Angle SquareSquaring the Angle

by J. Randal Matheny

Stories, both on religious and secular sites, are highlighting a self-study by the Willow Creek Community Church, led by Bill Hybels, in which they discover that programs do not promote discipleship.

The research discovered that “[i]ncreasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

This discovery ran counter to the whole philosophy of Willow Creek.

“We made a mistake,” said Hybels, “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 [B]ible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

The WCCC has become a model for churches of all stripes, including some congregations of the saints. What effect, if any, will such an admission have on our brethren who have adopted the Willow Creek model? Here are some lessons we believe should arise from Hybel’s Folly.

First, the Willow Creek study should caution us against the fads that appear in the denominational world. What others are doing catches our eye and appears, persuasively, that the latest gimmick works. We, as Christians unduly influenced by our culture, want what works and what works now. So we rush to adopt it to capture the elusive success that evades us. But we don’t perceive the dead end to which the gimmick leads.

Second, the study warns against depending on programs to foster progress in the spiritual life, disciplines and service. Jesus never started a program. He lived and ate and walked with twelve men for some three years, did intensive post-resurrection training for 40 days and still found it necessary to send them the Holy Spirit for inspired reminders and fuller teaching. A program might succeed only if it permits the development of genuine relationships that foster spiritual development, but generally programs are not designed for relationships but for objective results.

Third, the Willow Creek head-banging serves as a reminder that the old is better. Not because it is old, but because God is its source. Apparently, from the reports, Hybels and company are hitting the reset button in their church, starting with a clean screen and rethinking their approach. They don’t, however, seem to be reconsidering the simplicity of New Testament Christianity as being exactly what a mechanical, high-tech world needs. One might hope that the congregations of the saints will be led to discover anew God’s plan for evangelism and edification in the New Testament.

Fourth, the felt-needs principle is valid as long as it leads — very soon in the evangelistic process — to the real need of salvation and redemption. But to use the approach as a means of edification and spiritual development is self-defeating, since it leaves people where they are and hinders moving beyond their needs to consider a wider ministry in the Kingdom. Continuing the felt-needs approach in the church merely feeds the egotistic impulse rather than teaching love for one’s neighbor.

Fifth, the Willow Creek experience reminds us that what is needed is not innovation, but restoration. I have stated before that God does not want creativity, but fidelity, in his church. By that I mean that God judges us by our faithfulness to his plan, not by additions or adaptations. New ideas are seldom free of philosophical and cultural underpinnings. Changes, even in architecture and furniture arrangement, always say something, for good or bad. This is not a death wish to return to a 1950s model church or to adopt the KJV in congregations, but to be guided by the real pattern presented in the New Testament. Innovations should be jettisoned in favor of adherence to the divine model.

Willow Creek will not likely change its essential makeup. Too much is at stake for the leaders to shake up the house, at the risk of losing what they have built up. But their surprise discovery does serve to drive those of us who are observers or who have bought in to their system to make sure our ground is Biblical and not an American quick-start program which promises practical results that eventually deliver worldly disappointments.

Our prayer is that this admission by the second largest evangelical church in the U.S. will direct many back to the New Testament as the only guide in faith and practice.