REVEAL Revisited
One sociologist says Willow Creek's research may not be as revealing as we think.

The research conducted by Willow Creek and published last year in the book REVEAL: Where are you? has generated a great deal of conversation on this blog. Some have heralded the findings as conclusive evidence that Willow's popular philosophy of ministry is fatally flawed. Others have applauded Willow for the courage to be transparent about its shortcomings and seek more effective methods of making disciples. While the discussion has been stimulating, most of us lack the credentials to offer anything more than a layman's opinion about REVEAL. But not Bradley Wright. He is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, and has written an 11 part analysis of Willow's study on his blog. Wright has summarized his take on REVEAL below.

When I go to my physician for a check-up, he starts with a series of simple tests - shining a light in my eyes, looking at my throat, listening to my breathing, and so forth. If the results of these don't seem right, he then orders more sophisticated tests, such as blood work, a biopsy, or x-rays. I would hope that he wouldn't cart me off for surgery or chemotherapy based solely on the initial, simple tests.

This illustrates how we might think about the REVEAL study conducted by Willow Creek Community Church. As described in the book REVEAL: Where are you?, this study collected data from about five thousand respondents in seven different churches. Its results have caused quite a stir. Critics point to them as evidence against the Willow Creek model of ministry. In the foreward to the book, Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek, describes the findings as almost "unbearably painful." The findings of REVEAL, he writes, "revolutionized the way I look at the role of the local church." Coming from as successful a pastor as Bill Hybels, this is a powerful statement.

Is such a strong reaction warranted? I would say probably not, and here's why...

The type of survey used by REVEAL has its uses, but it's not well suited for evaluating the effectiveness of a complex institution like a church. It's not that REVEAL's findings are wrong, rather they are highly inconclusive. In fact, if I had to make a judgment, I would interpret the findings as generally supportive of what Willow Creek is already doing.

Technically, REVEAL used a cross-sectional survey with no comparison group and no randomization. This means they surveyed people once during a given period of time - it's like taking a snapshot of a group of people. It's the tongue depressor of survey methodology - a good place to start, but not a very powerful tool. While this type of survey does a good job in describing peoples' characteristics, it doesn't explain them. It describes "what" but doesn't explain "why." Findings from this type of survey are open to multiple interpretations, and the data themselves can't distinguish the correct one. To illustrate, let's consider some of REVEAL's findings.

January 14, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 24 comments

Ralph Gaily

February 28, 2008  3:40pm

If we would simply love one another as He loves us, and the Father loves Him, and He loves the Father....the "one with one another", even as He is one with the Father, and the Father with Him, would begin to work itself out under the guidance of the Comforter. It involves some trust, on behalf of the leaders, in God's nurturing of His Bride, and less confidence in themselves doing it all. One area to begin would be to allow and encourage open, honest, orderly discussion among the Body with each other when we gather on the big meetings (Sunday's). I think most leadership fears this, as they are overly concerned with losing members (money), and not providing enough of a "service". We are not customers, shareholders, prospective clients....we are the Body of Christ..alive with Him. Let the Life be seen by those searching. "Uncork the bottle", as someone once observed regarding "plugged-up" meetings. Keep it real or we get into patterns..ruts...ditches...trenches...entrenchment.. and finally, losing our Pulse altogether as we attempt to simulate "life". KEEP IT REAL!!

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Gary Sweeten

February 09, 2008  6:59pm

Reveal showed us their guts, not their sophistication in research and discipleship. A lot more thoughts and discussion needs to be give to how to promote spiritual growth. It is not from sitting in a pew or chair and listening. Research on change from psychology and social work affirms the biblical record about the approach of Jesus. He took 12 and spent a lot of time doing the stuff and practicing the stuff. Then He said, "Go make disciples and do the stuff." Loving relationships doing tasks together and witnessing together and healing together is a good start.

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deb douglas

January 24, 2008  12:32pm

I'm trying to discern why people have a problem with the self-feeder approach because isn't that what we are? We are each individually accountable for our spiritual status and growth. The church offers opportunities to nourish, but force feeding does not work. Fear of the self-feeder (or better described as the individual accountablity approach) is more a fear of loss of control than a fear that a person might start having an unbiblical worldview. In the emerging culture, our obligation is not to tell people what to believe, but rather to encourage personal relationship with Christ. Create an atmosphere or environment conducive to growth. Then we let God do the rest! Simplicitic thinking, you might say. But God's approach is generally much simplier than our own!

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Conrad Carpenter

January 23, 2008  12:24pm

My Daddy often said.. " If you ask the wrong question you will always get the wrong answer'" THe question is not are you faithful but have you been a faithful steward ...See 1 Corth4:1-2.Quit ckecking for resuts ...Jeremiah was not successful but Faithful...In Jesus Conrad

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Pat Edwards

January 22, 2008  5:50pm

I appreciated Willow Creek's acknowledgement of their struggles to mature disciples. If all the surveys over the last several decards are correct it is THE struggle of the American church in general - mini and mega. Divorce rates, teen promiscuity, materialism, prayerless pastors - all of these and more seem to indicate what Willow Creek discovered is true (regardless of survey science) not just for them but for almost all of us involved in the process of trying to make disciples.

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Phaedra Blocker

January 22, 2008  5:42pm

Having served as a discipleship pastor, I read Reveal with great interest. And, frankly, I wasn't particularly surprised at the findings. What I think some of the comments I've read are missing is that this is not an either/or issue. Real spiritual growth happens both individually and in community. Experiencing the preaching and teaching of God's word and God's principles is critical. But so is developing a rich "inner life" of the spirit. The two both complement each other and hold the other in check. They must be held in delicate balance if we are to move toward true wholeness in Christ. If our learning is only in the worship and classroom context, we may become reliant on hearing God only through the voices of other people, and we can miss ways in which God seeks intimacy with us alone. And, we get lazy about "search[ing] the scriptures" for ourselves so that we can be confident of what we are hearing. If we become too absorbed in our "self-feeding," we do run the risk, as another poster mentioned, of falling into faulty self interpretation and even delusion. We need the accountability of spiritual partners and the wider faith community to help us avoid this error. While I agree that spiritual growth/development is not a strictly linear process, it is a process that can and should be evaluated. Indeed, I think that particularly in the contemplative tradition of the Church, this has always been assumed. Whether or not their methodology ultimately proves to be sound, I applaud Willow Creek for its willingness to ask the question that all churches should be asking–"Are we making disciples?" Too often, our evaluations are focused only on membership numbers, finances or popularity. However, Jesus will evaluate us based on the instructions he gave: 1) Love God and love your neighbor; 2) Make disciples and teach them to do the same.

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January 22, 2008  4:16pm

And so the mechanisms of western church continue. Reveal is now another diversion for the church community to sink their teeth into, debate, argue, analyze and produce lots of literature and multi media presentations about. All the while ignoring the business of doing the stuff Jesus told us to do. Making church (ie debating, writing etc) is a lot easier than 'doin the stuff' (taking care of the homeless, feeding the poor, visiting the prisoners, sitting with the troubled prostitute/druggie/manager etc. Doing church generally pays better and offers more acknowledgment (glory) as well. Then theres the book spin offs, DVD's and speaking engagements. Well done Willow Creek, Reveal will keep the Christians tied up and busy for a long time - it's already got me hooked in!

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michael wade

January 22, 2008  4:00pm

I rededicated my life 21 years ago and in that period have been a member of 6 different churches.For 20 years I have been involved with discipling men in jail with the Good News Jail Ministry. Often I will ask my class of about 20 men how many of them were attending church prior to their arrest. The typical response is around 60%. I then ask them how many of them were intentionally discipled in church, by that I mean someone had some kind of a program for the new believer to participate in that would teach them why we believe what we believe (Trinity - how does 1+1+1=1 explain that to a Muslim; Is Dawkins right or is it reasonable to believe in God? How is the Bible different from the Koran or Pearl of Great Price?..basic doctrine). None were nor have I ever seen such a program. The prevailing ethos seems to be simply to get people to come to church. Willow isn't alone in failing to disciple believers, they've just been more honest in admitting the failure. I cannot help but commend them for that and for some attempt to address the problem.

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Tom Fillinger

January 22, 2008  2:38pm

Self-disclosure assessments are always subjective and inconclusive. That is a well established fact. The church is The Body of Christ. He has given us a multitude of "one another" commands related to our Transformation into His image. Any assessment that relies MERELY on my 'read' on my spiritual progress is seriously flawed by the bias of my sin nature not to mention self agrandizing ego. It IS POSSIBLE to assess Spiritual Formation with a relatively high degree of accuracy. Every local assembly should be perpetually engaged in this noble effort. We are to evaluate one another and a cord of three strands is not easily broken (or able to skew the results of the assessment)! Anyone interested may contact me at Grace to all,

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Daniel J Hesse

January 22, 2008  2:08pm

The whole concept of Spiritual Growth and the Continuum paradigm creates a certain amount of tension. Where do Moses and David develop their spiritual sensitivities to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The answer is on the backside of the desert. Where do we see the full effectiveness of the John the Baptist and even, Jesus, but in the wilderness and also spending ample time alone with the Father. A frenzied friendship with a Sweet Jesus who knows all my needs, wants, and wishes does not produce a mature disciple, but one who is consumed with carnality and sensuality.

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