Willow Creek’s big adventure [part 2]

Gary Gilley Dr Gary E. Gilley has been the pastor of Southern View Chapel since 1975. Along with his preaching and teaching ministry, he is the author and editor of the monthly contemporary theological issues p
01 May, 2008 6 min read

Willow Creek’s big adventure [part 2]

Last month I described how Greg Hawkins, an executive pastor at Chicago’s Willow Creek megachurch, has looked in detail at the achievements of the church and its associates over 30 years and has published the findings in a book,Reveal: where are you?

The book’s conclusions cast serious doubt on the whole ‘seeker-sensitive’ approach that has been Willow Creek’s raison d’être. In this concluding article I shall examine the implications of these findings.

New research

So, what are we to do now? Hawkins offers two thoughts:

‘First, we need to ask different questions. We need to go beyond asking how many [people are coming to our services and events]. We need to ask, are the things we are doing helping people grow in their intimacy with Christ. We need to ask not just leaders, but participants, what they need, what’s working and what is not working’.

Secondly, Hawkins says, ‘We cannot do this alone’.

By implication, therefore, Willow invites us to tell them what is working and not working in our churches. To expedite this sharing of pragmatic ideas, Willow is undertaking a new round of research. They are inviting 500 additional churches (which must belong to the Willow Creek Association) to participate in a survey that will provide more data.

Where will all this lead? It is important to carefully ponder Hawkins’ idea at this point. He states:

‘Here is our dream – that we fundamentally change the way we do church; that we take out a clean sheet of paper, and rethink all of our old assumptions, replace them with new insights, insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is to discover what God is doing and how he is asking us to join him in transforming this planet’ (emphasis mine).

An analysis

This statement raises three disturbing issues. First, haven’t we heard all this before? Isn’t this exactly what Bill Hybels and the architects of the seeker-sensitive movement told us 30 years ago?

Whether they used those exact words or not, the cadence of the movement was that we must ‘change the way we do church. We must take out a clean sheet of paper, and rethink all of our old assumptions and replace them with new insights’.

For three decades now, much of the evangelical church has been guided by the insights developed by Willow Creek. Now Willow has recognised that these insights were faulty – they did not accomplish their stated purpose and have led countless churches on a wild-goose chase for a generation.

Even the ‘fully devoted followers of Christ’ – those within the Willow movement who are most spiritually mature – don’t know how to read their Bibles or feed themselves.

Starting over

Willow’s new plan is not to adjust their ministries to feed this spiritually hungry group, but to teach them how to feed themselves. And while that is important, I have to ask why these serious-minded believers should bother to attend Willow-type services at all.

Why not find good churches that are taking care of the flock in a biblical manner? After all, Ephesians 4:11-16 is clear that the church leadership is responsible for equipping the saints through the teaching of God’s Word.

Having failed at virtually every level to produce true disciples and develop biblical churches, Willow wants to start all over again and would like to take us with them. We can trust them this time, we are assured, for they have new research tools, new insights, and new programmes.

This is a bit incredible, but Hybels and Hawkins are so winsome in their presentations, so sincere in their promises, that millions will undoubtedly follow them again into this new adventure – and they will follow blindly, with Bibles firmly closed and unexamined.

Transforming the planet

My second concern is that we are being called to join God in ‘transforming this planet’. Since when has it been God’s design to use the church to transform the planet? I know this is the common rhetoric heard throughout evangelicalism recently, but it has no basis in Scripture.

Certainly, we are to ‘join God’ in making disciples and heralding the gospel that is able to ‘rescue [people] from the domain of darkness, and transfer [them] to the kingdom of his beloved Son’ (Colossians 1:13). But we are not called to help God transform the planet. He will do that in his own time and without our help (2 Peter 3:10-13).

But the most disturbing element in this statement is that once again Scripture takes a back seat to pragmatism. Research and methods are the key to ‘new insights’ and the next direction for the church, not the Word of God.

In Hawkins’ and Hybels’ two videos, Scripture is mentioned only once – when Hawkins talks about new insights ‘that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture’. Although the New Testament is God’s instructions for his church, no actual text of Scripture is mentioned.

Instead, Hawkins is lining up 500 Willow Creek Association churches to tell them ‘what is working for you’. The Willow system was originally steeped in pragmatism rather than Scripture and nothing seems to have changed. They are once again going to the well of pragmatism – ‘tell them what works’ and they will develop programmes and methods to suit.

Pragmatism has always been at the heart of the seeker movement and still is. Willow are not repenting of their philosophy of ministry – they are simply updating it. The last set of insights and methodologies did not ‘work’ but this new set surely will. Or will it?

Unbiblical model

Willow Creek ought not to be shocked by their research. Critics of the seeker movement have been pointing out these very flaws in their system since the beginning. Time and again, discerning Christian leaders have shown that the Willow model is unbiblical and incapable of developing truly biblical disciples of Christ.

These critics have been ignored, ridiculed and marginalised as negative, but their critique has proven true. Yet rather than paying careful attention to these evaluations and swinging the movement back to a biblical pattern, Willow has consistently returned for answers to its ‘research’, just as they are doing now.

Towards the emerging church

In the Willow Creek Association’s self-description we read, ‘We are driven by a calling to serve Christ-following leaders as they build biblically functioning churches – authentic, Acts 2 communities of faith that reach increasing numbers of lost people and grow them into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ’.1

With this as the stated goal, we can empathise with Willow’s ‘earth shaking’ discovery that they have made a mistake. It is even ironic that those who have grown into ‘fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ’ are the very ones most disappointed with the Willow system and are thinking of leaving the churches.

We can see why Willow’s leadership wants to take out a clean sheet of paper and start over. One has to wonder, however, is the sheet of paper really that clean? Do the leaders have no agenda in mind? I think they do, and it is evident in their move toward the emergent church.

For example, on 9-11 April 2008 the student ministry at Willow Creek will be offering a conference called Shift. Their advertisement brochure states, ‘As the world of student ministry continues to shift and change, so do the needs of those who serve students. Recognising this, our team has designed an event that is unlike any other Student Ministries Conference we’ve ever hosted’. 2

The brochure promises to offer the students a variety of models of ministry at the conference. The reality is, however, that it is biased toward mysticism and the emergent movement. Speakers include key emergent leaders Brian McLaren, Mark Yaconelli, Scot McKnight and Dan Kimball. 3

Force for destruction

Having discerned that the old way of the seeker movement failed to produce the spiritual product they desired, Willow is fast-forwarding to the newest wave that now promises what they did 30 years ago – ‘authentic, Acts 2 communities of faith’. 4

This, however, is an even more tragic step, for while the seeker movement has gone astray in their attempt to change the way we ‘do’ church, the majority within the movement at least gave lip-service to the fundamentals of the faith.

The emergent church, however, seeks not only to change how we ‘do’ church but to change the church itself by challenging the non-negotiable doctrines of the faith.

Combining the emergent deconstructive philosophy with Willow Creek’s influence and money could prove to be a powerful force for destruction. What may be written on this next ‘clean sheet of paper’ in the future is far more concerning than the sheet that is being thrown away today.

Gary E. Gilley

The author is pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel, Springfield, Illinois.


1. http://www.willowcreek.com/AboutUs/

2. www.willowcreek.com/shift2008/AboutShift.html.

3. Ibid.

4. http://www.willowcreek.com/AboutUs/.

Dr Gary E. Gilley has been the pastor of Southern View Chapel since 1975. Along with his preaching and teaching ministry, he is the author and editor of the monthly contemporary theological issues p
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