Last month we considered the pragmatism that underlies the church-growth and Willow Creek movements; that is, the idea that ‘if it works it is right’. We saw that the consumerism employed by these movements may ‘work’ in the sense that they draw crowds to church. But it became clear that is does not work in any truly spiritual sense.
We now turn to the worship and worldliness of the Willow Creek movement.
What is worship?
Willow Creek churches hold Sunday ‘worship services’ for seekers. This is a dangerous confusion. The unsaved cannot truly worship God.
According to Scripture, the coming together of the local church has a threefold purpose: the worship of God, the edification of believers and their equipping for service. Nowhere are we called upon to change the function of a worship service into a ‘Seeker Service’ modelled on Willow Creek.
In 1 Corinthians 14:23 we are warned what can happen if a church does so. But we are not encouraged in Scripture to reorient our programme and our preaching to cater exclusively for seekers. We have innumerable opportunities outside the worship services of the church to be involved in evangelism. Why then should we use the worship service to entertain the lost?
The proponents of the Willow Creek model argue that the ‘seeker service’ is simply an evangelistic meeting by a different name. The real worship service takes place in the middle of the week. And, indeed, on Wednesday and Thursday evenings between three and four thousand Christians do gather together in Chicago.
But this does not alter the fact that their Sunday gatherings undermine the biblical concept of worship. A service of worship is a gathering in which believers worship their God and are edified and equipped.
The Willow Creek pattern, on the other hand, is to use Sundays exclusively for evangelism. I fear that most churches in Germany are following this pattern, with very little effort during the week going into edification, equipping and the teaching of doctrine.
Once again, there will be a weakening of biblical church life. A church needs healthy doctrine if it is to be strengthened in the faith and firmly rooted in the Lord (Acts 2:42; 11:26).
The problem of integration
There is something else that ought to be considered. Experts point out that many people simply remain in the seeker service. Dr Gregory Pritchard studied the Willow Creek church and arrived at the conclusion that most of the 15,000 or so weekend visitors were no longer ‘seekers’ but had already made ‘a decision for Christ’.
Evidently, despite all their polished strategies, staff members are unable to draw people away from their ‘visitor’ mentality. Ed Dobson, pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has adopted many elements of the Willow Creek model. He concedes in his book The open Church, that his evangelistic programme has developed into ‘a church within a church’.
A further question must be raised. Is it legitimate to draw people out of the world by using worldly means? Why does it have to be soft-pop or rock music? Why must theatre be used to prepare people for the sermon? Why does the sermon have to be ‘worldly enough’ to interest them?
Do these methods take the gospel into the world, or bring the world into the church? Regrettably, the answer seems to be the latter. We need to return to the biblical ideal of the church as God’s holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).
The word of the cross sets boundaries between the church and the world. These may not be erased. Sadly, many Christians have been lured into equating spiritual progress with large Sunday attendance, however achieved.
Evangelism can be carried out, for example, through personal friendships, evangelistic house groups, lectures, etc. If people were brought into the church after they have become believers, or when they have a serious desire to hear God’s Word without gimmicks, many problems would be automatically solved.
The worship service could continue to serve its biblical purpose, and popular music, theatre, pantomime, and other questionable elements, could be left outside the door.
Dearth of biblical teaching
A further consequence of pragmatism is a lack of biblical teaching. At the weekends the seekers are the focus of attention. The Christians at Willow Creek meet on Wednesday and Thursday evenings for ‘New Community Worship Services’. This would be the obvious context for the instruction of believers, but Dr Pritchard bemoans the lack of biblical teaching.
Among 180 full-time staff members, only a handful have any biblical training. There is a large programme of seminars, but Bible teaching is rarely provided for the believer. According to Pritchard, a mere half dozen books of the Bible have been covered over the past seven years.
Eighty per cent of the Bible study sessions revolve around particular themes, suggesting a lack of systematic biblical instruction. In its place, secular psychology plays the dominant role. For example, Willow Creek has produced training material entitled Serving in harmony with tendencies, strengths and talents. This reflects management psychology, not the biblical standard in which God uses ‘earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us’ (2 Corinthians 4:7; see also 1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Just a few months before founding the church in August 1975, Bill Hybels read a book by Robert Schuller entitled Your church has real possibilities. Subsequently he attended Schuller’s seminar on ‘Successful Church Leadership’ in California.
Schuller is considered to be the ‘most successful’ TV preacher of all time. He has succeeded, as no other before or since, in spreading among Evangelicals the humanistic philosophy of ‘positive thinking’.
No lines are drawn at Willow Creek to guard against Charismatic influences. Consequently, there is also an openness to Roman Catholicism. For example, Hybels had a Catholic priest speak to his church on ‘What Protestants can learn from Catholics’.
Hybels asked the priest whether he was born again. He answered: ‘We were born and have grown up, but I think we must repeatedly be born and born again. Not only once, but again and again’. Although staff members asked him repeatedly to correct these unbiblical statements, senior pastor Hybels let them go unchallenged.
Bill Hybels spoke in 1993 at a congress in Nuremberg organised mainly by charismatic groups. He spoke in 1995 at the German Protestant national conference. Hybels clearly sees himself as a key player in reconciling charismatic and non-charismatic Evangelicals. For that reason no lines are drawn in any direction.
A few years ago the Willow Creek Association was founded. This worldwide association now includes more than 2200 churches representing over 70 different denominations! Membership in the USA ranges from Pentecostal churches (Assemblies of God), to Seventh Day Adventists, to the semi-liberal Reformed Church.
It is obvious that doctrinal differences must be pushed into the background. The only uniting element is that a church builds itself according to the model of Willow Creek. Pragmatic pluralism rules.
The Willow Creek church officially supports the Promise Keepers movement. After just a few years, this men’s movement has already attracted two million members in the USA. One of the seven promises each member makes is to work to overcome all denominational divisions.
Truths for which our forefathers sometimes sacrificed their lives are being neutralised in the name of ecumenical unity.
As a phenomenon, the Willow Creek Church is impressive, gleaming and attractive. But closer inspection reveals a less rosy picture. Much is simply too shallow (to put it mildly), and there is no depth of scriptural soil. Willow Creek exports both a rich outward show and an unperceived spiritual poverty.
Advocates of the Willow Creek concept must ask themselves whether they have taken the trouble to search out the sources of Hybels’ theories and principles. Have they analysed the contents of his preaching? How many of Willow Creek’s thousands have truly become believers and disciples of Christ?
Have they realised how much pragmatism, philosophy, psychology and modern management thinking went into the foundation of his church? And is Willow Creek, therefore, built on the rock or on the sand?
I cannot shake off the feeling that, for many Christians, a fascination with large numbers has smothered critical thinking. The idea that ‘if it’s big, it’s good’ is not biblical. I fear that the popularity of some churches has been won at the cost of many ungodly compromises.
In Willow Creek the line between the church and the world is drawn poorly, if at all. Is it really possible to be, at one and the same time, both Christian and worldly? Surely not, for ‘if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’ (1 John 2:15).
In so far as Christianity is made ‘acceptable’ to the world, the message of the cross is neutralised. The salt becomes tasteless.
My greatest concern is that Evangelicals are seeking a revival through new methods, techniques, programmes and personalities. Should we not rather turn to the Lord and his Word, humbling ourselves before him and committing ourselves to him in new obedience?