Am I Growing Yet?
I pay attention when perhaps the most prominent church in America says it is completely revamping how it does church.
Willow Creek, which made "seeker-sensitive" services famous, now attracts some 20,000 a week. Over the decades, tens of thousands of pastors have looked to Willow Creek for leadership as they strive to minister faithfully to their own churches. Willow Creek's premiere teaching event for pastors is the annual Leadership Summit, held each August. At the last Summit, Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow, talked about a survey of Christians that his co-worker Greg Hawkins conducted, involving over 30 churches in the Willow Creek network.
The results were "Groundbreaking . The data is earthshaking," said Hawkins in a video summarizing the results. Hybels said it "just rocked my world." It is transforming how they do things at Willow.
The survey asked people about their spiritual lives, and about whether the church was helping them grow spiritually. Answers revealed that "pre-Christians" (those seeking a relationship with Christ) and "new Christians" praised their churches for offering programs that help them grow. Surprisingly, "growing Christians" found less help. Most surprising to Hybels and Hawkins was the response of "fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ": They were disappointed with the church. They "are not being fed." They want "more of the meat of the Word of God." They want "more serious-minded Scripture taught to them." The church is not helping them grow spiritually, and, says Hawkins, "increasingly, these folks are thinking about leaving the church."
The response of the Willow leadership team? Hybels said that people had become too dependent on the church for their spiritual growth, and that after they had crossed the line and become Christians, "they need to take the responsibility to become self-feeders."
At this point, the audience uncharacteristically interrupted and applauded.
Hybels continued: The church needs to teach them "to read Scripture between services," to practice the spiritual disciplines on their own. They are expecting the church to feed them, but the more mature they become, the more they should take responsibility for their own spiritual growth. So Willow has started coaching people to become self-feeders, creating a "customized personal spiritual growth plans" for every individual in the church.
I have to admit I was shocked as I watched these two videos, but not for the same reasons Willow leaders were shocked. Of course, the videos are summaries, so a lot of nuance was surely left on the cutting floor. But Willow Creek has a deserved reputation for integrity, and I cannot imagine that this was anything but an accurate summary of the survey and the church's reaction.
I can begin by saying that I resonate with the results of the study. That many older, mature Christians are "not fed" by their churches is in accord with my experiences in the church. And there is no question that mature Christians need to become spiritual self-starters in some respects. But the Willow Creek survey and response bring up a number of questions. While I have deep admiration for the work Willow does with "pre-Christians" and "new Christians," I'm wondering about their response to those "fully devoted followers."
The survey, for one, assumes that people know what helps them most and what they need the most from a church. While a church must never ignore the felt experiences of its members, should it use those experiences as the measuring stick of the church's effectiveness? Did not Jesus repeatedly talk about the Kingdom of God as something that grows mysteriously, confounding the wise? How many of us have endured heavy trials when God was seemingly absent, only later to realize that this was the period we grew the most? Do we really know what we need and do we really know what helps us, or what would help us in the future? In addition to our own experiences, don't we need the wise leadership of pastors, teachers, and especially spiritual directors to help us figure out what we really need from the church?
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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