Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The mistake of the mega church model

I thought you might find this interesting, in light of the fact that Clairborne spent some time at this church.
I live in an area, the infamous "bible belt", wherein much of christendom is toddling along in insufferable shallowness. My husband and I share a deep conviction that we must be instrumental in teaching/discipling the body to "self-feed", and somehow infuse within it a passion to know intimately and serve relentlessly our Messiah. And so to be the Kingdom people God has called us out to be. We have worked among the desperately poor and among the intolerably wealthy and have come to find out the varying forms of poverty are equally soul wrenching when they are not accompanied by profound recognition of need for God.
Shining a light on poverty of spirit is one of our most urgent callings. Something the Spirit does powerfully if we but offer ourselves as the vessel...

October 18, 2007
Willow Creek Repents?
Why the most influential church in America now says "We made a mistake."

Few would disagree that Willow Creek Community Church has been one of the most influential churches in America over the last thirty years. Willow , through its association, has promoted a vision of church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive. This vision has been heavily influenced by the methods of secular business. James Twitchell, in his new book Shopping for God, reports that outside Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” Directly or indirectly, this philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country.
So what happens when leaders of Willow Creek stand up and say, “We made a mistake”?
Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Basically, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.”

In the Hawkins’ video he says, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow ’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”
Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that “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.”
Speaking at the Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings this way:
"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."
Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake up call” of his adult life.
Hybels confesses:
"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 service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."
In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

Does this mark the end of Willow ’s thirty years of influence over the American church? Not according to Hawkins:
"Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet."


Yard said...

This article is encouraging. I believe that as a leader in church modeling, their realization has deep implications.

However, I wonder whether their aspirations are not a bit optimistic. It takes a bit of time and effort to turn the Titanic. More so, if that turn causes the ship to question whether it should be a ship in the first place.

Tim Trainor said...

I think they are on the right path. Well, at least they are realizing that they can be wrong, which is the first step for any follower of Christ. The fundamentals they mentioned in the article (prayer, bible, relationships) are all good. What about healing though? Is that just expected to occur while praying and bible reading? Or should this be something that is put as a higher priority as we grow in Christ? Do we just callous it over with time? Or do we tend to our wounds as a family, as a body and dress them, care for them and heal them. I feel healing together is what turns a building/house into a functioning body.

By the way. I'm Tim and Adam invited me to take part in this. So yell at him if you disagree with me. JK. You can yell at me if you want.

Laurie said...

That's a great question, Tim. And it's at the very core of what's gone wrong in the institutional church. The wounded who walked into the "seeker sensitive" church twenty plus years ago, found a programatic reponse to deal with pain and suffering. It was, "we have so many singles looking for lifetime partners and dealing with lonliness, let's set up a single's ministry; and we have lots of divorce issues, let's have divorce care; and seminars that deal with abuse issues and addiction recovery groups, ad infinitum. And the response from the outset was born out of concern and recognition that the church must bind up her wounded. But, what happened is that the church became obsessively inward looking and forgot about the mission. People were plugging into the mega church because it had lots to offer, like a country club.
The mission became just another program, something a group, or person, might do if time allowed. But,the mission,to be God's image bearers to a lost, dark world, just as Jesus was, as a man, is what we were originally, historically called out to be. We are called to do this whether broken or whole, or in recovery, or just hitting bottom. He works through broken vessels; and in weakness and pain He is most brilliant. So, how do we deal with suffering and woundedness? How did Jesus do it? He did it along the way. He spoke, then realized the people were hungry, so he fed them. He stopped to heal broken people, as he was heading towards a house where someone had just died. We find healing within and through the community in which God has placed us as we live and move in this world as the image bearers of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we are, in John Wimber's words, doing the "stuff" of the kingdom...

Tim Trainor said...

Great thoughts Laurie. Towards the end you mentioned how Jesus dealt with suffering and woundedness. How he dealt with it along the way. He realized people were hungry, so he fed them. He stopped to heal broken people etc. I love it!! I think what I love most about how you phrased it is that it brought to light how immediate he reacted to the situation in front of him. Every interaction is seen as a chance to minister, and minister immediately!! I think in the society and world that we grow up in we have been taught to think too much when it comes to helping people with pain, suffering or healing. I'm not saying that we shouldn't think. I mean God gave us a brain for a reason, right? But when it comes to healing, often it shouldn't be a question of what kind of ministry can we create or what 12 step would be perfect. I'm not saying those are bad....it just doesn't work for every situation as we are all unique people with unique feelings and wounds. Rather we should be offering up a kind ear, prayer, affirmation and possibly a hug. My greatest time of healing in my personal life has happened when I was surrounded by people who were lifting me up and listening to my absolute heart of hearts. Accepting me, encouraging me, correcting me and loving me. I guess in my mind and heart, ministry is as easy as being sensitive to the hurts around us by hearing them and responding to them accordingly. God will do what he wants to do through us at that time, we just need to be sensitive to His leading.

Laurie said...

Tim, when you said, "we just need to be sensitive to His leading", you just described in nutshell what Kingdom living is. One of things that utterly changed my life and the way I think about Jesus and the Trinity, was when I read understood for the first time what Jesus meant when He said, "I only do what I see my Father doing." To cultivate that relationship, and live as Jesus did, only doing what you see the Father doing...that's LIFE! That's the Kingdom.

Arizona Bam said...

Great thoughts here, everybody, and thanks for kicking-off this conversation, Laurie! The whole concept of being sensitive to God's leading in our everyday lives is central to a lot of what Shane Claiborne presents in his book. I'm looking forward to fleshing out this concept in practice with you all, because I'm increasingly being challenged with difficult life choices based on the leadings I've been sensing lately...