Willow Creek’s Malnourished Christians
If you’re a member of a church that emphasizes meeting felt needs, and is
modeled after the seeker-sensitive paradigm (and who isn’t anymore), you’ll be
interested in this. Pastor Bill Hybels, the founding pastor at Willow Creek
Community Church, and one of the icons of the Church Growth Movement, along with
Greg Hawkins (Executive Pastor at Willow Creek) and Cally Parkinson, have
concluded that portions of their seeker-sensitive template don’t work, because
mature Christians aren’t being “produced.”
In their recently released book entitled Reveal: Where Are You?
, co-authors Cally Parkinson (former
Communications Services Director at Willow Creek), Greg
Hawkins, and Eric Arnson “reveal” their findings based on a multi-year study at
Willow Creek, as well as six other Willow Creek Association churches. Their
ongoing research project is also promulgated at the “REVEAL” website
). One thing they’ve discovered is that the programs at Willow
Creek are attractive to “seekers” (non-Christians looking for something
Unfortunately, they've also discovered that over time the parishioners who convert to Christianity become more and
more malnourished – they aren’t being fed.
In a video clip on the REVEAL website, Pastor Bill Hybels recounts his
conversation with Pastor Greg Hawkins in which Greg states:
Bill, we’ve made a mistake. What we should have done at about this point when
people cross the line of faith, become Christians, we should have started
telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to
become “self feeders.” We should have gotten people, taught them how to read
their Bible between services...1
He's on to something here!
While they are often more about fluff than substance, at least credit the Willow
Creek team for their zeal and their honesty in the face of an embarrassing
For those of you who liked the seeker-sensitive model and frown at the
possibility of its demise, don’t worry. They’re busy building an entirely new,
improved model. Pastor Hawkins states:
Our dream is 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. 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 join him in transforming this planet.
Didn’t Willow Creek already fundamentally change the way “we do church?” And now
they’re saying their previous model was a failure and they’re going to replace
it with new insights. What makes this new set of insights any better than the
last set? Their dream “to discover what God is doing” seems presumptuous. They might
consider the counsel of Job: “‘Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know’” (Job 42:3b).
It appears that at Willow Creek, the Scriptures take a back seat – research is
in the driver's seat. The Holy Spirit can ride along if He wants, but it’s the
current leadership’s “vision,” and sophisticated polling techniques, that drive
this broken down tow truck.
The seeker-sensitive model was designed to meet the felt needs of those who are
seeking something “spiritual,” hence research is important. How can you meet
people’s needs if you don’t know what they’re seeking? That trend continues as
they rethink and remodel. The REVEAL website greets the reader with the
descriptive phrase “Welcome to REVEAL, a spiritual growth conversation, where
biblical truths connect with scientific research....”
Here’s a biblical truth we can all connect with, one that can be universally
We are all sinners in need of a Savior.
If they scribble that
phrase on their clean sheet of paper, they’ll be done
cogitating. 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst.” Law
in its simplest form.
If you insist on a “formula” for church growth, why not skip “assumption,”
“vision,” and “insight,” and settle on something that’s already got a rock-solid
endorsement. Why not abandon research and “earth shaking” data in favor of the
plan that the Lord laid out in the book of Acts:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the
breaking of bread and to prayer.
Fellowship and prayer. The apostles’ teaching – studying and applying God’s
And the breaking of bread
, a phrase which means The Lord’s Supper or Communion.
Christians coming together to partake of the blessings that God promises to give
to us. We come together in prayer, which God promises to answer. We hear His
Word preached, reminding us of our sin and offering us forgiveness, being
justified by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of our Savior
Jesus Christ. We receive His body and blood with ordinary bread and wine in the
Lord’s Supper, forgiving us and nourishing us. This
is how God
Church. There is no mention in Acts 2:42 of a Church “informed” by research,
only a Church devoted to the apostles’ teaching.
God grows His Church through Word and Sacrament. So it turns out that the Church
really is about meeting needs. Especially, it is about meeting our most pressing
need, a need that only God can meet, the forgiveness of sins that is found
solely in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Written by Scott Diekmann
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Scripture quotations are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®.
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