Missing a major religion story

Willow Creek Community ChurchOne would think that major changes at America’s second largest church and one of the most influential would make some news, but sadly most news organizations missed the story.

Thanks to Christianity Today‘s Matt Branaugh, there is some news out there about the changes. However, despite my best efforts to find other news stories, no other news source seems to have picked up this rather significant story:

After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church now plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in their faith.

The change comes on the heels of an ongoing four-year research effort first made public late last summer in Reveal: Where Are You?, a book coauthored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins. Hawkins said during an annual student ministries conference in April that Willow Creek would also replace its midweek services with classes on theology and the Bible.

Whether more changes are in store for the suburban Chicago megachurch isn’t clear. Hawkins declined CT‘s interview request, and senior pastor Bill Hybels was unavailable for comment.

News organizations, particularly those around Chicago, don’t seem to be against covering this major institution. They seem to just need a nicely packaged story in order to motivate themselves to cover big church news.

For example, see the Daily Herald‘s coverage of Willow Creek’s efforts to send 3.5 million meals for African children. That’s a wonderful story, but it’s hardly a unique piece of enterprising journalism. See the Christian Post‘s version of the story that appeared within the same week.

Of course when church officials decline to comment, covering the story become difficult, but that doesn’t mean news organizations should ignore this. Perhaps their refusal to talk to Christianity Today means there is more to the story?

Greg Pritchard, author of Willow Creek Seeker Services, told CT the church “sporadically has recognized it was not teaching a robust enough biblical theology and needed to turn the ship around.

“It is a huge shift,” Pritchard said of the church’s planned changes to its services. “But they’re still using the same marketing methodology. Willow appears to be selecting a new target audience with new felt needs, but it is still a target audience. Can they change? Yes, but it will take more than just shifting their target audience.”

Nationally this is a significant story since it may signal the early beginnings of a trend. The topic is at least up for a healthy discussion amongst churchgoers. CT‘s blog item is a good start on the subject, and other religion reporters, particularly those in the Chicago region, should consider covering this important story.

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  • http://www.asoftanswer.com David H. Sundwall

    Sort of off-topic, but I think the photo you are using is incorrect.

    I believe that photo is of the the Conference Center for the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). It’s at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

    This site has a photo of Willow Creek.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    I thought something was wrong with that photo but found many references to it being Willow Creek. Thanks for correcting.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The fact that this major news story is getting so little press is evidence that — say it with me now — the press just doesn’t get religion.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    And it’s also significant because of the Willow Creek Association, which, according to its website, has a membership of more than 12,000 churches from 90 different denominations:

    If Willow Creek goes in a new direction, it would have an influence greater even than just its (very large) size would indicate.

  • Richard R.

    The reason the story wasn’t picked up by anyone else is because it is pattently false! It is filled with errors and inconsistency. Amazing how the writer did not include one single quote from anyone at Willow Creek, and instead allowed Pritchard — whose 13-year-old book does not reflect current Willow Creek realities — to have the last word. Frankly, I am shocked that Terry would perpetuate an inaccurate story himself by posting it here, once again without a single verifiable Willow Creek source. Shame on us for shoddy journalism and shame on us for wanting to believe the worst about one of the most influential churches in America.

  • Chris Bolinger



    Rather than a single worship and teaching experience, Wednesday nights will soon offer a wide variety of classes designed specifically to inspire spiritual growth. Classes will be offered in Bible/Theology, Spiritual Practices, Ministry Training, and other topics that will help learners integrate faith into everyday life.

    Starting June 18, attendees will be able to choose from 15-20 different learning opportunities…

    In the early years of Willow, spiritual seekers appreciated the anonymity of a non-participatory learning experience, so times of corporate worship took place at New Community rather than at weekend services. Culture has changed, however, and seekers today appear eager to join fully into the corporate experiences of the Christian community. Our recent increase in worship during weekend services has been an intentional response to this cultural shift…

    As Bill Hybels mentioned in his address to the April 2 New Community, Willow intends to follow this new approach through the end of 2008, assessing its effectiveness along the way. The goal is to provide opportunities that will help every individual at Willow move forward along the pathway of spiritual growth.