Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A Major Rethink on Church Growth

Oct 31, 2007

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.

[1270 words]

27 Responses to A Major Rethink on Church Growth

  • Somehow I don’t think that a turn towards radical discipleship would spread like the wildfire of seeker-sensitivity. Narrow is the path and difficult is the way which leads to life…
    Luke Beattie

  • This is quite a remarkable about-face from Hybels! I sensed that he had integrity when I’ve heard him speak before, and being able to admit that there were mistakes made in the past is impressive. It will be interesting to watch some of the reactions from Hillsong, Planetshakers etc… to this report. It flies in their faces fairly blantantly, by the sounds of what you’ve written here.

    I’m glad that this report has been compiled. There is certainly a need for the whole megachurch idea to be re-considered. Many wise minds have been asking questions for a long time.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • Stand by for the 2nd instalment, the “New & Improved” church growth strategies – now with a focus on “…. how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

    Sorry to be a cynic, but the line “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” does give it away a little.

    If the growth in grace (is that the same as sanctification?) depends upon structures it will still miss the point of true discipleship. God builds His church, not man.

    Jeremy Peet

  • One hears the term in detective work “follow the money”. Well in Christianity I’d say it’s “follow the fruit”. And it has to be *real* fruit – the fruits of the spirit, not the display of ‘gifts’, a focus on holiness and discipleship, not growth numbers and programmes, outward looking not self-absorbed introspection, faith-based works and the spread of the gospel, not self-help programmes and property/building programmes.

    Pray tell, where are churches that are models for this, the church leaders that are marked by their humility and self-sacrifice?

    The megachurches seem devoid of these. And I think it is largely because the concept of Christian relationship is missing.

    Ironically, while it may be no different than other megachurches, from what I gather, the success of Yonggi Cho’s church in Sth Korea is because the majority of the activity comes from inter-personal relationships within the 50,000+ cell-groups/house churches. ‘Church’ is conducted at the cell group level and as such there is a personal interaction and accountability for each, the one-on-one discipleship necessary for every member to grow in Christ and a focus on personal evangelism.

    Maybe there’s a similarity between the centralisation of civil government and the centralisation of church government in that neither is ultimately good for its citizens, nor accomplishes that which it was created for. People helping people, praying with people, sharing the gospel with people, being intimately concerned for and with one another – people sharing, studying, serving and suffering together as Rick Warren put it; that’s where it’s really at and many megachurches fail to achieve any real, lasting or meaningful expression of this.

    Garth Penglase

  • Thanks so much, Bill, for alerting us to this recant by Bill Hybels. Those of us who have observed this trend have made comments like this for years but it’s good hearing it come from the pen/mouth of the guru himself.

    My wife and I attended a rather traditional Baptist church 2 weeks ago in our community. There I met a couple who had been attending the large “seeker sensitive” Baptist church in town. Their comments were: “We went there because of the excellent children’s program for our kids but we realised that we needed to be fed and 15-minute pulpit ditties from the pulpit were not doing that for us. That’s why we are here.”

    It is with sadness that I have observed churches by the droves following Hybels, Warren and their ilk here in Australia. In my community, to walk into one of these churches is like attending one of the “Record Hops” I used to compere back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was a rock radio DJ — of course the nature of the rock n roll is different.

    I am not so stubborn as to say that we do not need to become contemporary in some of our approaches. After all, we do not live in the days of St. Augustine, John Calvin or John Wesley. Koine Greek was not Classical Greek, but the Greek of the common people and the NT is written in Koine Greek.

    However, we have dumbed down on biblical theology in a lot of church grown emphases, to the point where God’s people have been denuded of the preaching of “the whole counsel of God.” “Preach the Word” is a strong emphasis of biblical Christianity.

    Spencer Gear

  • What about the seeker sensitive movements in Australia? Mike Frost over at Morling College seems to be going down this path, trying to make church ‘relevant’ to our day and age. Does anyone know anything about Frost?
    Damien Spillane

  • Thanks Damien

    I do not know much about the man or the school, although I want to be careful here not to start picking on individuals or particular churches, but to keep the discussion a bit more generic. So let’s here try not to focus in on personalities if possible, and keep the remarks more broad. And of course there is nothing wrong as such in seeking to be relevant; it just depends on whether or not gospel essentials are being sacrificed in the process.

    Thanks again,
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Rick Warren, of 40 Days of Pointless Purpose fame, invited B. Hussein Obama to speak at tne of his AIDS conferences under the auspices of Saddleback. It didn’t bother Warren that Hussein is an ardent supporter of abortion for all nine months of pregnancy and partial birth abortion. He also supports gay “marriage”, i.e. supporting the homosexual perversion that is the chief way of spreading this politically protected plague.

    See Kevin McCullough, Why is Obama’s Evil in Rick Warren’s Pulpit?:

    And most damnable of all, when a brave nurse named Jill Stanek brought about national awareness to a practice at a local hospital in suburban Chicago that allowed the starvation and neglect of newly born children who had survived abortion procedures — Obama opposed her. He opposed the right of those children to be given the chance to live and he advocated against a ban on such procedures — then known as “born alive abortions.”

    Subsequently, McCullough documented. that Willow Creek was hounding out of the church those who disagreed with Emperor Warren in inviting a fan of prenatal baby butchery, and ironically pointed out:

    It’s too bad that these “seeker friendly” churches are actually unfriendly to their own congregation for simply asking the spiritual leadership of the church to be doctrinally strong.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Here is Phil Johnson’s take on the Willow Creek rethink.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Thanks for your post. I really wish people would actually read books before jumping with glee that Christian brothers and sisters have had the honesty to question things they have been doing. Hybels has never down played preaching, as some comments above seem to think, and in his latest book he also doesn’t say we should try and stop being relevant as others seem to suggest.
    Some have also seemed to miss the spot on what Bill means by “feeding.” We often think it means preaching. He is talking about what he learnt from Wayne Cordeiro (another mega church pastor) I listened and questioned both Wayne and Bill about this earlier this year. Feeding is making sure the sheep go to the right fields and eat properly. It does not mean the shepherd reaches down and puts the grass in the sheeps mouth. So Wayne and Bill are putting in place processes (isn’t that a bad word unless of course it is an evangelistic series) where people read their Bibles and pray every day. Over 90% of Waynes church reads the Bible through every year together and journal as they go. Before we smugly rip these guys apart we should ask which of our churches do the same.
    Go for it Bill Hybels. Thankyou that are wanting to be faithful and fruitful.
    Wayne Krause

  • Ewan, thanks for the link to Phil Johnson’s blog and his response to Bill Hybels’ “confession.”

    Phil is astute in his statements:”there’s not a hint of ‘repentance’ in it. It’s just a slick announcement about Willow Creek’s latest program.

    So am I the only one who finds it both ironic and disturbing that when the framers of ministry philosophy at Willow Creek finally are faced with the desiccated fruits of their program-driven approach to ministry, their instant response is to announce a new program?”

    Bill, you don’t want us to pick on individuals. That is very difficult not to do when one is critiquing a movement and teaching that is led by people such as Hybels, Warren, and their followers.

    In fact, Paul, the apostle, set for us a good example by “picking on” Peter in Galatians 2:11ff when he acted in an unChristian way by discrimination. And we have had it in writing for 2,000 years.

    He did the same by exposing the names of Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Tim. 2:20 and “Hymenaeus and Philetus” (2 Tim. 2:17) who were teaching false doctrine.

    If Bible teachers in Australia or around the world are teaching that which is dumbing down biblical Christianity (and I put the seeker-sensitive and emerging church teaching in that category), I consider that they should be named and their teaching given a critique — following Paul’s example with Peter.

    We’d be doing that regularly with liberal theological colleges, but when some “rot” is seeping into the evangelical church, I believe it should be exposed and the perpetrators named.

    That doesn’t seem to be your view, Bill!

    Sincerely, Spencer Gear

  • Many years ago I attended a Bill Hybel’s convention here in Brisbane.
    During that time I was able to really focus onto the heart of the man, it was to train others, to truly teach the word of God, to assist those that wre not in positions to help themselves and to see world wide evangelism using modern technology and relevance.
    The man I saw had a true heart for God.
    Unfortunately popularity has a corrupting influence, in many cases people start to believe their own publicity and they start to see success in a worldly view.
    I have witnessed many churches begin with true motives but with the advent of both congregation increase and finances there is a change in outlook.
    The change starts as subtle but in the end actually creates a diversion in their overall vision.
    Jim Sturla

  • I don’t know Wayne Krause but I’m with him. I don’t know Bill Hybel’s that well either but I am amazed at the outpouring of vitriol against the mega church and Saddleback. Hybel’s has conducted a study to improve his church’s effectiveness and is attacked for it.
    Most churches are struggling, stuck in an irrelevant rut, teaching stuff and in a way that has more to do with Victorian England than the early Church of the disciples.
    The criticisms above applied equally to Peter, Saul and the other disciples.
    It was the false teachers who wanted to stick to the old Jewish customs, who were horrified at the inclusion of gentiles. How Peter must have seemed like a “Mega church leader” on the day 3000 were added to their number and the “Christ followers” grew rapidly in number!
    Instead of criticising Mega churches, build your own churches first.
    Steven Eldridge

  • That may be true Jim, but nobody is really questioning Hybel’s sincerity – just his methods.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • I can understand some of the vitriol that you see against Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek, Rick Warren’s Saddleback and other mega churches. It is hard to stand on the sidelines when churches such as Saddleback invite politicians such as Obama to speak from the pulpit, or Clinton to a pastor’s conference at Willow Creek. Obama is a man dedicated to promoting abortions throughout the whole term of pregnancy, homosexual marriage etc. It is hard not to get upset when one feels that there is much damage being done by some of these churches to the good name of the Lord.

    And I think it is fair to say that mega churches are often characterised by their programatic and research-driven, seeker-friendly approach which seems rather contrary to what I understand about the Body of Christ being *led* by the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that there is a sure model provided for us in the scriptures and promoted by the Holy Spirit as to how to reach the lost and disciple the found. And it doesn’t look much like what I see today in many churches. How to conduct church can have a myriad of expressions I’m sure, but the focus and content should be pretty much the same.

    But one of the things that pains me the most is seeing Christians at war with each other, seeing public criticism of methods and doctrines when we should be striving for unity. A good example was when the two Dannys were convicted for religious vilification in Victoria and people *within* the Christian church came out against them. This should not happen. Often the greatest persecution of Christians comes from those purporting to be Christians themselves.

    So let’s be slow to criticise and fast to forgive. I believe the “10 Principles to Biblical Discernment” posted here is a good place to start, which, at Number 2, has the warning “Make sure you have sufficient, credible, PERSONAL knowledge of those you criticize”.

    I do agree that it’s important to speak out against incorrect doctrine and charlatans etc., but let’s err on the side of caution when speaking against anyone who could be considered the Lord’s anointed 1 Samuel 24:6. Yes, the rot set into many of these churches many years ago and there have been many people calling for truth and change. But we should be seeking to ‘bear each others burdens’ and praying for each other, grief-stricken when one of our own falls, and there to lend a hand in helping them recover their feet. If we aren’t then its probably fair to say that we haven’t earned the right to criticise the person. So particularly when we there is an attempt at changing direction let’s encourage and guide, and pray for them that they may hear God’s voice.

    Garth Penglase

  • Thanks Garth

    Yes you have basically stated some of my concerns. Getting the balance right is always extremely difficult. We must discern and test all things, and challenge false doctrine, and so on. But I think we are far too ready to publicly criticise and condemn other believers, when the biblical pattern is to go to them first in private, as in Matt. 18, to consider ourselves, as in Gal. 6, etc.

    I did raise WCCC and Hybels of course, partly because this was already in the public domain. And my intent was not to dump on them or publicly criticise them, but simply to point out what appeared to be an important rethink.

    As I said in an earlier comment, it was not my intention that we now start naming all kinds of other leaders and churches, and engage in some sort of heresy hunting exercise. There can be a place for that, but again, caution and humility is the order of the day.

    The balance is very hard to get right, and I don’t think I have got it right yet. Far from it. Perhaps I should just add more to my articles and comments that when I critique someone or some belief or practice, that I always remind my readers to pray for those concerned.

    We are all fallen and fallible and out of the will of God at times, so we need real humility and care when we discuss others. I know I do discuss many others on this site, and I often need to pray for wisdom and guidance in what I write and how I write. As I say, I do not have it all right yet, and would covet your prayers as I continue in this ministry. Unity is very important, and so too is truth. The balance is always difficult to achieve.

    And the link you provided Garth is quite good. It takes pretty much the same line that I do on these things. Its conclusion is worth reprinting here:

    If you feel you are called to a ministry of discernment, take heed of these principles, and be wary of ‘touching the Lord’s anointed’ (1 Samuel 24:6). King David knew better than to attack Saul, even though he was a poor king. Many preachers and ministries today DO need correction and input, but if all we do is call them heretics rather than humbly entreating them to change, with little desire other than to warn people away from them, we may be approaching the subject in a way that displeases God. Now, sometimes, we should warn people away, but we should be sure to be majoring on the majors, not the minors, or as it is said:
    In the essentials, UNITY. In the non-essentials, LIBERTY. In all things, CHARITY.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Yes, Bill, the conclusion to the article is print-worthy.

    As a young Christian I was one of the most critical people you’d come across, all in the name of truth. Many years later all I can say is that the major truth I’ve learnt is just how much I am constantly in need of a Saviour.
    While I love truth, and hate the way Satan uses part-truths to deceive and bring so much damage within churches, and while it is true that ‘by their fruit they shall be known’, I’ve also realised that there is another truth: we are judged in the same way that we judge others (Matt 7:1-2), and it is dangerous to judge someone until you have a walked in their shoes. (Heb 12:15 & Gal 6:7)

    I just pray that when I speak or write about something that I get it right in critiquing the action or the method, and not the person or their motives of which only God knows the truth.

    Garth Penglase

  • Thanks Garth

    Yes I used to be the same. As a young believer I was a zealous defender of truth and orthodoxy, and was willing to challenge anyone and anything, often in a most arrogant and un-Christlike manner. I still believe truth and orthodoxy are terribly important and incredibly vital, but I have learned, over the years, to be a bit more gracious, a bit more loving and a bit more humble when it comes to others and their beliefs. Yes, I will always stand for truth, but I have learned to be a bit more forbearing where it is possible, yet hopefully not at the expense of truth and the gospel. As I say, it is a very tough balance to achieve, yet that is what we are called to do: “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

    My earlier days as a believer are nicely represented in the following humorous episode:

    Walking across a bridge, I saw a man on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: “Stop. Don’t do it.”
    “Why not?” he asked.
    “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
    “Like what?”
    “Are you religious?”
    He said: “Yes.”
    I said: “Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
    “Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
    “Me, too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
    “Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Church of the Lord?”
    “Baptist Church of God.”
    “Me, too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
    “Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
    “Me, too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist
    Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
    He said: “Reformation of 1915.”
    I said: “Die, heretic scum,” and pushed him off.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Ewan, friend I agree with you 100% and I am sorry that my comments came across the way they did.
    You see I do not doubt the sincerity behind those originating a ministry but I am concerned as to how quickly they are seduced into methods contrary to Christian opinion.
    I feel that too often the truth is sacrificed for the sake of relevance.
    Jim Sturla

  • In response to Damien, 2.11.07 / 6am ,

    I know a bit about Mike Frost. He seems, from my experience, a pretty solid bible teacher and a good thinker. He is a part of what is mostly referred to as the ‘Emerging Church’, which is not so much a coherent movement, as it is a cultural shift in the way church is “done”. Emerging Church could be seen as seeker sensitive, I guess. It has elements of it. It is also a bit controversial as some people in the movement are using some questionable theology, not necessarily Frost though!

    I wouldn’t describe Frost as following a “seeker-sensitive” style. He is more interested in connecting through culture and being in the community and so forth. He has a book called “Exiles” which might be worth reading.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • Not making any comment about Mike Frost, but I would say that I was part of a church which considered itself to be part of the ‘Emerging Church’. For years I considered it to be a loving, bible-focused church with ‘no holds barred’ preaching. I have now realised that it was actually what I would now class as a very liberal church which was both controlling and insular in its focus, as well as preaching a ‘cheap grace’. Accordingly I suffered when I challenged both its teachings and its failure in practical discipling and counseling, and am no longer part of this church. Tragically this coincided with marital difficulties between my wife and I and, to my absolute amazement, resulted in them recommending and assisting with legal separation, as opposed to a focus on counseling us as to where they believed we needed to line up with scripture. Three other families in the same church (of only 300 members) over this time period have experienced a similar lack of godly counsel and now have gone through a ‘no-fault’ divorce. I also personally knew 4 other couples from my previous Pentecostal megachurch (of 10 years) that have now also divorced.

    I guess I would say that the rise in sexual sin and divorce in churches is in direct proportion to the ‘solidity’ of teaching that comes across the pulpit. There seem to be plenty of examples of churches today that have strayed from the core teaching of our continual need for a Saviour and our transformation through death to our own flesh, in favour of ‘fixing’ our flesh so we are better, happier, wealthier people. The focus seems to be more on the self-actualisation of the believer through the power of the Holy Spirit and ‘gifts’, than servanthood, evangelism, and teaching of the resurrected Christ.

    Garth Penglase

  • That is a sad story, Garth. I’m sorry to hear it. Churches should take every step towards preventing divorce in it’s congregations. It is very unbiblical to encourage a divorce. A church should be a place where couples can go and find solutions to their problems, not have them facilitate a break-up.

    I am aware of the sort of things you describe in the Emerging Church. Liberal theology, or sometimes worse, has a tendency to be purported in some emerging churches. Leaders of the movement in America (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, others…) are being carefully examined by the likes of Mark Driscoll and John Piper. Often their assessments are less than favourable. However, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the movement as a whole; as I have said, it is not coherent.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • This and any other question of this nature needs to be bedded firmly in what the scripture says. Having just completed a 12 month study of New Testament church life in the scriptures and consulted over 40 other authors, the only question is what does the scripture say about doing church? I didn’t find any rational for a Bill Hybels type megachurch in the scriptures. I did find that there was only one church in each town that met in various homes and the one church was led by unpaid Elders who grew up in the community. The fact that there was only one church in each town would indicate that there were some megachurches, but they were nothing like Willow Creek.
    Roger Marks

  • One of our small evening fellowships over a period of 10-15 years consistently had no more than 10-15 people attending at any one time. Some of the elders occasionally lamented that we must be doing something wrong. My response was that was not necessarily so…maybe we were preaching God’s word as it is meant to be preached – straight from the Book, rather than preaching what itching ears want to hear. On the other hand, the most positive comment came from our senior pastor one evening when the congregation hit 25…”If we get much more than this, we might have to think about splitting into two fellowships.” It’s not so important about numbers but more importantly, the roots of the attending numbers need to go deep – growth downwards rather than upwards in numbers. I love my little church! Anyone who is away is missed and not overlooked. Someone will always follow you up. Not a good church if you just want to hide in the pews and not be involved.

    Kerry Letheby

  • I find some of the comments about seeker sensitive services a bit harsh. Having seeker sensitive churches is obviously an evangelistic attempt and is not geared to producing solid disciples unless discipleship happens as well. But the absence of solid discipleship is not limited to seeker sensitive and other types of mega-churches. The problem is when one minister’s method become the only method. Paul fed the Corinthians milk and left others to give them meat. He was criticised for not teaching the meat like Apollos. I have a book on my desk by Rick Warren, the purpose driven life, and it has hundreds of Bible passage referenced. It is easy to criticise those who do a lot as we have lots to look at an analyse. We who have done little don’t have much to analyse. Evangelists are always being criticised because of the few people who press on to maturity. The problem often has more to do with human sinfulness than the methods. I thank God for people like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. I have read some of their books but have not followed the seeker sensitive method. I think church is for believers and focus on pastoral teaching. Big nets catch lots and many are discarded. These guys are a part of those given for the building up of the church, but as per the Corinthian problem only become problems when people make them more than God intended.

    Russell Holmes

  • Thanks Russell

    A few points if I may. Feel free to ignore the comments if you like, and even my article. The point is, Hybels himself admits that they were wrong to go down this path. They simply were not making disciples, which is what Jesus commanded us to do – not to just win converts.

    And of course Paul in Corinthians does not boast about having to feed them milk – it says this to their shame. A similar rebuke is given in Hebrews 5.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Russell, yeah it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Having said that, and having been actively involved in leadership which IMO leaned toward the seeker-sensitive approach, where the senior pastor drew a lot from ‘corporate style’ church building efforts like those of Saddleback and Willowcreek etc. I came to realise that ultimately seeker-sensitivity results more in building church attendance than in building unconditional disciples of Jesus Christ, as much as it is rationalised otherwise, simply because it id fundamentally human-centred and not christ-centred.

    To take a quote one of Bill’s other recent articles which I think sums this up…
    “The liberal gospel consists of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” H. Richard Niebuhr

    Whether we are putting on church services for dogs, having Santa as the focus of our Christmas celebrations, making award winning CDs the focus of our church ministry, or fixated on sympathising with or bandaging the wounds instead of healing the root problem, we are not really spreading the Gospel which has the power of salvation, but more *marketing* a popularised version of Jesus. As Peter said ““Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

    Garth Penglase

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