November 14, 2007 / David Fitch


There has been much written across the blogworld about Willow creek and its report called REVEAL (most notably Out of Ur’s piece entitled “Willow Creek Repents?” which a Willow creek Pastor responds to with a 2nd post). I got my own copy of REVEAL as a gift from a friend. As I read through it I saw the evidence of just how incredibly difficult it is for a mega church to change course. For many of the things Willow creek has been criticized for (marketing technology, defining success, individualizing and consumerizing Christianity) are not addressed, but instead are promoted as the answers to the problems which these things caused in the first place. For me, the lesson here is this: it is hard (nigh impossible) to change a mega church (we thought change in smaller church was hard!). It is not just the huge amount of bills to be paid, paychecks to be distributed, mortgages and 8,000 seat stadiums to be sustained. The ethos/mindset/inertia is incredibly hard to break.
This leads me to the following observations concerning REVEAL. I present them for serious dialogue. I am open to comments on this blog. I am open to serious dialogue with Willow Creek on any of these issues if they would be interested (not saying they would).

The authors applied consumer research (the co-author, Eric Arnson, is a self labeled a consumer research expert) to “measure the heart” of the people in order to assess spiritual growth. They hoped to measure attitudes; feelings and behaviors in order to decide what behaviors correlate with increased spiritual growth in the heart of their members. They were stunned to discover that increased spiritual growth in both closeness to God and service to their neighbor had little to do with the amount of activities they were involved in the church (Some of us just went “duh”).

On p. 51 we read:

When researcher Eric Arnson saw these numbers he was stunned. Using the marketplace as a reference, he explained that typically, the more engaged someone becomes in the product category, the higher their level of loyalty is to their favorite brand. In other words, if I drink a lot of soft drinks and my favorite is Diet Coke, my loyalty and likelihood to recommend Diet Coke to other people is extremely high.
In our case, that would mean a rising level of satisfaction with the church should go hand in hand with increasing spiritual growth. Yet we found this wasn’t true. Generally speaking, the higher the level of commitment to Christ, the more likely it is that the satisfaction with the church will be lukewarm.

Statements like this reveal that Willow creek is tone deaf to their own consumerist habits. They simply cannot remove themselves from seeing the church, the life of His Body, as a consumer product. Likewise, they cannot see that satisfaction of the consumer is simply not a statistic we should be concerned about in measuring either discipleship or faithfulness to the Mission of Christ. How do you measure the feeling at any given time required to pick up one’s cross and follow Christ? What we should be measuring is transformed lives for the Mission of Christ, transformed culture for the Mission of Christ and the spreading of the transformed life into neighborhoods, towns, villages and cities. In each case, the person or culture or neighborhood that is transformed will be puzzled when asked the question “are you satisfied with your church?”

Willow interviewed 6,000 Willow creekers in 2004 and a sample of 5,000 across Willow and 6 other churches in 2007. One must assume that these were highly motivated Willow Creekers to sit and answer such surveys. IF REVEAL revealed the above findings about the motivated attenders of Willow Creek, what do these results say about the rest of Willow’s attendance that did not answer the survey? Some 12-15,000 more people? The ones less motivated? I have argued for years that denominational leadership is way too impressed with huge numbers when in fact the actual church part of the mega-church is much smaller as measured by Christian discipleship, giving, participation in mission. Mega churches are huge orbits of activity generating a stunningly small amount of mission in relation to size of activity, buildings and budget.

On p. 64 REVEAL says that Willow sought to “meet the needs of its people” too much. This creates an unhealthy dependence. The solution the report provides for the problem is that the church needs to teach its people more spiritual practices. At first glance, this appears encouraging. Perhaps Willow has have been listening to those who have been asking serious questions about consumerism and business practices in American church. But then REVEAL goes on to say that as we grow more mature in Christ, we need to teach people to become “self-feeders.” In the words of Bill Hybels (in the video), we need to provide coaching, “customized personal spiritual growth plans.” As “you go to a health club and you get a personal trainer … to figure out how to care for your health … we need to provide coaches for personal spiritual growth.” Here the language might have changed, but the strategy remains the same. We’ve seen the problem, let’s provide a program to meet the individual (customized) need. Here the Christian life is seen as a personal individualist pursuit for some goods that are frankly seen as self-beneficial. Spiritual growth has now become a goal in itself.
If Willow creek follows this course, I predict it will be spending more money on why the mature Christians are leaving their church in another ten years. Because Christian growth has everything to do with community. It cannot be achieved independently of the spiritual disciplines within community including, confession, truth speaking in love, worship, working our one’s salvation in fear and trembling and above all prayer. None of these practices can be personalized. These are corporate disciplines, just not achievable in corporate bodies that are extremely large. Furthermore, this kind of spiritual formation occurs only in and through participation in Mission, the journeying together as a people infiltrating and witnessing to the life and ministry of Christ incarnationally in the world. “Personal spiritual growth plans” sounds way too individualized to avoid becoming another form of self-indulgence. True spiritual growth takes on the suffering and hurting and lostness of the world in the ministry of salvation. One cannot undergo such a journey if its goal is personal spiritual growth versus the Mission of God.

Eph 4 is a lesson on spiritual growth. It happens within the formation of the Body of Christ. Here the organic “Body” of Christ works for the edification of our spiritual growth “until we all grow to the full stature of Christ”(Eph 4:13 read the whole chapter). Spiritual growth cannot happen as a “self feeder,” it is the outworking of the Body of Christ as we participate in His Mission. The solution proposed here is disastrous for not only the spiritual growth of Willow creekers but for the furtherance of the Mission of Christ.

In REVEAL, the authors talk about their study as applying to “the church.” But does this research apply to non-Willow creek churches? I know they had six other churches involved from other denominations. But knowing who some of those churches were (Google REVEAL) it seems they are sympathetic to Willow creek assumptions about what it means to be the church. Wouldn’t they have to be if they subscribed to these questions? Then why not just write that REVEAL is about Willow creek style-philosophy churches?
REVEAL reported that the ones with levels of tithing, serving and evangelism that correlate with the most advanced Christians were the ones most likely to report they are considering leaving Willow creek. But is this true of smaller churches, house churches? It seems to me that Willow creek, if they are going to spend three million dollars might want to ask questions like what does size have to do with this? What does liturgical worship versus seeker service worship have to do with this etc.?

Greg Pritchard (who did his PhD at Northwestern about the same time as I) in 1995 spent two years at Willow Creek doing doctoral level research on Willow creek engaging theological issues of Willow’s approach to Christian discipleship. He generated over 2000 pages of research in a dissertation. It was trimmed to a book for Baker. It said all that REVEAL said but with much more theologically engagement. I’d like to know why this was not listened to? I think REVEAL should provide some feedback on this important and substantial study done under the auspices of Northwestern University Grad School. Why spend three million more dollars… when it was all here in the first place?

The REVEAL staff are in the process of surveying an additional 500 Willow Creek Association Churches with the same approach. As I said before, this seems a little self serving and introverted. I suggest there will be conferences to follow for which you will pay 280 dollars to come to see how anyone can use the principles they discovered to transform their Willow creek style church into a discipling church.

I am taken aback by the REVEAL report. I wish other voices could be heard on the spending of such huge resources (even if they were specially underwritten by Christian people). Yet I do know some mega churches that are seeking change. These churches once 5,000, 6,000 and more have said this isn’t the church and we have to change. In each case they have pursued a version of getting smaller to a degree. Some have pursued keeping the machine going well enough to fund the missional communities, communities of spiritual transformation and the communal places of spiritual practices that perhaps REVEAL is hinting at. But this is incredibly difficult and normally takes an emotional breakdown by senior leadership in a manner that they survive to live for another day of ministry. The fact is it is incredibly difficult to make any change to the mammoth machine that might disrupt its ongoing capital performance. And so I respect Willow Creek for asking these questions. The report itself reveals just how difficult it is to turn around such a big ship.

One more question for REVEAL. If the people who are leaving Willow Creek are the mature Christians, could this mean Willow’s role was never more than a good old-fashioned evangelistic organization? It was never meant to be church. For one thing is true, I see more and more Christian leaving large mega churches seeking missional community. Is there anything wrong with that? Could this be Willow’s role in the renewal of the church?