Willow Creek Repents?
Why the most influential church in America now says "We made a mistake."

Few would disagree that Willow Creek Community Church has been one of the most influential churches in America over the last thirty years. Willow, through its association, has promoted a vision of church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive. This vision has been heavily influenced by the methods of secular business. James Twitchell, in his new book Shopping for God, reports that outside Bill Hybels' office hangs a poster that says: "What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?" Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry - church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage - has impacted every evangelical church in the country.

So what happens when leaders of Willow Creek stand up and say, "We made a mistake"?

Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings "earth shaking," "ground breaking," and "mind blowing."

If you'd like to get a synopsis of the research you can watch a video with Greg Hawkins here. And Bill Hybels' reactions, recorded at last summer's Leadership Summit, can be seen here. Both videos are worth watching in their entirety, but below are few highlights.

In the Hawkins' video he says, "Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ." This has been Willow's philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, "I know it might sound crazy but that's how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation."

Having put so many of their eggs into the program-driven church basket, you can understand their shock when the research revealed that "Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone's becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more."

Speaking at the Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings this way:

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.
October 18, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 121 comments

Maurice Russell

March 24, 2014  11:28am

churches to not seem to like the original form of true discipleship, that Paul and Timothy were involved in, ONE ON ONE..as they cannot move as fast and include as many people. From personal experience, it takes a couple of years to truley disciplwship someone. Sometimes you have to get off the lesson plan and deal with real issues. Most church designed programs do not allow for that. There is a goal to do it in a certain amount of time and with a certain number of people. This sounds like what WC is just now finding out.

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Greg Hawkins

October 26, 2007  4:21pm

The Truth About REVEAL Friends, I'm thrilled to see the high level of interest and energy behind the blogosphere comments about REVEAL. But I've read enough postings to think that it might be helpful to provide a few facts on three issues that keep coming up. Trust me. I'm not into "spin control" here. I just want to fill in some gaps. 1. It's Not About Willow • REVEAL's findings are based on thirty churches besides Willow. In all thirty churches, we've found the six segments of REVEAL's spiritual continuum, including the Stalled and Dissatisfied segments. And these churches aren't all Willow clones. We've surveyed traditional Bible churches, mainline denominations, African-American churches and churches representing a wide range of geographies and sizes. Right now we're fielding the survey to 500 additional churches, including 100 international churches. So, while REVEAL was born out of a Willow research project in 2004, the findings are not exclusive to Willow Creek. 2. Willow Repents? • The first blog started with this question, and the answer is "yes". But repenting is not a new experience for us. We've made a number of major course corrections over the years – like adding a big small group ministry for the thousands of new Christians coming to faith at Willow, and adding a mid-week service for our Christ-followers. We've always been a church in motion and REVEAL is just another example of Willow trying to be open to God's design for this local church. 3. Is Willow Re-thinking its Seeker Focus? • Simple answer – no. My boss would say that Willow is not just seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed. The power of REVEAL's insights for our seeker strategy is the evangelistic strength uncovered in the more mature segments. If we can serve them better, the evangelistic potential is enormous, based on our findings. I hope this was helpful. In any event, I'm enjoying following the dialogue. Keep it up! And let me know if you have any questions you'd like me to address. Greg Hawkins

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October 26, 2007  3:08pm

It's sad to me to see the number of people that want to criticize and say I told you so, I'll bet most have never attended WC but just read other accounts in the media and add their uninformed two cents to it. If your hearts are so good, Christ-like and smarter than everyone else's, I think you should be praying for WC not condemning them.

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Jack Brooks

October 26, 2007  9:46am

This is not really about WC, in truth. WC has been the focus of a lot of attention because of the evangelism and ecclesiological precepts they've used (and taught others). Bill Hybels' faithfulness, good intentions, or practical results are not relevant, when you're debating a set of philosophy principles. If the principles are true, then they are true even if Bill fails to live up to them; and if they're unbiblical, then they're unbiblical regardless of his personal zeal. I am an EFCA pastor working to bring the outreach aspect of the church I serve up to snuff. I have cherry-picked bits and pieces out of Saddleback and WC materials, but I will not invest into the total program. I don't believe that Willow Creek is sufficiently anchored enough in Biblical theology. It comes out of the same wishy-washy, leftist evangelicalism as Wheaton College. I think their view of original sin is weak. I don't believe they see sinners as being spiritually dead. I think they have always underestimated how much the Bible tells us about methods – IOW, the Lord does not just give us goals, and then tell us to go to it. For example, the New Testament clearly teaches that the Lord's Day meeting is for the worship of the Godhead, the celebration of the Table, and the edification of believers, not for the evangelization of the lost. Willow Creek capitulates too much to progressive secularity (for example, it doesn't teach or support male headship, and violates Scripture by having female elders). It doesn't accept that the Gospel (by its own nature and the nature of the dead human heart) offends people; or that offense is an unavoidable part of doing evangelism. I can't see Willow Creek ever causing the kind of hostile uproar that Jesus used to cause. So the admission, "We've realized that a high level of program participation doesn't make people grow" is only the tip of the iceberg. They could fix that, and there will still be a lot wrong.

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Mark Cork

October 26, 2007  9:05am

I had heard they did this study but had not heard much about the outcome. I'm not that surprised with the findings but am pleased. I've been talking for the last 3 years how the church has become too complicated and focusing more on programs than ministry and more on evaluating itself against a self defined level of excellence than against the Christ-likeness of attenders. It's tough to not be consumeristic in such a consumeristic society as America. I'm not yet sure what the answers are other than getting back to what God intended the church to be. I'm quite sure He never intended it to be so complicated as we have made it. Come to think of it, we've sort of done the same thing with Christianity too.

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October 26, 2007  9:00am

Many churches that have followed the seeker-friendly, church growth model have compromised worship by assuming that evangelism should be done simultaneously. So, instead of worshipping, they entertain. Instead of challenging, they encourage. Instead of songs that lift Him up, they sing songs that make people feel good. Instead of preaching the full and glorious and sometimes scary truth of His Word, they say what people want to hear. And people go out feeling good, and entertained…and unchanged. Worship is to be our humble response to the revelations of our Sovereign God. It is He who calls people to Himself according to His will. A friend of mine said it very well: "As we lift up Christ in worship that is acceptable to Him, men are drawn to Him. Our vibrancy, elements of worship, music style, etc. are to be our Spirit-led attempts to enable a Biblical response to God for who He is and what He does. God becomes the audience of our worship and the church is put on display before the lost as the redeemed praising their Savior. That is either attractive or repulsive to those observing - certainly not neutral. It is then God who calls them to Himself." The church's focus in her assembly is very clear in Acts 2: "They devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." The results followed: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." And growth came as a result: "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." It's good to see that Willow has seen the light.

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October 26, 2007  5:29am

Hawkins is correct in his assumptions. I live near Willow Creek and attended since youth and unfortunately it has turned into the rich mansion loving Barrignton homebodies it was trying to avoid in the first place. They don't give indiscriminately anymore to try to draw people who are NEEDY unbelievers but just emulate other "successful" Christians to moderation. They are just another movie theater now. They aren't that bad as their teaching is world class, but teaching is NOT ENOUGH as it doesn't relate to the attender! It's just too big and rich now and Bill Hybels needs to focus on the little things and not manage everything. He should really know the names of people who have put allot into Willow. Instead they just die and noone seems to care.

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October 26, 2007  1:27am

Helen stated: It has been said that there is no cross in the WC buildings, and not much emphasis on sin and repentance. I searched their website and could not find the most important message....how to be saved. I have a website with over 800 pages and although it is aimed for a secular group...at the top of each and every page you will find a link to "how to have eternal life" Our purpose is to help heal the scars of abuse in both men and women...but the only way this can really be done is by the nailed scarred hands and our job is to point to those hands. When I hear "seeker friendly" I do ask..what are they seeking? Membership in a church to feel better...or JESUS...to BE better? Jesus said "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to ME!" That was the message Paul preached..and it is the message that I want to give to those who God brings into my path.

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Kevin Ledgister

October 25, 2007  11:37pm

Wow, I can't believe the vitriol expressed in these comments by those who claim to be Christians. The fact of the matter is that whether a church is expository or narrative in preaching, reformationist or Arminian (or somewhere in between), traditional or contemporary, laden with Christian trappings or warehouse-like, or whatever pet doctrine or ideology you hold, it shares the blame that together, the church in America has failed to produce the claims of the gospel to produce transformed lives. There are just as many doctrine laden churches with stagnant believers as there are immature believers in seeker driven models. Jesus was so right when he taught us to self-reflect first before judging others. Perhaps this Biblical process will make us much more effective because we become focused on making things right rather than trying to be right. What Bill is expressing is what many pastors and church leaders are now waking up to in EVERY church model - how do we become effective in making disciples because that is what Jesus commanded us to do? The question has been raised and all of us need to provide an answer. What is your church's process for discipleship?

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Jim Hall

October 25, 2007  8:09pm

Why do we have to try until all else fails, before we go back to the instructions (Matthew 28:18-20)! Hopefully, the American church can get it right before Jesus returns! Admire WC's honesty and right motivation to recognize the truth and set out to right their wrong directions.

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