What Willow Creek’s ‘Reveal’ study really tells us…

What Willow Creek’s ‘Reveal’ study really tells us…

Spec[tac]ular Focus, by BlogRodent (Rich Tatum)

Christianity Today released an article this month titled, Willow Creek’s ‘Huge Shift’. Since a friend asked what I thought about this, I thought I’d share it with you, my faithful readers and random visitors with hope that you will further sharpen my thinking. Or (gasp!) correct me. This is my big-picture view — and not necessarily the right one, at that — So, enjoy! (Then comment!)

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.

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.)

So, why?

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:

  1. The move from a Word-centered church to a worship- and/or fellowship-centered church,
  2. The move from Word-based exposition from the pulpit to a topical attempt to engage attention, and
  3. 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?

Going Solo

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]

22 thoughts on “What Willow Creek’s ‘Reveal’ study really tells us…

  1. Pingback: The Schooley Files

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  4. Rich Post author

    In a private email to me, a friend noted:

    [I] find it just a little ironic to read a [post] lamenting the loss of community caused by, of all things, the Internet.

    Yes, I see an apparent incongruity in using this medium to point out some of its shortcomings (and I’ve done that elsewhere, notably in my Integrity on the Internet presentations), but that doesn’t seem truly ironic, to me. (I don’t claim that all uses of the Internet harm relationships or community — including this use — no more than I would claim that all uses of the automobile do the same.)

    The Internet (or TV or computers or cell-phones or any media communication tool) doesn’t necessarily destroy community or relationships or communication. I think these are all tools, and to the degree that we are intentional with them, they can be very useful aids in a close-knit community. But to the degree that we are are not using them with such intentional purposes, there are often unintended consequences to this intermediation. (For a good discussion of this, see John Naisbitt’s High Tech/High Touch: Technology and Our Search for Meaning.)


  5. Keith Schooley


    Rich, you didn’t just hit the nail on the head, you drove it deeply into the board. What a fantastic post. This is the first time I’ve seen an analysis of the “Reveal” study that made much sense, and didn’t amount simply to pointing the finger at someone who does church differently or has a different theology.

    The problem isn’t Willow Creek. The problem isn’t megachurches. The problem is the influence of cultural and technological shifts on Christians in the developed world, and our tendency to glom onto wider cultural values rather than valuing what Scripture tells us is really important.

    Thank you.

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  7. Rich Post author

    Nate, you’re too kind, sir! And thanks much for your kind comment, your even kinder words at your blog (where I left another comment), and for stopping by to see what I’ve been up to. Thank you, bro.


  8. Rich Post author

    Ah, a friend of mine at CT told me that they ran these stories on the heels of Willow’s announcement to change their “Sunday morning programming from seeker-oriented to believer-oriented.” Makes sense.


  9. Rich Post author

    LeadingSmart.com has an interesting exchange between Willow Creek Association President Jim Mellado and Bill Hybels on the blog and media interest surrounding CTI’s recent articles about the Reveal study. I enjoyed this exchange:

    Jim: “Well, and Bill, I remember even from the 1980?s when I went to a conference here at Willow Creek, I still remember the phrase of you saying, ‘We are trying to reach seekers on a weekend service and thrill believers.'”

    Bill: “Yeah, you have to thrill believers in order to move them to a place where they see people far from God the way Jesus sees them. And so, some of the adjustments we?re making right now are just an experiment to try to be spiritually catalytic across the spectrum. But if we didn?t think that this was eventually going to increase our evangelistic effectiveness, we wouldn?t be doing it.”

    Yes. I feel thrilled.

    :: sigh ::


  10. Oengus Moonbones

    I’m glad, Rich, to see that you are making entries again. There’s a big gap between March and June, where things had gone dead air. I had started wondering if you had departed from this world.

    My wife and I have been going to a WCA church, whose pastors are thoroughly Willow-Creek-ized. Maybe their intentions are good, but to put it succinctly, we just can’t take it anymore.

  11. Pingback: Bill Hybels Responds to REVEAL | Out of Ur | Conversations for Ministry Leaders

  12. Dorcas George

    Rich, THANK YOU!

    This is a must-read, and I’m posting about it asap!

    You nailed it bro, and put words to what I have felt but not been able to articulate, and thus I have carried a load of guilt that I just (at least in part) laid down!

    Thank you again, from a very weary pastor lady.

  13. David Copeland

    “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 sigh of great trust, leadership, and maturity), Paul continued to minister to him with instruction, doctrine, guidance, and wisdom even from prison, nearing death. (See 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy.)”

    I think this is the nail on the head! A generation of fatherless and motherless people who refuse to take responsibility of raise children. Spiritual children!

    I know there is goofiness in that subject also, but when we stop running a church like a major corporation, and run it like a family I think we will see the engaging and the spiritual maturity of people leap off the charts!

    Just my 0.02 worth!

    Great article as always Rich!

  14. 8rent

    A stinging indictment, to be sure. Well said.

    However, I must ask nagging questions: Did we really need a study to find these things out? Are these not self-evident realities? And finally… will this do anything to stem the tide of mediocrity sweeping over churches of all types, shapes, demographics and sizes? (Better phrased, will this be enough to end the dangerous trend of McChurches?)

    Love the site and your thoughts; keep up the good work.

  15. Rich Post author


    Thanks for the "welcome back" note! Yeah, there was a lot of dead air after March. I started my new job on March 10 and with the 10 hours of commuting each week, the extra time at the office to master the learning curve, and the simple adjustment of working full-time after being a layabout for over a year, well, it hasn’t left much time for posting blog entries. I’ve had many thoughts, and I’ve often considered posting an entry, but the thought of the time it would take was simply too overwhelming. It takes more time to do a blog well than most people realize, though probably less time than my procrastination would warrant.

    You mentioned attending a WCA church "whose pastors are thoroughly Willow-Creek-ized." There definitely is a unique culture to the Willow-Creek and Saddleback church models. It’s hard to put your finger on it at first, but after the novelty of the new church smell wears off, you start to notice that it’s definitely not your daddy’s church any more. I’ve belonged to a few mega-churches ranging in size from 5-10,000 in membership, was on staff at one (briefly) and have belonged to many smaller churches.

    All-in-all, the quality of programming was definitely superior at the larger churches (depending on your "quality" checklist), but the quality of love and community was superior at the smaller churches. Not say there weren’t relational problems at small churches, and not to say that we didn’t make great friends at the larger churches. It’s unfair to paint all churches of any stripe with too broad a brush — WCA churches included — but if there weren’t some similarities between churches that use the Willow-Creek model, they wouldn’t be WCA-member churches.

    I’m not a primitivist — I don’t necessarily believe that the first century culture provides the idea model for 21st century churches. But there seem to be elements missing from church communities today that were in the warp and woof of the churches we see in the Book of Acts.

    Thanks for stopping By, Oengus!

    @Dorcas George:

    Thank you for the kudos, and for posting a link to this post, I appreciate it. You mentioned that you "carried a load of guilt that I just (at least in part) laid down!" I would like to say that flatters me (it probably shouldn’t) but I must confess I’m not sure, exactly, what that means.

    Why would you feel guilty, and how does anything I’ve written here help relieve you of your guilt?

    Though, if I helped in any small way, I’m grateful!

    @David Copeland:

    Thanks for the kudos, David! And I agree: "When we stop running a church like a major corporation, and run it like a family I think we will see the engaging and the spiritual maturity of people leap off the charts!"

    Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, by John PiperJohn Piper wrote a book published in 2002 titled, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. In it, he writes:

    "The aims of our ministry are eternal and spiritual. They are not shared by any of the professions. It is precisely by the failure to see this that we are dying ….

    "We are most emphatically not part of a social team sharing goals with other professionals. Our goals are an offense; they are foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). The professionalization of the ministry is a constant threat to the offense of the gospel. it is a threat to the profoundly spiritual nature of our work. I have seen it often: the love of professionalism (parity among the world’s professions) kills a man’s belief that he is sent by God to save people from hell and to make them Christ-exalting, spiritual aliens in the world." (From page 3.)

    Amen, John!


    Well, I wasn’t setting out to indict anyone, or anything, really, just trying to articulate my perspective on the "big picture." For what it’s worth.

    You asked:

    Did we really need a study to find these things out? Are these not self-evident realities? And finally … will this do anything to stem the tide of mediocrity sweeping over churches of all types, shapes, demographics and sizes? (Better phrased, will this be enough to end the dangerous trend of McChurches?)

    Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples, by by Thom S. Rainer and Eric GeigerWhile I suspect these are rhetorical questions, I’ll say that I think the study is helpful. Sure, it confirmed what the naysayers have been braying all along, but it’s interesting that it was Willow who did the study. Whether Revealwould pass the muster of a well-crafted sociological study, I don’t know. But I don’t know of anyone else doing a similar study, except, perhaps Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, authors of Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. In preparing for that book (published in June, 2006, so the manuscript was probably completed as early as Spring 2005 — well before the Reveal study had been released), Geiger and Rainer surveyed several thousand churches that exhibited dynamic growth and evidence of personal spiritual transformation and concluded that the healthiest churches were not merely large churches, but churches that has a simple, easy to identify process for discipleship; that every program in the church was measured against that process; that everybody in the church could identify where they were in the process; that the leadership was sold on the simple process of discipleship; and that everyone invited into the process was encouraged to complete the process. There’s more, of course, and it’s a great book to read if you’re concerned about this at all.

    But my point is, the study was helpful, and healthy, and carries a lot of weight because Willow did it and released the findings themselves. That says an awful lot about Willow, whatever you might think about their church model.

    Will it do anything to stop the trend? Who knows? No one thing can probably ever stop a cultural trend. Who can say what will bring the modern church to it’s cultural "tipping point" that catalyzes change. I welcome anything salutary that helps us along the way. In short, I applaud the study.

    Thanks for your contribution, and thanks for your kind words, too!

    Thanks, again, to everybody who commented! I really appreciate the dialog.


  16. Pingback: MondayMorningInsight.com > Bill Hybels Responds to “Reveal” Criticism

  17. Mei

    hey, just came across your site.. I’m from Asia and sometimes feel that courses/ church programs like purpose driven life/together group etc. are like franchise products from the US. Whatever the small group chooses to study, I think going back to the bible and led by leaders and supported by members who have a deep knowledge of the bible is essential.

  18. Pingback: Megachurches et églises à « bas seuil » : Willow Creek se repent du modèle 'seeker sensitive' - Point final - informations chrétiennes et eschatologiques - prophétisme, eschatologie, mission, société, spiritualité, persécution des chrétiens, p

  19. Tim Burns

    You are right on with the evaluation. A community (insert ‘church’ here) that substitutes anything for genuine connectedness, accountability, and transparent relationships will not continue to grow. The organization can grow to a level, grow to the level of the leader, and grow in size. But spiritual growth involves the whole person – body, soul, mind, emotions, and spirit. We need Jesus. We need worship, prayer and teaching from the word of God. We also need each other.

    My former pastor left me with this memorable guidepost.. At all times in your spiritual walk, you need a Barnabas (companion) a Timothy (someone you are teaching) and a Moses (someone you are learning from and following). Barnabas for Accountability, Timothy to demand Output and Moses for to provide Input and example.

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  21. Alice M. Post

    I have a question: Why does the Christ-Centered stage end in “It guides everything I do.” ? Why does it not say, ” I attempt for it to guide me in everything I do.”? I would be a liar if I answered that question with a yes.

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