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After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church now plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in their faith.
The change comes on the heels of an ongoing four-year research effort first made public late last summer in Reveal: Where Are You?, a book coauthored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins. Hawkins said during an annual student ministries conference in April that Willow Creek would also replace its midweek services with classes on theology and the Bible.
Whether more changes are in store for the suburban Chicago megachurch isn't clear. Hawkins declined CT's interview request, and senior pastor Bill Hybels was unavailable for comment.
Since 1975, Willow Creek has avoided conventional church approaches, using its Sunday services to reach the unchurched through polished music, multimedia, and sermons referencing popular culture and other familiar themes. The church's leadership believed the approach would attract people searching for answers, bring them into a relationship with Christ, and then capitalize on their contagious fervor to evangelize others.
But the analysis in Reveal, which surveyed congregants at Willow Creek and six other churches, suggested that evangelistic impact was greater from those who self-reported as "close to Christ" or "Christ-centered" than from new church attendees. In addition, a quarter of the "close to Christ" and "Christcentered" crowd described themselves as spiritually "stalled" or "dissatisfied" with the role of the church in their spiritual growth. Even more alarming to Willow Creek: About a quarter of the "stalled" segment and 63 percent of the "dissatisfied" segment contemplated leaving the church.
As Willow Creek expanded its research into churches of varying geographic locations, sizes, and ethnic and denominational backgrounds, the church said the same general pattern emerged, an indication that the problem extends beyond Willow Creek.