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Willow Creek’s Malnourished Christians

Seeker-Sensitive Failure?

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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 situation.

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. 2
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 applied:
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 and Gospel 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.
Acts 2:42

Fellowship and prayer.  The apostles’ teaching – studying and applying God’s Word. 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 builds His 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®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.


1.   “Watch Bill Hybels,” REVEAL, 15 Nov 2007, <>.

2.    “Watch Greg Hawkins,” REVEAL, 15 Nov 2007, <>.