News from Willow Creek Community Church, an enormously influential and very large church community in Illinois (see the report here): a multi-year study has led them to conclude that they have been doing things wrong. Bill Hybels, the senior pastor, said this:
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.
The church has announced a root-and-branch rethink, based on Scripture and research.
What was it that wasn’t working? Greg Hawkins, the ‘executive pastor’ of the church is quoted as saying: ‘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.’ That is, they have been working with a ‘if we can get people to participate in this or that church activity, they will grow spiritually’ model, and have discovered it doesn’t work. Fair enough. The chilling part of the tale comes next.
What are the things that ‘we didn’t put that much money into’ that their ‘people are crying out for’? In Hybels own words, ‘[w]e should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service[s], how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.’ What does help people grow spiritually? Bible reading, prayer, spiritual disciplines.
It would be easy to mock (it would be so easy to mock…), but that would be to miss the plank in my own eye. Willow Creek discovered, rather spectacularly, that they were unconsciously equating commitment to church programmes with commitment to God; how many of us who are, or have been, in church leadership have not made that mistake? We assume people aren’t praying, because they aren’t at the church prayer meeting, measure their spirituality by their regularity at Sunday worship, and so on. The problem is the usual one with all attempts to assess, well, anything: we struggle to measure what actually matters, so we pretend that what we can measure does matter. Perhaps, with all their resources, Willow Creek will find and share ways around their problem and mine?