What do you do when you have been the national, even worldwide leader of a particular vision of doing church, and you discover that your methods did not live up to the hype? How about if you have profited from franchising your numerical success across the evangelical world only to find out you were headed in an unprofitable direction the entire time?
If you are Bill Hybels and Willow Creek, you write a book and confess.
I don’t mean to be too sardonic. I am glad Hybels and his executive pastor are coming out and revealing the results of their recent study with humility. They took an extensive look at their marketing-style, consumer and program-driven way of doing church and discovered that the massive numbers they (and others) boast in their church do not indicate genuine discipleship. You can catch a glimpse of the report at Out of Ur.
The blog notes:
Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “Increasing 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.”
They quote Hybles later:
Hybels confesses: 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 service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.
I think what I am most concerned with is how shocking this appears to be to the evangelical world. For years I was a bit of a black sheep in some pastoral circles because I refused to believe that marketing the Gospel to fickle consumers with testimonials and slick shows was a good way to go.
I think the shock value in this apology is a result of the enculturation of the evangelical pastorate. Because it really can produce large numbers, large budgets, and large national recognition, we have bitten down on the belief that looking and acting like a fast-food restaurant is in accord with Christian witness and discipleship. Because we are so eager to put numbers on our “successes,” we are naturally drawn to reproducible church-packages like moths to a flame. In his under appreciated book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson refers to this attitude as "Ecclesiastical Pornography."
I am interested to see how large the reaction market to this is going to be. Where there was money to be made in books and seminars about how church needs to be done, in the wake of this apology I am guessing there will be a lot of money to be made in books and seminars telling us again—with the opposite emphasis, of course—how church should be done.