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The Most Influential Church in America Repents

Thanks to Jacob for the heads up on this. We talk “church” often and have both become disillusioned with the American church’s dysfunctional programmatic models. Nowadays, most U.S. churches are mega church 2.jpgdesigned like businesses, with the pastor being the CEO, the church’s ministry being a “product,” and its members being “consumers.” “Church” has come to be seen as a building we go to, its “ministry” consists of a collection of programs, and its “business” is to cater to the needs of its audience. For better or worse, it’s a model many American churches have adopted.

And no church has done more to further this model than Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.

Willow Creek is typically referenced as the most influential church in America, with Time Magazine once listing Pastor Bill Hybels as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. Willow Creek, in large part, ushered the “seeker-sensitive” movement into American churches. This model emphasizes a “culturally relevant” approach to ministry, one that crafts its message to the needs of its audience. Several pastor friends of mine have built their church upon the Willow Creek model, and have attended many of Bill Hybels’ seminars. While some have critiqued and distanced themselves from the seeker-sensitive model, its influence has permeated our concept of “church.”

Which makes Willow Creek’s recent admissions that their approach is flawed all the more fascinating. From the Townhall article:

Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study’s findings are in a new book titled Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking” and “œmind blowing.” And no wonder: it seems that the “experts” were wrong.

The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels laments:

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.

If you simply want a crowd, the”seeker sensitive” model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust. . .

The problem, as Hybels admits in THIS VIDEO recorded at last year’s Leadership Summit, is that the jesus preaching.jpgseeker-sensitive model, while it attracts and holds visitors, DOES NOT PRODUCE SELF-FEEDING FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST. By crafting the Gospel to the needs of the hearers, considerable concessions have to be made. Unlike Jesus Who often made hard demands on His listeners, the seeker-sensitive model tones down the message and its demands in order to reach more people. The result is a generation of “believers” who have embraced “Gospel Lite” and who come to church expecting to be entertained and “fed,” rather than significantly challenged and held accountable.

It’s really the problem with so many program-oriented churches, wherein the members tend to develop an over-reliance upon the church for their personal growth. Instead of taking responsibility for “rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15), these spiritually malformed infants remain on the teat, constantly relying on others to feed and serve them. As a result, we’ve produced a generation of Christians who go to church expecting to be coddled and entertained and ministered to. And when those demands aren’t met, they simply pull up stakes and find another church.

Cultural relevance and sensitivity to spiritual seekers is important. But Willow Creek’s admission is a grim reminder that a watered-down Gospel cannot produce biblical disciples.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Jeanne Damoff February 25, 2008, 7:33 PM

    Thanks for this, Mike. I sent the link to George. We have long felt the “seeker friendly” approach lacks substance and misses the point of a worship service. It’s refreshing to know these pioneers of the movement are facing the truth and taking responsibility publicly for their errors.

  • Nicole February 25, 2008, 7:47 PM

    The good thing is the acknowledgement of what didn’t work with this movement. You captured the fatal flaw when you noted that Jesus made demands on His listeners. Jesus Himself said to “Count the cost”. Many people don’t want to do that.

    I saw Bill Hybels in person at one of the seminars. My husband and I got to go (paid for)in our area because he was a board member, and our pastor was leaning toward the philosophy. Anyone who desired to listen to the Holy Spirit could hear the potential for error. Since when do the lost determine how to be saved and discipled should they “cross over”? Love and tolerance are worlds apart but not in this concept. We left our church, and that pastor is out of the ministry and now attends the church we attend. !!

  • Kaci February 25, 2008, 9:42 PM

    Good entry. I think Relevant Magazine did an article on this subject awhile back; I’ll have to find the link for it. When I find it, I’ll post it here for you. It was either Relevant or a forum I used to be on. I’ll look.

    Anyway, nothing really to add other than “well said.” I found it rather impressive Willow Creek actually fessed up when it would gone completely unnoticed had they not.

    Ironically, though, they’ve only confirmed what many of us have said for a long time.

  • Ame February 25, 2008, 10:20 PM

    Yes. I had heard about this. It will be interesting to see how the “movement” changes and adapts to the new “data.”

    It is exactly what I experienced in the mega church I attended who modeled themselves after Willow Creek and proudly held his leadership conferences. The people are hollow and shallow, void of depth and width, consumed with the latest “Christian fad” and fattening up their “Christian resumes” all the while leaving trails of people in their wake … hurting, unfed, needy. When confronted with those stomped upon to reach their goals, they say, “But if we reach ONE person, it’s worth it.” Save one, loose one-hundred.

    The sad part of the one-hundred lost is that they are brainwashed to believe their needs are being met and that THEY are the ones who are missing the point if they raise concerns.

    btw – still church-less. Not against church, just against putting my girls and myself through a ritual that leaves us hurting and longing … we have enough pain to work through without adding church to the list. I don’t want them to grow up hating church. The churches without so much “fluff” are very legalistic. Perhaps the churches in this area are the fall-out of the Hybel’s movement.

  • Mike Duran February 25, 2008, 11:25 PM

    Hey, thanks for the comments! Nicole, I wouldn’t be too harsh on Hybels in that (1) he genuinely appears to want to reach the lost, and (2) he’s admitted his error. While the seeker-sensitive model may have its flaws, being “sensitive” to “seekers” is still an important part of our Christian calling.

    Kaci, my concerns with Willow Creek “fessing up,” is in how they will re-address their oversight. Typically, program-oriented churches tend to think in terms of. . . programs. My guess is that they plan on scrapping their model for “new and improved” programs designed to train believers to become “self-feeding.” The danger in this is in perpetuating a reliance on programs to teach one how to be a disciple. In the end, it should be “principles” not “programs” that empower believers.

    And Ame, dear Ame. . . withdrawing from Church because of perceived imbalances is a dangerous proposition, especially when kids are watching. I have never attended (nor pastored) a perfect church. I’d suggest that teaching our children to work through imperfect relationships — included imperfect church relationships — rather than withdrawing from them, is ultimately a more healthy approach. Praying for you and yours.

  • Nicole February 26, 2008, 2:29 AM

    Mike, you don’t need to sell me on evangelism provided the Holy Spirit is leading the way. My husband and I came out of the world and had a pastor who discipled us in a tiny country church. We brought a herd of racetrackers whenever we could, and our pastor even went out of his way to speak at the racetrack and teach racetrackers at our home Bible study. And this was in the early 80s.

    I would agree Hybels has a genuine heart for the lost, but the Holy Spirit is the One who draws the lost, and man-inspired programs fail regularly.

  • Kaci February 26, 2008, 3:52 AM

    No argument there, Mike. How’s that quote go? “God created man in his own image…and man returned the favor.” A bit crude, but you get the point.

  • Mark H. February 26, 2008, 3:10 PM

    Interesting stuff, Mike, and thanks for the links. I know some of my church staff has gone out to visit Willow Creek and attempt to learn from them. I believe my pastor desires to grow our church into a mega-church (“take it to the next level”, as they say frequently).

    I agree that programs might be well and good, but it’s easy to fall into an over-reliance on them. My feeling has always been that people are reached for Christ through love–simply that we all need to reach out and truly care for those around us (and hopefully they’ll see Jesus in spite of our imperfections). That means establishing deep, meaningful relationships with the people God puts in our path. It takes time, and it’s difficult. And I’ve always felt that it’s more difficult to do this within the context of a mega-church. Much easier to get lost in the crowd there.

  • Mir March 1, 2008, 6:39 AM

    Oooh, I missed this last year. THANKS, Mike!

    Instead of a bunch of research, why not just start praying and reading the Bible together and praying some more and memorizing Scripture and praying some more and get down the simple, eternal wisdom of centuries and millenia: prayer, Holy Writ, communion, repentance, self-examination, fasting as necessary, service to the Body, mercy to outsiders, development of individual spiritual gifts. Spiritual disciplines have been what they are for ages for a reason. They’re fundamental to spiritual health. The techie accoutrements are BONUS, the modern goodies are LUXURIES. The solid stuff remains unchanged.

    Mir

  • Ame March 5, 2008, 9:55 PM

    Mike, I’ve wanted to come back to your response when I had time …

    I am not looking for a “perfect” church. I do not believe such exists. I do teach my girls to work through imperfect relationships all the time. They probably have more imperfect relationships in their lives to work through than most kids.

    Perhaps I have misrepresented myself. It is much more difficult to explain to one who has never been a single parent than to one who has. I would never have believed these things when I was married. Perhaps the churches in CA are a little different than here in TX; I don’t know.

    Divorce is a huge loss for kids, and I read that parents should try to minimize that loss by not creating other losses. When we go to church, we find that some of those losses are so prominent that the pain is too much.

    For example, when the children all run to their parentS and their DAD’S and my kids just stand there, watching, longing to be able to run to their dad. When I try to develop relationships with the adults, but they keep me at a looong finger-tip length … and are overly cautious about letting their children play with mine … when they watch me sit in church with my children who are having an obviously difficult time making it through the service, and they move further away, irritated by the disruptions (which cause actually being there to be nothing more than a struggle rather than a worship and/or learning experience) rather than even thinking to offer to help … when I learn they go out to eat every Sunday after church, but we have never been invited … when they ask where we’ve been, and I tell them I had pneumonia and my girls have been sick, and they move onto another conversation b/c they really didn’t want to know, they were just being polite.

    It’s like taking someone who is in the hospital because of major injuries in a car wreck, and coming into their room and breaking a few more bones.

    I’m just not going to continue to subject my kids or myself to stuff like this.

    It’s not a perfect church I’m looking for … it’s one that takes all the platitudes and actually does something about them … one that makes the effort to befriend us and include us, rather than keeping us as far away as possible.

    There’s also my Youngest’s special needs, including her dyslexia which has greatly delayed her learning to read … and when they have all the little children read in class, and she can’t, it’s embarassing for her. Oldest has had that difficulty, too, as she’s also dyslexic. And my Youngest’s other special needs … and everyone wanting to give advice rather than befriend first to know if their advice is even valid.

    I read somewhere a quote from a man, “Christians need a place to go to heal, and please don’t tell me to go to church. That’s where I was hurt.”

    Then there’s the leadership who are fearful to embrace those going thru and who are divorced b/c they fear that doing so condones divorce (that’s not from me; that’s from places who know more about this than I).

    And, basically, the church and society are structured around the traditional family unit … a unit I WHOLLY support and believe in … yet one I do not have the choice to live in … and neither do my girls.

    The imbalances are not “perceived,” they are very, very real … and they are very, very painful. Again, I’m not looking for the perfectly balanced church, either … just a place where the balance leans more toward including us than pushing us away, conciously or subconsciously.

    I’m actually thinking about home-churching my girls … which is also controversial … but I know those who do this successfully.

    I also cannot tell you how much I appreciate your prayers for us. Thank you. That means a lot to me.

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