A Major Rethink on Church Growth

Hot on the heels of some recent articles I penned on megachurches comes a revolutionary report questioning the very basis of much of the megachurch movement. My earlier articles sought to raise a few questions about church growth and some of our super-sized churches. The new report seems to confirm some of these queries.

In my previous pieces I asked if some churches are growing in numbers because people there may be hearing what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear – and the two are often poles apart. I did not suggest that there was anything wrong as such with large churches, but simply asked why the numerical growth might be taking place.

Such questions are not inappropriate. The biblical prophets noted similar trends. They spoke of those prophets who were always popular with the crowds. The trouble is, they were the false prophets. The real prophets of God were usually not just unpopular, but fiercely rejected and despised by the masses.

I am not suggesting that a large church is made up of false prophets. I am simply saying that Christians and non-Christians alike can always draw a large crowd if they tell people just what they want to hear. Thus self-help seminars, how-to-get-rich schemes, improve your self-image conferences, and various New Age teachers can always draw a large and eager crowd. But crowd size alone does not determine whether the message in fact is true, is of God, or is in fact worth listening to.

That is why the new report, conducted by the second largest church in America, is so interesting. Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, pastored by Bill Hybels, has been a world leader in church growth principles, seeker sensitive services, and meeting felt needs. But it appears to have had a bit of a rethink.

Willow Creek embarked upon a three-year research project to examine its core principles, strategies and methods. It also studied six other churches. The research examined how spiritual growth takes place, and whether the new techniques of church growth actually result in genuine discipleship and spiritual maturity. The results of this major study were just released in a new book called Reveal: Where Are You?

The book is certainly revealing. It seems that numbers alone are a very poor measurement of spiritual growth. American writer Bob Burney takes up this important story, and is worth quoting at length. He says this report is a bit of a bombshell in the evangelical world:

“For most of a generation evangelicals have been romanced by the ‘seeker sensitive’ movement spawned by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. The guru of this movement is Bill Hybels. He and others have been telling us for decades to throw out everything we have previously thought and been taught about church growth and replace it with a new paradigm, a new way to do ministry.”

He offers a brief backdrop to this movement. While it may be somewhat simplistic and superficial, it nonetheless reflects much of what it has been about. “Perhaps inadvertently, with this ‘new wave’ of ministry came a de-emphasis on taking personal responsibility for Bible study combined with an emphasis on felt-needs based ‘programs’ and slick marketing.”
“The size of the crowd rather than the depth of the heart determined success. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry. Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting ‘felt needs’ and sermons consistent with these techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn’t ‘cutting edge’ and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.”

“Thousands of pastors hung on every word that emanated from the lips of the church growth experts. Satellite seminars were packed with hungry church leaders learning the latest way to ‘do church.’ The promise was clear: thousands of people and millions of dollars couldn’t be wrong. Forget what people need, give them what they want. How can you argue with the numbers? If you dared to challenge the ‘experts’ you were immediately labeled as a ‘traditionalist,’ a throwback to the 50s, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times. All that changed recently.”

He rightly notes that the significance of this report lies in the fact that it came from Willow Creek itself, and not from some outside critic. The report is “co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings ‘earth shaking,’ ‘ground breaking’ and ‘mind blowing.’ And no wonder: it seems that the ‘experts’ were wrong. The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples.”

Burney continues, “It gets worse. Hybels laments: ‘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.’ If you simply want a crowd, the ‘seeker sensitive’ model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust.”

“In a shocking confession, Hybels states: ‘We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become “self feeders.” We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.’ Incredibly, the guru of church growth now tells us that people need to be reading their bibles and taking responsibility for their spiritual growth.”

Burney concludes, “What we should find encouraging, at least, in this ‘confession’ coming from the highest ranks of the Willow Creek Association is that they are coming to realize that their existing ‘model’ does not help people grow into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Given the massive influence this organization has on the American church today, let us pray that God would be pleased to put structures in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere numeric growth, but growth in grace.”

Now I have not read this report, so I am assuming that Burney is giving us an accurate summary of its findings. But even if just half of what he says is correct, this really is quite a revolutionary rethink indeed. The whole church growth movement has always had its friendly critics who insisted that we ask some hard questions about the whole situation. Os Guinness and others were sounding cautious alarms decades ago. But when a major mover and shaker in the movement itself starts to ask the really hard questions, then we had all better take careful notice of what is being said.

I repeat what I said earlier. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a large church. It just depends on why it is numerically so large. It seems the folk at Willow Creek have seen that numbers alone really mean very little. The quality of discipleship is the real mark of spiritual success. It is hoped this new rethink will lead to just that: not just more people in pews, but radical disciples of Jesus Christ.


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