Amy had a link to this article and it’s one of those things where I knew I would read something like this eventually, but I can’t say I find a whole lot of joy in it: A Shocking “Confession” from Willow Creek Community Church.
The size of the crowd rather than the depth of the heart determined success. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry. Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting “felt needs” and sermons consistent with these techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn’t “cutting edge” and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.
If you dared to challenge the “experts” you were immediately labeled as a “traditionalist,” a throwback to the 50s, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times.
All that changed recently.
Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry.
The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels 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.
If you simply want a crowd, the “seeker sensitive” model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust.
I never bought the whole seeker sensitive thing and more than once I was told either directly or indirectly that I must not care about the lost since I wasn’t on board. I was in campus ministry with InterVarsity when the whole Willow Creek thing really started taking off. I remember staff members going down there to learn about all the great new ways to “do ministry.” It bothered me then and it never stopped bothering me on many levels.
But am I happy to be proven “right” in my assessment of what they were doing? Not really. All I can think about are all the people who could have met Christ through the preaching of the Gospel and instead went home with warm fuzzies to get them through the week.
All the people who should be mature in their faith having been rooted and grounded in the Scriptures but instead are still trying to get their felt needs met through group therapy and pick-up basketball games in the gym (or, in this case, probably gyms).
I’m too sick thinking of the agony so many godly pastors went through as they watched their church slowly fade away as the seeker sensitive churches drained members from what were once vibrant churches that preached the Gospel unashamedly.
There are some really good comments following the article. One of the commenters mentioned Charles Spurgeon, The Prince of Preachers, who preached sin, repentance, and doctrine and never had any problem filling the church to overflowing. When the Spirit of God moves, people are desperate to hear God’s Word spoken accurately and powerfully. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.
One last thought from A. W. Tozer that someone else posted in the comments and then I need to go to bed and try to stop thinking about all of this so I can go to sleep:
We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.
Perhaps there is some joy in all of this. Not joy in being right, but joy that perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving and starting to right some things that have been horribly wrong for an entire generation.
May God have mercy on us all.