What’s Wrong With How We Do Church? Willow Creek Works a Cure

The editors of Christianity Today post a blog called Out of Ur. It is routinely instructive and often fascinating. One of their editors has just posted material from a seminar hosted by Willow Creek — one of the nation’s most influential megachurches.

Some of you may recall a series I wrote last year based on Willow Creek’s study called reveal, called What’s Wrong With How We Do Church? The series was an attempt to answer the problem pointed out in a study Willow Creek commissioned, called Reveal.

Among the problems pointed out was the fact that mature Christians felt dissatisfied with church as ordinarily conducted. Many drop out, not because of sliding into worldliness, but because the more mature Christians found church done as normally done somehow inadequate.

Willow Creek expanded the survey to include hundreds of churches and thousands of Christians. The results held true regardless of denomination or church size.

And so, here’s what Willow Creek has decided to do about it (more details are at this post) —

* Willow will “end their mid-week worship services that had been geared toward believers. Instead the church will morph these mid-week events into classes for people at different stages of growth. There will be theological and bible classes full of “hard-hitting stuff.” Hawkins[, a Willow Creek minister,] said most people are very enthusiastic about the change.”

* “Anonymity is not the driving value for seeker services anymore,” says Hawkins. “We’ve taken anonymity and shot it in the head. It’s dead. Gone.” In the past Willow believed that seekers didn’t want large doses of the Bible or deep worship music. They didn’t want to be challenged. Now their seeker-sensitive services are loaded with worship music, prayer, Scripture readings, and more challenging teaching from the Bible.”

* People were asked what they want most from their church. Three of the top four responses were:

1. Help me understand the Bible in greater depth
2. Help me develop a closer personal relationship with Christ
3. Challenge me to grow and take the next step in my faith

I agree that a church should have classes. Churches that are purely worship and small groups (the extreme end of the Simple Church model) will always have a shallow theology. You just can’t instruct everyone at the same level, from seekers to the spiritually mature. So this is certainly an improvement — and a warning to the rest of us. Classes are not redundant with small groups.

And I agree that a shallow seeker service can be a mistake. I mean, the idea of special service for seekers is a bit of a “bait and switch.” Shouldn’t we be attracting people to who we really are, not a dilute, market-driven version of ourselves? So, this is good, too. This is, I think, one of the lessons of 1 Corinthians 14 — the visiting unbeliever should see the glory of God in the assembly of the saints.

These changes respond well to point 1 — “Help me understand the Bible in greater depth.”

But we’re fooling ourselves if we think having a better relationship with Jesus (point 2) and growing in faith or taking the “next step” of faith (point 3) are ultimately about Bible class and worship.

Recall Jesus’ call of the apostles. He asked them to leave their boats and follow him, to become fishers of men. The first step was for them to learn at his feet. He was, after all, a rabbi, and he did indeed begin with teaching.

But he also brought them with him as he served those in need and taught the gospel.

He then sent them on missionary journeys where they healed and preached, just as Jesus had been doing.

Finally, he showed him the extent of the price they’d have to pay and glory that would be theirs.

And then they went out and lived as they’d been shown, empowered by the Spirit to do so.

Bible class and worship are great things. So are high school and college. They are also sheltered places for the immature. The mature take what they’ve learned and apply it.

Church is no more about academics than the army is about West Point. The army needs West Point, but only if the officers graduate and become soldiers and leaders of soldiers who fight for the kingdom they serve.

For too long, still caught up in the doctrinal battles of the Reformation, the church has been so focused on the study of religion that we’ve neglected the practice of religion.

Get busy serving others — inside and outside the church — and our relationship with Jesus, our prayer life, our Bible study, and our meditation will all mature. We’ll see Jesus in the faces of those we serve. We’ll know him better because we’ll be more like him and so understand him better. The Spirit will burn more brightly within us.

We’ll pray not only for ourselves but those we serve, we’ll study the Bible to find solutions for the difficulties we encounter, and we’ll meditate more deeply as we seek God’s answers.

Call me a radical, but I really think the reason the mature are frustrated with church because church is far too much about academics and not nearly enough about mission.

Fortunately, Willow Creek seems to be aware of this. Consider this chart from the Reveal blog

Below is a list of benefits a church could provide. Please select the five most important to you at this time.”

Exploring

Christianity

Growing in Christ

Close to Christ

Christ Centered

Provide opportunities to serve in church ministries.

16%

26%

32%

35%

Provide opportunities to serve people in need.

22%

24%

28%

32%

You see, the research shows, ironically enough, that the deepest unmet need deeply felt by the most mature (“Christ Centered” in their terminology) is to be equipped to serve others. Of course, this is precisely what Paul taught in Ephesians 4.

May we all learn the lesson.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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0 Responses to What’s Wrong With How We Do Church? Willow Creek Works a Cure

  1. Nick Gill says:

    (I've got to remember to copy my comments to the clipboard before hitting submit – I just spent 15 minutes on a comment just to watch it vanish into the nether regions of the Internet)

    Thanks for the West Point shout-out! I attended USMA from '91-'93, and leaving was probably the single dumbest decision in my life thus far.

    That being said, you are exactly right – "Church is no more about academics than the army is about West Point. The army needs West Point, but only if the officers graduate and become soldiers and leaders of soldiers who fight for the kingdom they serve."

    Not only are you exactly right, but we in the Stone-Campbell tradition are pretty much shooting par for the course – it took West Point nearly 200 years to diagnose the same problem. In 1990 (remember that the Academy began in 1802), the Academy began implementing the recommendations of a study that showed them that West Point was graduating cadets who were extremely well-equipped to succeed AT THE ACADEMY, but woefully unprepared to lead actual soldiers in the real US Army.

    The mission of the United States Military Academy is to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so as to provide the nation with leaders of character to serve the common defense.

    The mission of the church is to "Go and make disciples of all nations…"

    One of Dallas Willard's latest books is entitled "The Great Omission" precisely because most congregations are woefully failing to produce Jesus-disciples. May we all be convicted by Willow Creek's experience. The fact that my congregation has never tried their hand (and failed) at producing disciples through seeker-service methods does not change our record of (at best) mediocrity in the field of training and equipping disciples.

  2. Donna says:

    this is the best post I have read in a long time. and it speaks to the frustrations that are currently plaguing me. Thanks!

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Donna,

    That is very high praise! Thanks.

    You might enjoy these posts —
    http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/m

  4. Alan says:

    Call me a radical, but I really think the reason the mature are frustrated with church because church is far too much about academics and not nearly enough about mission.

    From my experience in mainline churches of Christ, I would agree with that statement in their context. OTOH my personal experience in the ICOC overwhelmingly convinces me that being all about mission, without thorough, progressive Bible teaching (meat, not just milk), would be a huge mistake with serious consequences.

  5. Joe Baggett says:

    The fact that Willow Creek does research like this and admits to it's own failures so they can be corrected and improved is truly remarkable. There are many cofC congregations that will be gone in the next few years because they will run out of people. But there is nothing they can get their attention. I get so tired of hearing God is not about numbers. This is a load of crap. God loves people and he wants as many people to become disciples of his as possible. One of the reasons we don't understand the great commission is that we interpret the verse Go and make disciples of all nations as mostly foreign. A much better translation of this verse would be Go and make disciples of all people. This not only includes every nationality but all the other things that divide people such a race, ethnicity, socio economic group, political persuasion etc. We can drag people to the baptistery all day long and not make a single disciple. The nature of God is most succinctly described by Paul in the fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Goodness Faithfulness, and Self Control. A disciple is a person who constantly shapes their thinking and subsequent behavior and character to this. Not a single method of doing church is based upon understanding the young postmodern spiritual seeker and how we would lead them to a belief in God and subsequent discipleship of his Spirit. It is not just by chance that the majority of the churches of Christ in the USA are almost exclusively white middle to upper class. While in the last 30 years the USA has been moving to be anything but white middle class. The reality is most churches of Christ and other evangelical churches are offering answers to theological questions that the post modern spiritual seeker is just not asking. They don’t care what church has the right stance on IM or women’s roles etc.; they are asking where is God and what is he like? who I am? How can God exist in all the evil of the world? These are just a few.

  6. Nick Gill says:

    He graduated the year before I got there. He graduated in May 1990 and I entered Beast Barracks in July 1991.

  7. Alan says:

    Ben is quite a guy. Based on him, I have a very high opinion of anyone who went to West Point.

  8. Nick Gill says:

    If I had to rank the most formative episodes of my life, I'd say:

    Becoming a Christian
    West Point
    Orphanhood/Homelessness
    Adoption

  9. The problem ultimately is that the whole mega-church genre has little to no ecclesiology. While traditional Christians have been eating and drinking the Body and Blood of the God-man for 20 centuries, Evangelical mega-churches perpetually swing back and forth between Pietism and Confessionalism. The grounding of the post-revivalist Christian world is only in Sola Scriptura (which is no grounding at all, since SS believers can and do say just about anything), in reason, or in the particular case of WCCC, marketing strategy. Nowhere is there any direct connection to historic Christianity, to the orthodox faith believed without any addition or subtraction since the time of the Apostles.

    It's time that Evangelicals start looking backward and seeing that the Church never went anywhere. The "Great Apostasy" is the worst ecclesiological idea of all time, because it's essentially anti-ecclesiology. One need not think that Rome is the only possibility when putting authority in history. Even Rome has its roots. Look to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church stands just as she has for 20 centuries, waiting for the return of Christians to the fullness of the faith.

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Andrew,

    I take it that you are Orthodox. I have a friend I attended Lipscomb with who later converted to Orthodoxy, and we've had many discussions on the topic.

    It's interesting to me how similar that Churches of Christ and Orthodox are in many of their beliefs. In fact, many turns of phrase in your email could have come from a very conservative member of the Churches of Christ — as is true of many Orthodox-sponsored websites.

    Both baptize adult converts by immersion (the Orthodox baptize babies and the Churches of Christ do not).

    Both sing a cappella, although both are seeing some congregations adopt instrumental music.

    Both consider their beliefs to trace back unchanged to the apostles.

    Both believe all other denominations digressed from themselves.

    Both consider those outside their institutional structure to be heterodox and damned.

    Both are heavily invested in ecclesiology — although they have very different ecclesiologies.

    Obviously, there are huge differences as well. The Churches of Christ reject —

    * Infant baptism
    * Icons
    * Monasticism
    * Multi-congregational ecclesiology (bishops over multiple congregations).
    * Allowing the government to appoint church leaders
    * Veneration of Mary and other "saints"
    * Relics
    * Prayers for the dead
    * The authority of church councils
    * Standing throughout worship (our members complain when they are asked to stand for more than two songs in a row! — but then, many have backs as bad as mine)

    There are parts of Orthodoxy I find very insightful, such as the Orthodox idea of what a sacrament is and the Orthodox attitude toward divorce. So please don't take my disagreements as condescension.

    Many of the elements of Orthodoxy I reject I also reject when found in the Churches of Christ — such as the notion that the denomination hasn't changed since apostolic times and the narrow view of grace that requires adherence to the denomination's entire body of teaching for salvation.

    Here in the West most denominations have been influenced in some way or other by Medieval Catholicism. Our doctrine tends to be either pro- or anti-Catholic, but always defined by reference to Catholicism. The study of Orthodoxy often opens our eyes to approaches to the scripture far outside our experience — and often very insightful and helpful.

    Therefore, I'm convinced that a conversation with the Orthodox could be very helpful for American evangelical Christians. I don't see myself converting to Orthodoxy, but I would very much enjoy learning more about it — and I apologize if I've mischaracterized Orthodox teaching. I'm no expert.

    (I hope you don't mind my not calling you "Father," as I can't do that consistent with my understanding of Matt 23:9. It's not an insult.)

    Jay

  11. Holy bait-and-switch, Batman! I thought we were talking about WC & Co. Anyway…. :)

    I was under the impression that the Stone-Campbellites believed in the Great Apostasy. If that's the case, how can it be that they also believe in some form of Apostolic Succession? That is, where are the continuous historical footprints? (I sincerely hope there's not Landmarkism lurking amongst the Restorationists!)

    I'm genuinely interested in this question. Do you have any online reading you can point me to?

    As for calling me "Father," no offense is taken. It's really not a title, anyway. ("Presbyter" is my title.) But since you're taking Matt. 23:9 in a strictly literal manner, I hope you've got your kids carefully trained never to call you "Father," either! :)

    BTW, WRT government appointing Church leaders, that's not in any sense an article of the Orthodox faith. That has happened here and there, but it's happened with just about every Christian confession. In any case, only bishops do the actual ordination, no matter what any secular potentate might say. Most Orthodox churches have processes for electing bishops that make no reference to secular authority whatsoever.

  12. BTW, as two further notes:

    The Orthodox Church does not teach that everyone outside the formal bounds of Orthodoxy are damned. While we know what God has revealed in the Church, we do not know the eternal status of those who have either rejected the fullness of the faith or who are ignorant of it.

    Standing in worship is also not a dogmatic question for the Orthodox, though it was a universal Christian practice before the relatively late introduction of pews. It's simply a question of good piety to stand in the presence of the King of Kings.

  13. Jay Guin says:

    Andrew wrote,

    I was under the impression that the Stone-Campbellites believed in the Great Apostasy. If that’s the case, how can it be that they also believe in some form of Apostolic Succession? That is, where are the continuous historical footprints? (I sincerely hope there’s not Landmarkism lurking amongst the Restorationists!)
    I’m genuinely interested in this question. Do you have any online reading you can point me to?

    Actually, the Restoration Churches, especially the a cappella Churches of Christ, are highly influenced by Landmarkism. As a result, many teach that the Churches of Christ trace their roots back to Pentecost, making them the one true church. Hence, all denominations split from the original true church.

    Now, this teaching is rejected by the progressive movement within the Churches of Christ — of which I'm a part — but remains strong in many Churches.

    I've written a couple of posts on our Landmark heritage: http://oneinjesus.info/2008/03/05/the-regulative-… and http://oneinjesus.info/2007/04/11/a-theological-h

    And so, yes, historically the Churches of Christ have certainly taught the Great Apostasy, asserting that the Orthodox and Catholic churches left the original church, while the true church went into hiding. Here's a link that makes the classic Landmark argument in Church of Christ terms: http://www.newantiochcoc.org/The%20Restoration%20

  14. Jay Guin says:

    Andrew wrote,

    As for calling me “Father,” no offense is taken. It’s really not a title, anyway. (”Presbyter” is my title.) But since you’re taking Matt. 23:9 in a strictly literal manner, I hope you’ve got your kids carefully trained never to call you “Father,” either!

    Presbyter, really? That's my title, too. I'm an elder of the University Church of Christ. We consider "elder," "shepherd," and "overseer" as references to the same leaders in New Testament terms and we use them interchangeably.

    Regarding "father," my position would be somewhere between the extremes. I mean, Jesus meant something. I doubt he meant that children couldn't call their fathers "father" (my kids say "Dad" actually).

    It seems to me that Jesus wanted no one to stand in God's place or between God's children and God. The gist of the passage in found in v v 11-12, I think —

    (Mat 23:11-12) The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

    It seems to me that Jesus is condemning any practice that creates a sense that one person is superior to another, much along the lines of Matt 20:25 ff.

    I think the church is family and we need to address one another as family members do. In the American culture, we call our brothers and sisters by their first names. Hence, for me to call you "Andrew" is, from my point of view, to grant a familiarity appropriate to a brother.

    Where I grew up, we called each other "Brother" or "Sister" — often as a title: "Brother Smith." I find such terminology not only affected but contrary to the spirit of the brotherhood of the saints. I mean, we're going to spend eternity together; we'd may as well get on a first-name basis.

    Therefore, I don't want to be called "Elder Jay" or "Shepherd Guin." I realize such terms are intended as a sign of respect. But I'd prefer to have the familiarity and intimacy that comes from speaking to me as a brother.

    I well remember that my dad had a couple of friends who came by my house regularly when I was a kid. One insisted that I call him "Jimmy" although my parents insisted that I call him "Mr Balentine." And I remember how wonderful it felt to have an adult — and man my dad's age — insist that I use his first name. I felt privileged and loved — and have always felt especially close to the man.

    And so, quite contrary to my Southern heritage, I refuse all titles and even urge children to call me by my first name — just hoping they feel about me the way I felt about Jimmy.

  15. Jay Guin says:

    Andrew wrote,

    The Orthodox Church does not teach that everyone outside the formal bounds of Orthodoxy are damned. While we know what God has revealed in the Church, we do not know the eternal status of those who have either rejected the fullness of the faith or who are ignorant of it.

    I really don't see how the fate of those outside of Orthodoxy can be unknown. I mean, the scriptures are pretty clear that all with faith in Jesus are saved. I suspect we agree that faith includes submission to Jesus as Lord (repentance).

    And so, I wonder, what is it about being heterodox that makes salvation uncertain? Is it the lack of attachment to a church with apostolic succession (but then the Methodists would be Orthodox)? Is it getting the filioque wrong? What are the boundaries of certainty? After all, the Orthodox have their own internal disagreements. When does a disagreement take one from orthodoxy to heterodoxy?

    The reason this question is important to me is that we in the Churches of Christ wrestle with our own line drawing, with many seeing salvation as coming only to those in the Churches of Christ — or even just those that teach "sound doctrine" — while others draw lines more broadly.

  16. mark says:

    Jay said,
    "we in the Churches of Christ wrestle with our own line drawing, with many seeing salvation as coming only to those in the Churches of Christ "

    It took many years for our church to dismantle the oddities and line drawings of who is saved and who can be active in the church. We literally had to get rid of objects of furniture with golden plates that read IN MEMORY OF…pulpits, desk, pictures and even a microwave! The majority of church of Christ members left many of them over the ridiculousness of doing church in a better way. However the flip side was just as challenging with Bikers, Baptist, and Buddhist coming to our new ways of doing church.

    I must admit I’m feeling a little edgy and nervous about the course partly do to our lack of well known coC professionalism. Hopefully failure is not fatal…..but rather a new stepping stone to doing church right. Next year is going to interesting.

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