Willow Creek’s Big Adventure

(December 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 12) 

It has been a tough year for the Willow Creek Community Church, the flagship congregation of the “seeker-sensitive” movement. Most know that Willow Creek has set the pace for 30 years in its redesign of the local church. More recently Rick Warren, and his Saddleback Community Church, have stolen the spotlight from Willow and, to some degree, eclipsed its influence on new paradigm churches. But rest assured, Willow, along with its Willow Creek Association, which boasts 12,000 member churches from 90 denominations, is still charting the way for those who look to felt-needs, surveys, the latest innovations and market strategy, instead of Scripture, for their structuring of the local church. [1] When Willow speaks, church leaders listen. When Willow marches out a new product or method, churches around the globe fall in line. Whatever Willow promotes others emulate.

So, as I said, it has been a tough year for Willow Creek and for its followers as well. It was only in September of 2006 that Willow shuttered its highly acclaimed Axis experiment. Axis was Willow’s “church-within-a-church” designed for 20-somethings. At one point the ten year project boasted 2000 worshipers at services designed especially for Generation Xers, but had fallen to 350 when the leadership decided to shut it down. What Willow discovered was that “Axis didn’t connect young adults with the rest of the congregation. Once they outgrew the service, Axis members found it hard to transition into the rest of the Chicago-area megachurch. Young adults also struggled to meet and develop relationships with mentors in the larger congregation.”[2] Who would have thought that separating the young people from the body of Christ for a decade would result in integration issues when they grew up? Somebody must have missed the fine print in a Barna survey. At any rate, Willow recognized its error and folded Axis into the larger congregation. This move came too late however for hundreds of Willow clones who were in lock step with the mother church. Many started similar church-within-a-church congregations under Willow’s leadership and most will now suffer the same fate.

As humiliating as the Axis failure had to be for Willow Creek, the latest bombshell dwarfs it by comparison. Willow’s leadership now admits, in the words of Bill Hybels, “We made a mistake.” Hybels, founder, Senior Pastor and Chairman of the Board of the Willow Creek Association, is referencing Willow’s philosophical and ministerial approach to “doing” church. This is the approach pioneered by Hybels and company, honed to perfection and dissimulated to eager church leaders worldwide. This is the approach which distinguishes the seeker-sensitive model from other models. It is this approach that Hybels now admits is a mistake.

Willow’s Confession

First, let me say that I admire Willow’s transparency and humility on this matter. Not many people or groups would make a public admission of error of this magnitude. To actually admit that the model of “doing church” which they have poured 30 years and millions of dollars into has been a mistake is incredulous. This is not to say that Willow’s confession is without flaw, for while they profess mistakes they still apparently think they have done pretty well. And they still believe that they are the ones to lead the church into the future, even if they have been wrong for three decades. But more on that later; for now what are the specifics of the confession?

One of the executive pastors of Willow Creek, Greg Hawkins, became deeply concerned that despite all the efforts of the megachurch perhaps they were not being as effective as they thought. As he watched people dropping money in the offering plate week after week the thought nagged him, “Are we spending those folks money in the right way?”[3] In 2004, with Hybels’ permission Hawkins led a study of the congregation asking the people how effective the programs and ministry of Willow Creek had been in their lives. Later Hawkins turned to 30 other Willow Creek Association churches to see if the results of the study at Willow would be comparable at these churches – they were. These results, which have been published in a new book, Reveal: Where Are You?, have been described by Hybels as everything from “earth breaking” to “mind blowing” in a disturbing way.

What are the specifics? Hawkins defines Willow’s ministerial goal as “trying to help people who are far from Christ become disciples of Christ characterized by their love for God and other people.” This is a most commendable goal, but how has Willow gone about trying to accomplish this goal? “We do that,” Hawkins states, “by creating a variety of programs and services for people to participate in. Our strategy is to try to get people, far from Christ, engaged in these activities. The more people are participating in these sets of activities with higher levels of frequency it will produce disciples of Christ.”

This has been Willow’s methodology of discipleship throughout the years – the philosophy that has been transported and reproduced around the globe. But what was discovered, via the multi-year, multi-church study, was disturbing. Hawkins identifies three major discoveries. First, that increasing levels of participation in these activities does not predict whether a person will become a disciple of Christ.

Secondly, in every church there is a spiritual continuum in which “you can look at your congregation and put them [the people] in one of five unique segments. The segments are aligned around someone’s intimacy with Jesus Christ and how important that relationship with Christ is to their lives.” The segments into which a local church’s people can be neatly slipped are:

Segment #1 – Those who are just exploring Christianity. Therefore, these are nonbelievers who are attending services or activities provided by the church (i.e. unbelievers).

Segment #2 – Those who love Jesus and have a relationship with Him and are growing in that relationship but are fairly new in that relationship (i.e. new Christians).

Segment #3 – Those who are close to Christ; their relationship with Christ is important to them on a daily basis. These are people who “might pray, read the Bible and have thoughts of God” on a daily basis (i.e. nominal believers).

Segment #4 – Those who center their lives on their relationship with Christ. Their relationship with Christ is the most important relationship in their entire lives (Hybels calls these “fully devoted followers of Christ”).

Segment #5 – Believers who are stalled in their relationship with Christ. They are not investing time on a regular basis in their relationship with Christ. Although they are actually investing time in church events on a regular basis they are not investing time in their personal relationship with Christ (i.e. nominal Christians).

The third “ground breaking” discovery was that each of the segments had different needs, yet most churches deal with them as if “one size fits all.” Also, the church activities that most churches provide are most helpful in the first two segments. “Churches do great things to help people in those segments,” Hybels states. But the activities that seem to be helpful to the first two groups are less helpful for the last three segments. As a result, the study showed that “it is the ones in the first two segments who are the most satisfied with local churches.” For instance, pre-Christians gave Willow top marks and new believers were not far behind. However, “the last three segments have increasing dissatisfaction; they are disappointed with the role that the local church is playing in their lives.” The third segment, described by Hybels as growing Christians, were much less pleased and the “fully devoted followers of Christ” (segment #4) were quite unhappy with Willow. This group says “they are not being fed; they want more of the meat of the Word of God; serious-minded Scripture taught to them; they want to be challenged more.” And increasingly those in segment four (the “fully devoted to Christ” segment), are thinking about leaving the local church. Which is, Hawkins laments, “Incredibly sad; the people who love God the most are the most disappointed by their local church?”

In response Hawkins told Hybels, “We’ve made a mistake, what we should have done [as people 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 them how to read their Bibles between services, do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own because what’s happening to these people, the older they get the more they are expecting the church to feed them, when in fact the more mature a Christian becomes the more he becomes a self-feeder.” In order to remedy these “mind-blowing” mistakes the leadership at Willow is working hard “to rethink how we coach people to full spiritual development.” They are pioneering “personal spiritual growth plans – customized spiritual growth plans for everyone at Willow.”

Hawkins admits, “All of what we are discovering is rocking our world at our church.” And it should be, for Hybels owns up, “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 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.”[4] Hybels, in the light of this study tells us “I got the wakeup call of my adult life… [It was] one of the hardest things I have ever had to digest as a leader.”

What Hawkins and Hybels have discovered are things that many churches have always known, although they have often been intimidated by the megachurches into believing they were wrong. They are discovering:

  • That nickels and noses do not tell us if we have a church that pleases God. The Lord never tells us the church membership or attendance of the local churches in the New Testament. And the two churches out of seven, given great marks in Revelation chapters two and three, apparently were small and poor (2:8-11; 3:7-13), while the churches who seemed to have it all together were rebuked severely by the Lord (3:1-6; 14-22).
  • That participation in programs does not produce authentic disciples of Christ. While every church has programs the Scriptures teach it is the Word of God through the power of the Spirit that changes lives.
  • That unbelievers and baby Christians will attend a good show and even give high marks for the production, but those who hunger for true spiritual life will be disappointed.
  • That whatever is used to draw people must be continued to keep them. If you attract people through entertainment and superficial teaching, most will not hang around if you shift to solid exposition of the Word and God-honoring ministries.
  • That attempting to reach people for Christ through meeting their felt-needs is a bottomless pit. Christ-centered people are not likely to be developed by creating programs that cater to their self-centeredness.
  • That churches based on the foundation of secular research, group opinion or surveys may produce a congregation that pleases people for a time, but it will not produce a church that pleases God. God has already given His design for the church in the New Testament; it is neither necessary nor right for us to ignore that design and create our own.


What does all of this mean to us; what are we to do now? Hawkins offers two implications:

First, we need to ask different questions. We need to go beyond asking how many [people are coming to our services and events]. We need to ask, are the things we are doing helping people grow in their intimacy with Christ. We need to ask not just leaders, but participants, what they need, what’s working and what is not working.

Secondly, Hawkins says, “We cannot do this alone.” Willow therefore invites us to tell them what is working and not working in our churches. In order to expedite this sharing of pragmatic ideas Willow is entering into a whole new round of research. They are inviting 500 additional churches (must be a member of the Willow Creek Association) to participate in a survey that will give them more data.

Where will all of this lead? It is important to carefully ponder Hawkins’ idea at this point. He states,

Here is our dream – that we fundamentally change the way we do church; that we take out a clean sheet of paper, and rethink all of our old assumptions, replace them with new insights, insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is to discover what God is doing and how He is asking us to join Him in transforming this planet (emphasis mine).

An Analysis

There are three issues, summarized well in the above statement, that are very disturbing. First, haven’t we heard all of this before? Isn’t this exactly what Hybels and the architects of the seeker-sensitive movement told us 30 years ago? Whether they used those exact words or not the cadence of the movement was that we must “change the way we do church. We must take out a clean sheet of paper, and rethink all of our old assumptions and replace them with new insights.” For three decades now the evangelical church, to a large degree, has been operating on the basis of the insights developed by Willow Creek. As they look back, Willow has recognized that the insights they developed were faulty – they did not accomplish their stated purpose – they have led the church as a whole on a wild-goose chase for a generation.

Even the “fully devoted followers of Christ” (segment #4) give us pause. This is the group, within the Willow circles, that is the most spiritually mature, yet even they don’t know how to read their Bibles or feed themselves. Willow’s plan going forward is not to adjust their services and ministries to feed this spiritually hungry group; their plan is to teach them how to feed themselves. And while I will admit that it is important to teach people how to feed themselves, I have to ask why should these serious-minded believers bother to come to Willow-type services at all? Why not find good churches that are taking care of the flock in a biblical manner? After all, Ephesians 4:11-16 is clear that it is the responsibility of the church leadership to equip the saints through the teaching of the Word of God.

Having failed at virtually every level to produce true disciples and develop biblical churches, Willow wants to start all over again and they would like to take us with them. We can trust them this time, we are assured, for they have new research tools, new insights, and new programs. They will guide us correctly this time – promise. This is a bit incredible, but Hybels and Hawkins are so winsome in their presentations, so sincere in their promises, that millions will undoubtedly follow them once again, blindly, with Bibles firmly left unexamined, down the road on this new adventure.

My second concern is that we are being called to join God in “transforming this planet.” Since when has it been God’s design to use the church to transform the planet? I know this is the common rhetoric heard throughout evangelicalism recently, but it does not find its basis in Scripture. We are to join God, as it were, to make disciples and to herald the gospel which is able to “rescue [people] from the domain of darkness, and transfer [them] to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13), but we are not called to help God transform the planet. He will do that in His own timing, and without our help (2 Peter 3:10-13).

But the most disturbing element in this statement is that once again Scripture takes a back seat to pragmatism. Research and methods are the key to “new insights” and the next direction for the church, not the Word of God. In Hawkins’ and Hybels’ two videos, only once is Scripture mentioned, when Hawkins talks about new insights “that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture.” While the New Testament is God’s instructions for His church no actual text of Scripture is mentioned. Instead Hawkins is lining up 500 Willow Creek Association churches to tell them “what is working for you.” The Willow system was originally steeped in pragmatism rather than Scripture, and it appears that nothing has changed. They are once again going to the well of pragmatism – “tell them what works” and they will develop programs and methods which will accomplish their goals. Pragmatism has always been at the heart of the seeker movement and still is. Willow is not repenting of their philosophy of ministry – they are updating it. The last set of insights and methodologies did not “work” but surely this new set will. At least that is what we are being told.

It should be mentioned that Willow Creek should not be shocked by their research. Critics of the seeker movement have been pointing out these very flaws in their system since the beginning. Time and again discerning Christian leaders have shown that the Willow model is unbiblical and incapable of developing truly biblical disciples of Christ. These critics have been ignored, ridiculed and marginalized as negative, but their critique has proven true. Yet, rather than paying careful attention to these evaluations and swinging the movement back to a biblical pattern, Willow has consistently returned to their research for answers, just as they are doing now.

The Next Step

In the Willow Creek Association’s self-description we read, “We are driven by a calling to serve Christ-following leaders as they build biblically functioning churches – authentic, Acts 2 communities of faith that reach increasing numbers of lost people and grow them into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.”[5] With this as the stated goal we can empathize with Willow’s “earth shaking” discovery that they have made a mistake. It is even ironic that those who have grown into “fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ” are the very ones most disappointed with the Willow system and are thinking of leaving the churches.

We can see why Willow’s leadership wants to take out a clean sheet of paper and start over. One has to wonder, however, is the sheet of paper really that clean? Do the leaders have no agenda in mind? I think they do, and it is evident in their move toward the emergent church. For example, on April 9-11, 2008 the student ministry at Willow Creek will be offering a conference called Shift. Their advertisement brochure states, “As the world of student ministry continues to shift and change, so do the needs of those who serve students. Recognizing this, our team has designed an event that is unlike any other Student Ministries Conference we’ve ever hosted.”[6] The brochure promises to offer the students a variety of models of ministry at the Conference. The fact is that it is balanced toward mysticism and the emergent movement. Speakers include key emergent leaders, Brian McLaren, Mark Yaconelli, Scot McKnight and Dan Kimball.[7]

Having discerned that the old way of the seeker movement failed to produce the spiritual product they desired, Willow is fast-forwarding to the newest wave that now promises what they did 30 years ago – “authentic, Acts 2 communities of faith.”[8] This, however, is an even more tragic step, for while the seeker movement has gone astray in many areas in their attempt to change the way we “do” church, the majority within the movement at least gave lip-service to the fundamentals of the faith. The emergent church, however, seeks not to change how we “do” church but to change the church itself by challenging the non-negotiable doctrines of the faith. Combining the emergent deconstructive philosophy with Willow Creek’s influence and money could prove to be a powerful force for destruction. What may be written on this next “clean sheet of paper” in the future is far more concerning than the one that is being thrown away today.


[1]It is not my purpose to explore at this time in detail the Willow Creek church model. I have written extensively on the seeker-sensitive church movement in my book, This Little Church Went to Market. Please consult that book for more information regarding the methods and teachings of those who embrace this paradigm.

[2] www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/October/5.25.html.

[3] All quotes by Greg Hawkins are from Hawkins’ video clip found at www.revealnow.com/story.asp?storyid=48

[4] All quotes by Bill Hybels, unless otherwise stated, are taken from Hybels’ video clip at the 2007 Leadership Summit found at www. http://revealnow.com/story.asp?storyid=31.

[5] www.willowcreek.com/AboutUs/.

[6] www.willowcreek.com/shift2008/AboutShift.html.

[7] Ibid.

[8] www.willowcreek.com/AboutUs/.


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