The study by Willow Creek was been years in the making but only splashed across the blogosphere with its sensational headlines late last year. (Read: “Mind-Blowing!” – “Painful!” – “Revolutionary!”) I’m not sure why CT is still doing stories on it at this late date except that their publishing schedule is generally 3-6 months out. (I first heard about the Reveal study in October.) [Update: I didn’t read the intro to the article well enough! WC announced they are changing their Sunday service program. –R.] Whatever you think about Willow, mega-churches, or the so-called “Seeker sensitive” model — this report and its conclusions are a must-read if you’re in church leadership of any sort.
» the blog
» the media
» the podcast
» CT editorial
» Out of Ur blog post
» A sociologist’s review
» Mark Galli’s POV
It’s easy to be critical of Willow for being “seeker sensitive,” and too many who’ve never been exposed to Willow are happy to critique Hybels & Co. But I think it’s important to note that the survey and its findings weren’t focused solely on Willow Creek. At least two dozen other churches (or more) were involved in the study — Willow was just the beginning, and the study continues.
Sadly, the results were consistent across the board. That’s what’s truly interesting about the study’s conclusions.
The main takeaway is this: numeric growth does not equal spiritual growth.
If we’re honest about it, the idea that numeric growth reveals a church’s health and its members’ own spiritual health has infected the American church for decades. The idea is captured in this sillogism:
Healthy organisms grow
Churches are like organisms
Therefore, healthy churches grow
But what this three-step dance of logic fails to take into account is that healthy organisms stop growing when they reach maturity and a size appropriate to their nature. In fact, an organism’s failure to experience a growth plateau is one evidence of sickness.
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. (Think: obesity, cancer, acromegaly, gigantism, etc.)
I’ve bemoaned this elsewhere (on my blog, on email discussion groups, and at my denomination’s discipleship forum), but in my view the chief problem with most (if not all) of the churches I’ve attended has been a failure to encourage, challenge, and provide for spiritual transformation and discipleship in individual believers within a transformed community. And the failure to do that, I believe rests on a handful of factors — not always present in every circumstance, but often working together.
Churches are filled with members who’ve not become spiritually transformed because:
- The leadership believes numeric growth is an indicator of success
- The leadership believes financial growth is an indicator of success
- The leadership believes the quality of its programming is an indicator of success
- The leadership believes the members’ level of participation in programming is an indicator of success
- Transfer growth (from other churches) is as valuable as evangelistic growth
- Adherence to moral standards of conduct is an indicator of spiritual growth
- A greater variety of programs will attract more participants and induce spiritual growth
But, in my opinion, the three greatest moves (or cultural shifts) that create the stalled spiritual growth the Willow Creek study analyzes are:
- The move from a Word-centered church to a worship- and/or fellowship-centered church,
- The move from Word-based exposition from the pulpit to a topical attempt to engage attention, and
- The move away from peer- and mentor-based discipleship as part of the church community’s DNA.
If I had to blame anything on these movements away from what has been historically and classically the strength and backbone of the church, I would point to three modern developments that have contributed to our cultural individualism and this failure to connect church community membership and spiritual transformation:
- The demise of the one-room schoolhouse,
- The ubiquity of the automobile and widely flung pseudo-communities, and
- The ubiquity of private immersive entertainment (starting with the portable radio, the television, and now the Internet).
Seriously, these things contribute. Let me briefly opine how (and, again, I welcome our comments and criticism). And let me say at the outset that just because these may be contributing factors, that doesn’t make them bad. More likely, it just means they’ve been poorly used.
The Demise of the One-Room Schoolhouse
When children were taught in the context of a community and in the dynamic mentoring relationship of a one-room schoolhouse, we didn’t have to talk about mentoring younger people: it happened naturally. The teacher could focus on teaching the older, more capable students as well as the young, but the older students would tutor and mentor the younger children at the same time. Brothers helped their little sisters. Big sisters helped their little brothers. All under the watchful eye of the teacher. If you spent 12 years in this kind of relationally-driven learning environment, it would influence your every approach to teaching, training, and learning. Why don’t more careers have journeymen and apprentices? Because our culture no longer acts as though careers or skills are best transferred in relationship. Instead, pedagogy rules, books liberate, and “information wants to be free.”
Information may be free, but discipleship is costly.
The Automobile and Pseudo-Communities
With the automobile came a renewed pioneer spirit. Not only could we “Go West!” once we were emancipated from the rule of our father’s house, many of us saw it as our imperative to get as many state lines between our parent’s and inlaw’s homes and our own domicile – whether that meant college out-of-state or marrying and accepting jobs in some far-flung corner of the country, few people now live in the same neighborhood as their parents. And fewer still invite their parents to live with them in their retirement. Yet this wasn’t uncommon at the turn of the century. People might move across the city, or to a neighboring town, but it took strong motivation to pack up and move completely out of the community one knew growing up. But the automobile made it possible to live as far away as one or two states over and still allow a comfortable commute to visit over the weekends and holidays. Now, families are content if they see each other only a few times a year. And with the car came the possibility of choosing a church community a half an hour to an hour away from one’s home. I’ve frequently attended churches that were 20-30 miles from my home, passing by perfectly good faith communities along the way. Which, of course, cater to similarly far flung “pseudo communties” of members whose domiciles may be spread out over thousands of square miles. When my closest church neighbor lives 10 miles away, am I truly living in community?
With the advent of solo entertainment devices, we completed the cocooning cycle that Faith Popcorn predicted nearly two decades ago. We can live virtually our entire day bubbled in a safe cocoon and we now get to take our cocoons with us in the form of internet-enabled, blue-tooth capable cars complete with AM/FM Radio, CDs, XM-Radio, built-in DVD players, and Internet capable telephony. From the cocoon of our home to the cocoon of or car, to the cocoon-like cubicle at work, many of us can honestly say we haven’t had more than an hour’s conversation with a close friend in weeks. If we have a close friend.
Nothing can be done about these cultural shifts, but something can be done at our churches. We can resist the siren call to greater size, more numbers, bigger budgets and insist, instead, on reproducing ourselves. We can plant more churches, reach our to our local communities, talk to our neighbors, and focus on truly relational discipleship (which really needs to start with the leadership). We can scale back on the number and size of our programs and focus instead on building relationships, discipling our converts, being accountable and actually preaching the Word from the pulpit. We can focus on worship, not entertainment, on prayer and praise, not showmanship, on truly walking together in love and grace rather than small group exercises in futility.
Too often we leave our faith at the door when we climb into our SUVs for the drive home. How can we help it? It’s all we know, it’s all we’ve seen, it’s what our pastors do. Our churches inherit the DNA and style of their leadership.
If our members haven’t gotten the message that they need to pick up the spoon and feed themselves, as Bill Hybels laments at the RevealNow website, it’s not because they don’t know that’s their responsibility: it’s because they haven’t seen anybody doing it and growing from it to value it themselves. They’re not hungry for it, else they would belly up and feed from the trough of the Biblical buffet.
Further, even if the people are feeding themselves, church leaders are not absolved from the responsibility to lead just because a believer is now “on the path” to spiritual maturity. Just as parents still must provide guidance and proper nutrition for their hungry children well past their infancy, so much the shepherds of the local flock continue to provide good content to direct their charge’s attention and spiritual formation. Though Timothy was the Apostle Paul’s appointed delegate and personal representative (a sign of great trust, leadership, and maturity), Paul continued to minister to him with instruction, doctrine, guidance, and wisdom — even from prison while nearing his own death. (See both 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy.)
We must preach the Word, not opinions. We must disciple, not merely teach. We must walk in relationship and community, not simply attend church in proximity. This, I believe, is what the modern church needs most.
Well, that’s my $0.02 worth. Now, go and write likewise!
[tags]BlogRodent, Bill-Hybels, Willow-Creek, Willow-Creek-Association, seeker-sensitive, mega-church, discipleship, mentoring, spiritual-formation, preaching, Reveal, Greg-Hawkins, statistics, survey, evangelical, pentecostal, education, homiletics, spiritual-transformation, transformation, CTI, Christianity-Today, criticism, critique, culture, technology, integrity, worship, faith, Christianity, Evangelical, God, Bible, growth, church-growth, megachurch[/tags]