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?
Which brings us to those "fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ." They are not "being fed," they say. They are not getting enough in-depth Bible teaching. They are so discouraged about the church's inability to help them grow, they are ready to quit. Does it strike anyone else that these followers have missed a crucial part of what it means to be fully devoted to Jesus?
Should we be encouraging this apparent spiritual narcissism by helping people become "self-feeders"? This does not strike me as a healthy way to describe the mature disciple of Jesus Christ. While there is great wisdom in developing for individuals a "customized personal spiritual growth plan"which looks very much like the venerable practice of spiritual directionI wonder if we want to make "my spiritual growth" the focus for the mature believer.
The more mature we become in Jesus, the less we try to measure or chart or describe "my spiritual growth." Instead, we are called to think less about ourselves and more about God. We're less interested in what the self is experiencing and more interested in the Jesus we're serving. The self, including the spiritual self, is increasingly crucified. The key question of the mature disciple is not "Am I growing?" but "Am I serving?"
"The Son of Man," Jesus said referring to himself, "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). I would hope we could teach fully devoted followers of Jesus not so much to be self-feeders but self-givers.
Finally, I wonder if these fully-devoted followers are overlooking something right before their very eyes. The church, they say, no longer feeds them. Well, what better place to learn to serve selflessly than in a place from which one doesn't receive much at all! Is this not a nearly perfect place for mature followers to crucify the self that demands we keep looking at our spiritual navels, and instead give our lives to others, that they might grow in their faith? Is this not what Paul means when he says the whole church is to grow together in love?
Do not misunderstand me: This is not about Willow Creek, a church I continue to admire and do not hesitate to recommend to others. The church's survey and their response strike me as typical of evangelicalism and of our sometimes truncated understanding of Christian maturity. Not that I have a corner on understanding this, but if iron sharpens iron, perhaps continued conversation on this issue can help us all grow into the complete stature of Christ.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker). You can comment below or on his blog.
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Leadership Journal's Out of Ur blog also commented on Willow Creek's new approach.
Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.