Thursday, November 08, 2007

Oops! My Bad!

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.


Rusty said...

Whenever our focus is strictly on "saving souls" we run the danger of racking up the numbers of souls "saved" vs. actually making disciples. Worse yet, we run the risk of convincing people that they are Christian when, in fact, they may not even understand what it means to be a Christian.

J said...

I've not seen any "shock" in the evangelical community, at least of the type you're talking about.

What I have seen is almost every magazine and blog out there claim this is a shock to the evangelical community, but not to them. I have yet to see a single post, magazine article, speaker say "Wow, what an out-of-the-blue surprise!!" (even WC didn't have that reaction)

I've seen a lot of snarky comments out there saying "They're so wrapped up in glitzy programs that this is a surprise to them!?!?!?!"

Aside from Out of Ur, I haven't seen anyone who has actually read the book comment on it. Everybody seems to be linking and reading the same review - Ur's.

I've read the book, and I have to say that Out of Ur seemed to have an opinion against WC beforehand, and let it show in the review. The book gives a quite different picture than the review and the paragraphs it clipped out.

Here's how I would sum up the book: The goal of the Church is primarily to make disciples. Period. Now how do we do that? We have programs that are great for getting people to hear about Christ, but we wrongly thought that those sorts of programs were also what people needed to grow in Christ. We were wrong. We noticed discipleship wasn't growing, and did a major study of why. Here's what we were missing. The types of programs that draw people in to hear about Christ are not what people need to grow in Christ. Here's what we've found people need to grow in Christ.

(disclaimer: I don't attend WC, though I've listened to some sermons online.)

Phil Steiger said...


I don't want to sound too judgmental of Willow Creek specifically, but I do believe their model has been counter-productive for years. And when I use the term "shock," I think it does apply very well to their own reaction to the results.

The drum I have been beating for a long time now is that discipleship is a very different thing than programs and marketing. I am glad that this turn of events seems to verify that, but I also know that it may be a long and interesting process to dump these commonplace notions.

J said...

It's very hard to do two things well, and I think that's sort of where the beginning of the troubles is. WC and other churches found some very good ways to bring today's US culture together with Christ. Because the majority of people in the US don't have even a tenuous link to a church, the older method of bringing people and Christ together - preaching from the pulpit - stopped reaching people.

So churches found that having outreach programs is effective (at least more effective) at getting Joe Schmoe to hear about Christ. Christ is always powerful, and these programs started seeing a LOT of good results.

But those results put blinders on churches: "these programs are resulting in people coming to Christ, so we'll just keep these programs for Christians afterwards too!" Once people find something that works (or they think works), they don't tend to look at it again.

There certainly is a surprise to find out that what they thought was working isn't working as well as they thought. But there's not the sort of shock that a lot of blogs are claiming - an "OMG! We're doomed!" sort of reaction.

A lot of blogs are treating this as an "OMG We're doomed" sort of situation, but as far as I can tell, nobody is really treating it that way except those who were against it in the first place.

I'm not trying to defend the WC practices, just pointing out what I think is a massive overreaction by most commenters.

Phil Steiger said...


Thanks again, and I agree that there is some rethinking to be done as far as the activites of Church in our communities is concerned. And I am glad you mentioned what you did about the kind of "shock" you are reading about on other sites. I certainly don't feel like we have a serious problem now as a result of their study, so I think the best thing for me to do is expand on what I mean by shock.

This example is a little silly, but hopefully it will make my point. Imagine a traveler who thought to himself, "The best way to get from Denver to New York is to tunnel a mile underground and head vaguely northeast." Then a year later the traveler poked his head out of the ground to find himself closer to Atlanta than New York, he would be shocked by the results, but he might be the only one.

I don't think everything was wrong with the basic "seeker-sensitive" model, but it contained some assumptions in its very structure that I think sent it necessarily off track. Like the spelunking traveler, the original structure was intended to get to the right destination, but made some fundamental flaws from the very start.

The Gyrovague said...

I really resonate with David Fitch and his book The Great Giveaway. He recommends that the church not count souls saved, but sould baptized. Not just saved and then dunked the next day mind you, but new believers who go through a new believers course and then get baptized some months later after completion. I think it would help sober up the church on how many are being saved...and how many are really being saved if you catch my drift.

I attend a mega church, one that is called The Willow Creek of the West and it is fulfilling, but I see some of what they are repenting of going on inside our own doors. May we repent of the bigger is better model and go with churches that value the Christian Life as much as saving lives.