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.




    The Willow Creek Association published a book called REVEAL in August 2007 about “ground-breaking” research findings regarding spiritual growth. These findings were based on survey results from seven churches and have now been confirmed through research with an additional two-dozen churches around the country, including two Canadian churches.

    Some in the Christian blogging and media world point to these findings as evidence of a church model “flaw”/breakdown that applies exclusively to Willow Creek and/or the seeker movement inspired by Willow Creek thirty years ago.
    This is not what the research shows.

    Here are several quotes based on partial or incorrect information:
    • World magazine; November 10, 2007
    o “‘We made a mistake’. Bill Hybels…on a study that showed the Willow Creek model had not produced spiritually mature Christians.”
    • Bob Burney, Townhall; October 30, 2007
    o “The report reveals that what they’ve been doing for these many years and what they’ve taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ…Numbers, yes, but not disciples….”
    • H.B. London, The Pastor’s Weekly Briefing; November 9, 2007
    o “Hybels goes on to say ‘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.”
    ? Bill Hybels did not say this. Focus on the Family is printing a retraction.


    1. REVEAL’s findings go well beyond Willow Creek and the “seeker” church movement.
    o REVEAL’s findings are based on thirty churches besides Willow, chosen specifically to reflect a diversity of church models. We’ve surveyed traditional Sunday school model churches, missions-focused churches, mainline denominations, African-American churches and churches representing a wide range of geographies, sizes and styles. In all thirty churches, we’ve found the six segments of REVEAL’s spiritual continuum, including the Stalled and Dissatisfied segments.
    ? REVEAL is currently surveying five hundred churches, including more than a dozen denominations and English-speaking international churches. Early results from the first 200 demonstrate REVEAL’s segments exist across multiple church model/style/size alternatives.
    ? 40% of these 500 churches do not describe themselves as “seeker-focused” or “seeker-friendly”.

    2. REVEAL’s findings show that Christ-followers are being developed at Willow Creek and all other surveyed churches.
    o The two most spiritually mature segments, called the “Close to Christ” and the “Christ-Centered” groups, account for over 40% of the total thirty church sample. To date the spiritual profiles of those churches show a range of 30% to 60% for these two segments.
    o The controversy is:
    ? REVEAL discovered a Dissatisfied segment that fell out of the two most spiritually advanced segments noted above. They are sold-out Christ followers, but are disappointed in their church. The Dissatisfied segment averaged 9% over the thirty churches, ranging from 3% to 14%.
    ? The bloggers and media point to this Dissatisfied group as proof that the “seeker” movement does not grow up disciples of Christ. The fact is this Dissatisfied group exists in every church we’ve surveyed, including the 200 churches currently in process.

    3. Willow Creek’s Senior Pastor Bill Hybels said, “We made a mistake.”
    o Bill acknowledged that Willow did not appreciate the undercurrent of dissatisfaction expressed by some of our strongest Christ-followers. Nor did we appreciate the Kingdom impact of training and encouraging all Christ-followers to devote themselves to a daily discipline of personal spiritual practices.
    o But taking corrective action is not a new experience for Willow Creek. We’ve made a number of course corrections over the years – like adding a mid-week service in the ‘80s and building a small group ministry in the ‘90s. We’ve always been a church in motion and REVEAL is another example of Willow being open to God’s design for this local church.

    4. Willow Creek will use REVEAL’s findings to take its mission to redeem people far from God to a whole new level.
    o Bill would say that Willow is not simply seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed. The power of REVEAL’s insights for our seeker strategy is the evangelistic strength uncovered in the more mature segments. If we can serve them better, the evangelistic potential is enormous, based on REVEAL’s findings.

  2. We have permitted the post above by, despite the absence of a name (the email was put in place of a person’s name) and in spite of the confusing points made above, which do not clarify but obfuscate the reports being made in the media.

    Apparently, Willow Creek is defending itself against some dissatisfied segments in their movement, as well as seeking to spread the results of the study to other churches. The comment made on our humble site and, most likely, on other blogs and media outlets appear to be an attempt at damage control.

    The comment says that Bill Hybels would say that Willow Creek is “seeker-obsessed.” It is not clear whether this is actually a quote of his. But we suspect it fairly represents his approach.

    As such, it underlines the validity of many of the points made it the feature article above. Although the church must be fully committed to God’s plan in the world of reaching everyone and preaching the gospel to all, the center of that mission is not those to be reached (and even less, a segment of the lost called “seekers”), but the glory of God himself.