen’. Among other things the survey sought to assess ‘the hearts of people in the congregation’.
The results have just been published in a Willow Creek book called, REVEAL: where are you? In the authors’ own words, they point to some ‘mind blowing’ conclusions.
Senior minister Bill Hybels and his co-authors acknowledge things that many concerned observers have been warning about for years. For example, in 2001 Martin Erdmann wrote in this paper, ‘Sadly, many Christians have been lured into equating spiritual progress with large Sunday attendance, however achieved’.1
Most readers will be aware of the ‘user friendly’ approach to church growth. Many evangelical churches have adopted these ideas enthusiastically while others felt the resulting loss of Bible emphasis and reverent worship was a price too high to pay.
Now the strategy has been analysed in this report from Willow Creek itself and some stark mistakes in the church growth model are acknowledged.
In the early 1970s, a young American pastor, Bill Hybels, embarked on a church growth project in the wealthy Chicago suburb of South Barrington. Instead of ‘doing church’ as it had always been done, Mr Hybels produced a questionnaire to find out what kind of church people wanted. He then set about giving them what they asked for.
The result was Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2005 boasted weekly attendances of over 20,000 and has been voted the most influential church in America in a national poll of pastors. The idea of ‘seeker sensitive’ and ‘user friendly’ churches grew and spread, with over 11,000 churches worldwide now in the Willow Creek Association.
‘Seeker sensitive’ became the standard for any number of pragmatic initiatives in churches throughout the US and Europe. Propriety notwithstanding, whatever got people into church was paramount – and the growing numbers of ‘seekers’ attending services was held to validate the methods employed. Congregation size was the measure of success.
In came things that attracted unchurched people – popular music, coffee breaks, mood-lighting, theatrical performances and comfortable chairs. Out went anything that might deter, like serious Bible study, reverent worship, or scriptural standards of holy living. These things were matters for another day.
The crowd must be right
The aim was to get people in, get them converted, baptised and committed to the Christian faith – and only then worry about the quality or reliability of their profession. All Sunday services were designed to be evangelistic and employed novel techniques to attract and engage outsiders. Midweek evenings were set aside for believers to gather for worship and Bible study.
For years critics who questioned this deliberate melding of Christian worship with worldly entertainment were simply rebuffed. Couldn’t they see the huge numerical growth that accompanied the use of seeker sensitive principles?
Rather than faith and practice being founded on Holy Scripture it was assumed that right lay with the crowd. Numerical growth was equated with spiritual success. However, all was not well in Willow Creek.
Bill Hybels acknowledges in the book that millions of dollars have been spent to ‘help our people grow and develop spiritually, [yet] when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much’. He continues, ‘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’.
Now this looks like a good start towards the recovery of biblical standards. And it gets even better for those who believe that Holy Scripture must be at the heart of all spiritual growth. Hybels continues:
‘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 … taught people how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own’.
We agree. Bible reading, personal study and communion with the Lord is essential for spiritual growth. However, to major on ‘self feeding’ is itself simplistic, and suggests that Willow Creek still does not understand the real purpose of the church and the true role of pastors and teachers.
It is a pastor’s job to feed the Lord’s sheep – to teach and communicate the doctrines of Scripture in such a way that those who hear do indeed ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18).
Willow Creek knows it has a problem. Despite vast expenditure, popular psychology and innovative programs, its people have not grown spiritually. They remain untaught, lacking biblical and doctrinal understanding. The church admits that the situation needs to be remedied. A whole generation has been denied the pastoral leadership they deserved and the Bible teaching they required.
Forget the millions of pounds or dollars spent on dead-end initiatives – the churches and leaders whose time and labours have been misspent on modern fads and fashions. Think only of ordinary church members, the Lord’s flock. ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed’. Think of the wasted years, the shallow understanding, the lost opportunities to grow and prosper spiritually in the things of the Lord.
Sadly, Bill Hybels’ acceptance that mistakes were made does not appear to herald a return to old paths. Greg Hawkins, co-writer of the report, makes this worrying statement: ‘Our dreamis 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 … 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’.
Sounds familiar? This what we were told when this whole seeker-sensitive, user-friendly thing first began! The phrase ‘rooted in Scripture’ may sound evangelical but if it is ‘informed by research’ rather than illuminated by the Holy Spirit it does not auger well. It looks as though Willow Creek just want to ‘take out a clean sheet of paper’ and repeat their old mistakes all over again.
1. These two articles in January and February 2001 are worth re-reading.