Spiritually speaking, 1997 was a difficult year for me. I was distressed at the direction a new minister was taking the church that I, and my family, had been a part of for many years.
He was an energetic and enthusiastic young man, fresh out of Bible College, who had been heavily impacted by the “seeker-friendly” model being promoted by Bill Hybels of the Willow Creek Community Church in the United States. He was determined to change our church into a “seeker friendly” church.
Prior to his coming, the church was at peace: young and old alike were welcomed, loved and ministered to. I recall with fond memories to this day, wonderful worship services where my heart seemed to soar heavenward, where greatly loved hymns and gospel choruses were mixed together, where young and old were equally caught up, where significant time was given to prayer and the reading of God’s word, and where the congregation was given sound teaching from the Word.
But this young man obviously believed that our church needed to be modernised. He was determined from the outset to “deconstruct” it, and change it into something fundamentally different that would (supposedly) appeal to “seekers”. He made disparaging comments about hymns and replaced them with contemporary choruses, often self-centred and lacking in sound theology. He advised against “long-winded” prayers, arguing instead that prayers should be compacted to a sentence or two so that seekers would not become disinterested. He often reduced Bible readings to a verse or two. He argued that preaching should focus on the “felt needs” of seekers, and should be topical, entertaining and light in content. He revamped the evening services to cater only for the young, causing elderly folk who had faithfully attended the services for a generation or more, to abandon them in despair. He genuinely believed that the new methodology he was incorporating (much of which was being promoted by Willow Creek) would result in growth for the church.
I knew that if he succeeded, significant and enduring harm would be done to the church. I knew that the changes would be counterproductive, both in terms of spiritual and numeric growth. And so I communicated my concerns, in writing, on several occasions to the leaders of the church.
The following year (1998), over a period of several months, Life Ministries printed five articles relating to worship that is acceptable and pleasing to God. The articles flowed out of my concern about the direction that my congregation and some other congregations in Western Australia were being led.
Some nine years later, in 2007, my wife and I visited the United States to speak at churches that have prayed for and supported the work of Life Ministries. One of the towns that we visited was Lincoln, Illinois. When I was a young man I had attended and graduated from Lincoln Christian College. And so when we visited Lincoln, we determined to visit one of the elderly professors (and his good wife) who had taught at the college when I was a student, and whom we both greatly admired.
After arriving at the professor’s house, we were soon caught up in conversation. He fired one question after another at me, interjecting continuously, and then asked me, “Have you read a book titled Reveal?” I answered that I had not and asked him what it was about. “It’s about Bill Hybels and Willow Creek.” That’s all he needed to say. I was on track. “I haven’t read the book yet, but I have read Hybels’ admission that the seeker-friendly movement which he promoted so widely has grave problems.”
We talked for some time about Bill Hybels’ stunning admission. I said, “You know Prof, we could have predicted these things from the beginning [in fact we both did exactly that]. It was clear from the outset that this approach was destined to fail. “Yes,” he replied, “but when we said it nobody listened. Now that Hybels is saying it people will listen.”
And the truth is that Hybels is saying it. In mid-2007 Willow Creek Church released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. These findings are detailed in a book entitled Reveal: Where are You?, by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.
The book contains some stunning admissions. It reveals that much of what Willow Creek had been doing for over twenty years and promoting to thousands of churches and millions of believers across the globe did not produce sound disciples for Jesus Christ. It produced numbers, but not disciples.
Bill Hybels frankly laments: “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.”
Hybels’ admission is telling. He is disclosing that some of the strategies Willow Creek devised and implemented with the objective of helping people to grow spiritually didn’t actually produce spiritual growth. Furthermore, he is indicating that they did not engage in these programs half-heartedly. They spent “millions of dollars” on them, only to discover that the “data” revealed that “it wasn’t helping people that much.” While the “seeker sensitive” model produced numerical growth, it did not produce spiritual growth.
Hybels, who is to be commended for his frankness, adds, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became 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 services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
Just as Dr Spock’s mistake harmed a generation of families and children, so Hybels’ “seeker-sensitive” mistake is also enormous in scope. Hybels and the Willow Creek Association promoted their model with evangelical enthusiasm. Thousands of churches across the globe patterned themselves after Willow Creek, believing that doing so would result in numeric and spiritual growth, instead of continuing to faithfully follow the simple pattern of the New Testament church. And the end result is that their flocks have been spiritually impoverished.
And that is the problem in a nutshell. The New Testament pattern is always the best.* Put simply, that pattern is: divine greeting; singing; prayers of confession, thanksgiving and intercession; reading the word; preaching of the word; communion; and the benediction (see Acts 2:42).True devotion to Christ, writes John Owen, involves “keeping his institutions and his worship according to his appointment.” Deviation from the New Testament pattern will not result in spiritual growth, but in spiritual harm to believers. Bill Hybels’s intentions may have been genuinely good, but his advice on how to “do church” cannot compare to the infallible instruction that we have been given as our guide for evangelism and spiritual growth.
We should be encouraged that the leader of the Willow Creek Association has not only come to realise, but is also publicly stating, that their “model” is seriously flawed. We should pray that God will help Willow Creek and all the churches it has influenced to return to a more biblical pattern, for his glory and the extension of his kingdom.