More Church Growth Confessions

On the old site, we blogged about a church growth guru who came to admit that contemporary worship is NOT an effective evangelism tool. Now, the church growth pioneer, Bill Hybel of Willow Creek, is admitting that his techniques for building megachurches do NOT make for mature Christians. That confession is in a new book by Willow Creek staff members Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson entitled <a href="Reveal Where Are You?“>Reveal Where Are You?. Says Hybels:

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. . . .

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.

The book apparently offers yet more suggestions to re-invent church. But untold numbers of congregations have adopted the Willow Creek methodology, which apparently gets people in the door, but doesn’t do much for them spiritually. Read this commentary.

HT: Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr Luther from Lutherama

    I cannot say as I am surprised. The Willow Creek Methodology is largely get them in the door and keep them busy. It is much like the monastic system build them up by giving them “good” works to do and hope the rest will sort itself out. Involving a person in the mission of the church is important but equally important is helping the person grow in the knowledge of the Lord. The problem is that you can lead a person to meat but you can’t make them eat. In addition, to many people see tangible faith events as more spiritual aka fun than a good old fashion bible study.

  • WebMonk

    While there is a great deal about the mega-church ideology that I think is falling far short of all that Christ has asked his church to do, I always try to temper my feelings of superiority. Willow Creek brings more people to Christ each year (even if it leaves them as babes in Christ) than a hundred small churches.

    In five years, my church of (now) approximately 60, we’ve only had 6 people come to acknowledge Christ as savior, not counting several children of members who were baptized. At WC, in each service there are dozens of people who profess Christ for the first time. While I doubt that every person is genuinely accepting Christ as Savior, I leave that to the Lord, and even if only half of them are actually becoming Christians, that’s as many people coming to Christ in ONE SERVICE as our church has had in the last 5 years! Sadly, I don’t think that our church is abnormal in this.

    There is more celebration in heaven over those people coming to salvation at Willow Creek than there is for hundreds of more spiritually mature church services which virtually never have someone come to Christ.

    I’m not tying to excuse WC for its shortcomings, many of which have been vociferously pointed out in this blog and others, or to say we should all be like them, but let’s not ignore the great deal they ARE accomplishing for the kingdom of God.

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  • Bror Erickson

    Webmonk, I would not compare the parable of the 99 sheep and the lost 1 sheep to the church. I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself for staying and feeding the sheep you have. Feed them the gospel, that is your job. Don’t discount babies.
    I get worried when I start hearing people talk their people needing to take responsibility for their own growth. No, I want my people reading their Bibles, and praying etc. But we as pastors are undershepards of Christ and entrusted with his sheep. I think it is the shepherds job to lead the sheep to green pastures, and feed the sheep in the winter. I’ve never heard of a shepherd declaring that it is the sheeps responibility to become a self feeder, rather I see them bottle feeding the young sheep and nursing them to maturity. That is not to say that people shouldn’t watch out for their own souls. But we shepherds ought to know that we have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and we shouldn’t shirk it with “Well they ought to be reading their Bibles at home.”
    I doubt this confessin of Bill Hybels will have any real impact though. It’s long been known that these tactics don’t produce mature disciples of Christ, if indeed they produce disciples at all. Yet most of the pastors that have gone for this sort of thing have not cared to make mature disciples. If they cared about that they would have listened years ago.

  • Bror Erickson

    “I would not compare the parable of the 99 sheep and the lost 1 sheep to the church.”
    I occurs to me that I failed to finish this thought. I meant to say “in the way you do.” First off the parable is directed towards self-righteous pharisees, who scoff at Jesus going after a “sinner.” So maybe you can apply it if your congregation is filled with Self-righteous pharisees, who scoff at you for trying to save sinners. I’m blessed with a congregation that has never scoffed at my attempts to evangelize the community or bring new members in. And I won’t slander them by comparing them to the self-righteous pharisees either.
    Second, Webmonk, I think Jesus would be quite irate if you left your congregation and stopped feeding them the word of God, or started to feed them something other than the pure Gospel inorder to bring more people in. Though there is much rejoicing in heaven over one saved sinner, god still understands that one in hand should not be sacrificed for two in the bush.

  • http://heresyhunter.blogspot.com Bob Hunter

    “teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’”

    That’s like giving birth to a new baby and telling him/her to feed his/herself!

  • WebMonk

    Where the hell do you get anything like “I think Jesus would be quite irate if you left your congregation and stopped feeding them the word of God” out of what I said?!?!?!

    Did I not add in enough modifiers saying I didn’t think everything about the WC style of church was good? Did I somehow make suggestions that all other churches are self-righteous pharisees?

    The closest I could come to what you seem to be insinuating is that I think most churches are TOO focused on the feeding of themselves and not focused enough on bringing people to Christ.

    Also, the book’s statements about “self-feeding” is only in contrast to the idea that people are expecting ALL their Bible studying and growth to be sufficiently taken care of by listening to sermons, and so they don’t actually study the Bible on their own.

    There wasn’t the slightest hint of meaning something like “giving birth to a new baby and telling him/her to feed his/herself”. It was meant as getting Christians to study the Bible themselves, not JUST expecting the pastor and sermons to be completely sufficient.

  • Joe

    I have very little love for the Chruch Growth movement. The church grows when the word of God is preached in its purity and truth. Indeed, it will not return empty. The idea that we need to add a little excitement to the Word in order to make it effective is simply an act of faithlessness.

    Of course we should engage in outreach in our communities with the hope that people will come to church and be saved. Our outreach should not included spicing up the Divine Service.

  • Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    I was not trying to be confrontational here. you seemed to be very discouraged by the fact the you church has only had 6 converts in the last five years, not counting children of members. I was trying to give you encouragement in the work you are doing. I took this statement as a paraphrase of the 100 sheep the ninetynine which the shepherd leaves in the wilderness, and doesn’t seem to return to in the parable either.
    “There is more celebration in heaven over those people coming to salvation at Willow Creek than there is for hundreds of more spiritually mature church services which virtually never have someone come to Christ.
    So that is where the “hell” I got it from. But now you write this:
    Also, the book’s statements about “self-feeding” is only in contrast to the idea that people are expecting ALL their Bible studying and growth to be sufficiently taken care of by listening to sermons, and so they don’t actually study the Bible on their own.

    There wasn’t the slightest hint of meaning something like “giving birth to a new baby and telling him/her to feed his/herself”. It was meant as getting Christians to study the Bible themselves, not JUST expecting the pastor and sermons to be completely sufficient.”

    Fact is we should encourage our people to read their Bibles and books of Concord and so on. But I have to ask “completely sufficient” for what? Fact of the matter is their baptisms are competely sufficient for salvation. our Sermons should be completely sufficient if the Holy Spirit is working through them as we confess. I do want my people attneding Bible Studies, I want them to be reading their Bibles. But I also want them to know that their salvation does not depend on that! when They leave my church on sunday i want them to know that Christ died for them, and they are saved. I do not want them thinking oh boy I better go home and read the Bible because listening to the pastor’s sermon was insufficient. I pray to God Sunday in and Sunday out that the exact opposite is the case and my sermon has been sufficient.

  • WebMonk

    I think you’re picking out an imagined argument from the book. You say you encourage people to read the Bible in addition to hearing sermons. That’s exactly what the book is saying on this topic.

    Did the book say somewhere that people’s salvation came from joining Bible studies? No.

    Perhaps different ideas of “sufficient” are being used. The book is talking about a totally-everything sort of sufficient – a sufficiency which, if a sermon had it, would make Bible study completely superfluous. You wouldn’t say sermons, even the best of them, are that sort of sufficient. The book was referring to the congregation having that sort of “sufficient” opinion about sermons – ALL (emphasis on the ALL) they had to do was listen to the sermons to receive EVERYTHING they need.

    My “more rejoicing in heaven…” comment wasn’t a comparison to the entire parable, rather a comment on the primary goal of the Church. It can be worded in different ways, but essentially it comes down to making disciples of all nations. Too many churches are too focused on discipling the current members (or just gathering as many members as possible) and not nearly enough on bringing the unsaved to Christ.

    Both are vitally necessary, but to make a disciple of a Christian, first you need a Christian. As the parable says, the first step of someone coming to Christ is the most joyous, and by that description there is more celebration around WC than most other churches. Unfortunately, earnestly working to bring people to Christ in the first step place has been neglected by many churches.

    For the first 4 years of my church (we’re fairly new), we hovered around 30-40 people, having a few people join, a few leave, but no one came to Christ. Dense as we are, it took a while for God to get through to us about what wasn’t going on. When we shifted focus to reaching out to the lost that we started seeing people come to Christ. Unfortunately, too many churches are more or less satisfied that only a couple people a year come to Christ.

    In speaking with pastors in the area, it’s depressing to hear that some of their churches haven’t had someone outside their church come to Christ in years. I’m not discounting the children of believers, but they are the “low-hanging fruit” and churches need to be gathering ALL the fruit.

    At Willow Creek people are coming to Christ by the boatload, in spite of the things we see wrong in it. Can your church say the same? Can mine? No. So while I will still speak up where there are shortcomings or errors, my criticism will be cautious.

  • Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    There is no justification for bad doctrine. There is justification for Bill Hybel, but it is not in his results. His justification is in the same place as yours and mine, Christ.
    I will not give them a pass for bad doctrine and shallow teaching because so many have “Come to Christ.” Terminology I also have problems with.
    There is a world of difference between encouraging people to read their Bibles, and telling them they “have to take responsibility, and become self feeders.” They are the ones who left the word sufficient ambiguous.
    I’m not sure when anyone comes to a point where studying the word of God is completely superflous ever. So I don’t follow your argument there.
    You write: “The book was referring to the congregation having that sort of “sufficient” opinion about sermons – ALL (emphasis on the ALL) they had to do was listen to the sermons to receive EVERYTHING they need. ” Again I answer: “I hope and pray to God that my parishoners receive all and EVERYTHING they need listening to my sermons.” It is not what they do, or have to do. But the Holy Spirit working through the word that gives them ALL they NEED.
    Will they benefit from further study of God’s word? Of course they will. But I am not going to fall into a legalistic trap that tells them they “have to” or “need to” do anything. Christ has accomplished all they need on the cross.

  • WebMonk

    I must admit I’m puzzled by your statements. It seems that you’re contradicting yourself, but I’m sure you don’t intend to, so I must be misunderstanding.

    “But the Holy Spirit working through the word that gives them ALL they NEED.”
    “Will they benefit from further study of God’s word? Of course they will.”

    Why would they need to study their Bibles if all they need already comes through the sermon? How can they benefit further if everything they need comes from the sermon? I must be missing something.

    For what you said about the self-feeding:
    ” There is a world of difference between encouraging people to read their Bibles, and telling them they ‘have to take responsibility, and become self feeders.’ They are the ones who left the word sufficient ambiguous.”

    Have you read the book? I assure you that you are understanding that phrase completely out of total context. If you take just the paragraph in the blog, you can construe it to mean the legalistic thing you describe, but that’s not at all what the whole book describes. You would scold someone for interpreting the Bible in a similar manner.

    My caution in being too quick to condemn WC is that I don’t want to fall into the whole speck-vs-beam error. God is the one who draws people to himself, not Willow Creek’s programs; but God is using Willow Creek to bring thousands of people to Himself each year. I am going to be very careful about being quick to criticism something that God is using like that. I’m not justifying bad theology and practice as you suggested, but I’m going to be cautious in my criticisms.

  • fwsonnek

    alcoholics anonymous has some great advice (whatever other many shortcomings they have).

    “Stay into the process and out of the results”.

    Truth is like a narrow road with deep ditches of error on each side. the opposite of an error IS the opposite error. This may be why Bror seems to be contradictory when he is not at all.

    The “process” is to “know nothing but Christ, and Him Crucified”. It is to continually reform what we do with the aim of evermore putting Christ more radically at the center of our personal and corporate (church ) lives in proclaiming Christ in sermon, supper, baptism and private confession, and then also in the man-made institutional things that wrap around that… worship forms, hymns, institutions, etc etc etc.

    The church growthers are looking for the magic combination that will get RESULTS measurable by surveys taken.

    We TRUST in faith that the more we make Christ, not in name only, but in a living connection to the meaning of his life, death and ressurection for the forgiveness of sins, that God’s will will be done.

    What that will is is to save all mankind. It is given to us to “see” or “measure” this.

    At the same time this is not an excuse to us or our pastors to think we have done what we can and rest.

    However our “measure” is to see just how radically Jesus is allowed to increase by what we do and we are decreased in the “process”. we do not measure by survey or a numerical accounting, although these measures can still be useful as symptoms identifying a need for a solution.

    example: my old church is 80% white in a community that is 80% chinese. This COULD be an opportunity for reflection and repentance and change of strategy. It might mean putting the Holy Gospel into chinese. It would ALSO mean not rushing in a chinese pastor who is can bring in more chinese but is not ALL about christ. Taking the time to provide deep theological training might then trump a rush to numerical results.

    I hope some of this helps

  • Bror Erickson

    WebMonk,
    I hae not read the book. I probably won’t read the book either. And I will be as cautious with my criticism as they are with their counciles on “how to do church.”
    Are you serious? You can’t see the difference, between encouraging people to read their Bibles, and telling them they have to!
    You see a contradiction in saying that The Holy Spirit working through the word gives them ALL they NEED. And that further study of the Bible also has its benefits?
    I don’t NEED to drink a beer right now, but I certainly would BENEFIT from it.
    You are the reason I think the article has it correct.

  • fwsonnek

    oops! what i obviously meant to say was “It is NOT given to us to measure.” we live by faith and trust and we have been order-ed as to what our role is in all of this.

    frank

  • fwsonnek

    webmonk:

    Bror is trying to say that faith in Jesus christ is the goal and aim and all there is to our christian faith.

    “benefit” from reading the bible would only be to the extent it achieves this.

    those in the megachurch movement put other “benefits” such as moral betterment or “felt needs” as being very important and measure in terms of numbers and surveys.

    Lutherans recognize the usefulness of god pleasing nature of meeting peoples needs, felt or otherwise , along with moral betterment.

    But we believe that the ONLY (not merely “central”) focus of the church MUST be the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus.

    If you think of this statement I have made in the most radical way you can, then you will understand what Bror is trying to say. It is very radical actually. It seems to be (almost) uniquely Lutheran. Which is exactly why I am Lutheran out of all the other possibilities for me as a christian.

    Note that this focus is meaningless without acknowledging sin/morals, but that talk of sin/morals is totally subservient and taught with the goal of the one teaching of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus.

    Bror then, sees the benefits of the Joel Osteens and others in that wide spectrum of movement in a temporal sense, but also sees these things as possible distractions from the “one thing needful.”

    I hope that helps.

  • WebMonk

    Bror, the book ISN’T telling them they have to read the Bible in the way you are meaning it – a legalistic requirement. You’re putting words into the book’s mouth with your misunderstanding. (if it had a mouth that is)

    And yes, I can see the difference in what you were saying about sermons being sufficient and still needing to read the Bible. I was trying to get you to expound a bit.

    THE BOOK UNDERSTANDS THE DIFFERENCE TOO. In the same way you can speak of still encouraging people to read the Bible even though your sermons are “sufficient”, so does this book speak of how WC wants to encourage their members to read the Bible.

    You’re criticizing the book and purposefully assuming the worst even though you know nothing about it beyond two partial paragraphs. You’ve assumed they are promoting legalistic Bible-reading requirements, when actually the book says nothing of the sort when you read it as a whole instead of excerpting a paragraph.

    That’s just the sort of thing I’m talking about when I say I want to be very careful about criticizing something that God is using. Before I start, I want to make sure that I’m accurate, otherwise I am guilty of having a beam in my own eye as I’m trying to remove something from their eye.

  • WebMonk

    Thanks Frank, I’ll try to type more quickly next time.

  • Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    You write:
    “And yes, I can see the difference in what you were saying about sermons being sufficient and still “needing” to read the Bible. I was trying to get you to expound a bit.”
    No, you obviously don’t see the difference. And your misreading of me makes me suspicious of what you say about the book.

    The point is they are telling people they NEED something more. Well maybe they do if they are going to Willow Creek. But if their pastor was giving them the Gospel in the first place, they wouldn’t need anything more. Though we always benefit from contact with God’s word. I’m not the one making it legalistic. It is the language they and you choose to use that makes it legalistic.
    there have been thousands of people saved who never even learned to read.

  • WebMonk

    “It is the language they and you choose to use that makes it legalistic.”

    Where is the language we are using that indicates Bible reading is a legalistic requirement for Christians??? You keep restating and restating this, but you never say where it is said. I think I can sort of guess where you’re getting this idea from the paragraphs mentioned above, but I know you’re reading them in exclusion to everything else the book says. The book spends some time on this topic and the overall meaning is far, far from a legalistic requirement for Bible study. You’re reading a lot of wrong ideas into these two paragraphs.

    I don’t know your “language” and how to get this across to you in a way you’ll understand. You seem bound and determined to put the worst possible understanding on what is being said.

    Maybe this will help: Imagine you have someone at church who you somehow knew never prayed, read the Bible, or really even thought much about Christ outside of your once-a-week service. How would you say to them, in a single paragraph, that they should study the Bible themselves? (I’m sure there are other things you’d say to them, but just the Bible reading topic right now.)

    Go ahead an write it down. I’ll let you know how closely you and the book agree. Maybe I’ll be surprised and you won’t agree at all, but I’m pretty sure you will.

  • Booklover

    It was hard to get through the poor grammar of the excerpt from the WC people.

    Did this movement begin with Billy Graham? I’m sorry–I know he’s a good man and means well, but there’s not usually “successful” discipling of the people who walk the aisle of those events, and their movement admits this.

    There was a large church in our city which started through revival. It was totally made up of former Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics. There was the word “Bible” in the name, but there were no Bibles in the Sunday School rooms. Big-name preachers would come to town and preach during the summer. Fathers never catechized their children. They just prayed that Junior would “accept Christ” at the junior high church camp. The church was huge, but the only thing we had in common is that we had all been “born again,” as if we had been one type of Christian but not yet the right type. We had all walked down an aisle. We pooh-poohed creeds and catechisms and liturgies. Never did we recite the Lord’s Prayer. :-( The only thing binding us together was the popularity of the big-name preachers and our shared experience. There was no congregational prayer or confession, only individual “testimonies.” No church fathers were honored or studied, only D L Moody and Graham. The church building is now torn down. It died after several church splits and fights. Sad.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    Back at Cyberbrethren, someone wrote that they “…admire their willingness to admit their mistakes”

    What to admire about people who have made mistakes based on a lack of understanding of how people become deeper Christians? So what if they apologize? Have they changed their theology? People become deeper Christians by hearing God’s Word, both the law and the gospel. Jesus promises us strengthening of faith through the Word and the Sacraments.

    A few years ago I left my conservative ELCA church as it underwent a transformation, at the hand of Bill Hybels, to a seeker-sensitive megachurch complete with reformed children’s curriculum. This transformation also included a HUGE bank note, because “God” had told our pastor to build it and they will come. Our pastor projected that our church would grow to 7,000 in ten years. Five years later, many pledges are unfulfilled, crisis meetings are being held and people are leaving. The huge increase in giving congregants never materialized! Who will pay the bank? Does anyone expect legal action against Hybels, since much of what he did involved churches getting loans to accomplish what he promised? Or does our former pastor just sue God?

  • Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    Bible reading is a privelege par excellance, not a legalistic requirement or even a requirement. For me as a pastor and a shepherd of sheep it is a requirement, but one I enjoy too much to think of as a requirement. I can’t hardly believe I get paid to do it.
    However, I get plenty of people who walk through the doors of this congregation. None of them come to Christ, most of them come from other denominations, others have been Mormon (which by the way grows big in numbers) others have no Church background. Yet Christ comes to all of them. He comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, when they here the word of God preached, (Rom. 10).
    I do my best to do an in home follow up with them in the next week, some times it gets delayed. Sometimes it never comes to fruition. I give them a Bible with Luther’s Catechism in the back, and introduction to the Bible (curiously also placed in the back) and orders for prayer. I also give them a copy of Veith’s bood “Spirituatlity of the Cross.” I tell them about the Bible, about Jesus christ, I tell them about our church and what we believe. I tell them about a class they can take if they want to become members and commune. At that meeting, and during the class I tell them about the benefits of devotions and encourage them to set time aside everyday for prayer. But I do not tell them “They need to.” Or they “Have to take responsibility for”. That takes a joyful privelege, and makes it a requirement, something they feel guilty for not doing. And the fact is, it is my responsibility to feed them. Jesus told Peter, “feed my sheep.” He did not say, “make my sheep self-feeders.”

  • WebMonk

    Then you and the book are in pretty good agreement. Neither is the book putting forward a legalistic requirement, regardless of how you want to spin the words “need” and “self-feeding”. If you would bother to read the book, you would see that these words are being used conversationally, not as a carefully nuanced theological treatise. I can tell someone they “need” to read such and such a book, and not mean that they will die (or something) if they don’t.

    THAT is the way in which they are using the term “need”. Similar for self-feeding – similarly to you encouraging people to read the Bible outside of church, so to are they saying people “need” to read the Bible outside of church. That is what is meant by “self-feeding”.

    Just as Paul commended the Bereans for studying the scriptures about and beyond sermons they heard, so is this book saying people “need” (conversational meaning) to study the Bible on their own in addition to hearing the sermons.

  • Bror Erickson

    Webmonk,
    And what gives you the idea, that while they are writing the book they are thinking like teenage valley girls in talking about the Bible and saying “like Oh-my gosh, you really need to read this book, it is so awesome.”
    I don’t get the vibe from the paragraph or anywhere else that they were using the word in anything but its usual meaning. especially when they make statements like “listening to sermons is not sufficient.”

  • WebMonk

    Now you’re just being purposefully obdurate.

    Have you read the book? No. Then defer to someone who has – the entire book is conversational in tone. If that weren’t enough, there are quite a few other statements which clarify what they mean when they speak of “need” and “self-feed”.

    Verses can be taken out of context, and claimed to mean something that is clearly opposed by the rest of the Bible. That’s exactly what you’re doing here – you’re taking a paragraph without context and claiming it means something that the rest of the book clearly denies.

    Perhaps I should have used the words “all-encompassing” instead of “sufficient”. By saying that sermons are not sufficient, I am not saying that sermons alone cannot bring across everything that is necessary for a Christian. They can.

    Still, Christians SHOULD read their Bibles as well as listen to sermons. Why? Because through the Bible, God says far more than any set of sermons can cover. People can receive all the necessities through sermons alone, but there is a great deal more contained in God’s Word than sermons alone can convey. That’s one of the reasons why Christians ought (“need”) to read the Bible.

    I’ve given my last try. I shake the electrons off my words, and now leave this post.

  • Andrea

    Could I ask, please, where is the “old site” where I can view the article referenced in this post? (as in: ” On the old site, we blogged about a church growth guru who came to admit that contemporary worship is NOT an effective evangelism tool.”) I’d love to read that, but I do not know where to look. Thanks a bunch.

  • http://www.cockahoop.com/ tODD

    Andrea (@27), I believe that would be this article on the old site.

  • Andrea

    Thank you! Very helpful!

  • http://www.articlesbase.com/religion-articles/you-know-it-you-show-it-220775.html Christ

    Thank you for this wonderful book review, I’m in need of this book.


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