If you are older
than 40 the name Benjamin Spock is more than familiar. It was Spock that told an
entire generation of parents to take it easy, don’t discipline your children
and allow them to express themselves. Discipline, he told us, would warp a child’s fragile ego. Millions followed this guru of child development and he
remained unchallenged among child rearing professionals. However, before his
death Dr. Spock made an amazing discovery: he was wrong. In fact, he
We have reared a
generation of brats. Parents aren't firm enough with their children for fear of
losing their love or incurring their resentment. This is a cruel deprivation
that we professionals have imposed on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it
with the best of intentions. We didn't realize until it was too late how our
know-it-all attitude was undermining the self assurance of parents.
Something just as
momentous, in my opinion, just happened in the evangelical community. For most
of a generation evangelicals have been romanced by the “seeker sensitive”
movement spawned by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. The guru of this
movement is Bill Hybels. He and others have been
telling us for decades to throw out everything we have previously thought and
been taught about church growth and replace it with a new paradigm, a new way
to do ministry.
with this “new wave” of ministry came a de-emphasis on taking personal
responsibility for Bible study combined with an emphasis on felt-needs based
“programs” and slick marketing.
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.
pastors hung on every word that emanated from the lips of the church growth
experts. Satellite seminars were packed with hungry church leaders learning the
latest way to “do church.” The promise was clear: thousands of people and millions
of dollars couldn’t be wrong. Forget what people need, give them what they
want. How can you argue with the numbers? 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
Willow Creek has
released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their
programs and philosophy of ministry. The study’s findings are in a new book
titled Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Cally
Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground
breaking” and “mind blowing.” And no wonder: it seems that the “experts” were
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
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. In a shocking confession, Hybels states:
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 services, how to
do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.
Incredibly, the guru of
church growth now tells us that people need to be reading their bibles and
taking responsibility for their spiritual growth.
Just as Spock’s “mistake”
was no minor error, so the error of the seeker sensitive movement is monumental
in its scope. The foundation of thousands of American churches is now
discovered to be mere sand. The one individual who has had perhaps the greatest
influence on the American church in our generation has now admitted his
philosophy of ministry, in large part, was a “mistake.” The extent of this
error defies measurement.
Perhaps the most shocking
thing of all in this revelation coming out of Willow Creek is in a summary
statement by Greg Hawkins:
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.
Isn’t that what we were
told when this whole seeker-sensitive thing started? The church growth gurus
again want to throw away their old assumptions and “take out a clean sheet of
paper” and, presumably, come up with a new paradigm for ministry.
Should this be
Please note that “rooted in
Scripture” still follows “rethink,” “new insights” and “informed research.”
Someone, it appears, still might not get it. Unless there is a return to simple
biblical (and relevant) principles, a new faulty scheme will replace the
existing one and another generation will follow along as the latest piper
What we should find
encouraging, at least, in this “confession” coming from the highest ranks of
the Willow Creek Association is that they are coming to realize that their
existing “model” does not help people grow into mature followers of Jesus
Christ. Given the massive influence this organization has on the American
church today, let us pray that God would be pleased to
put structures in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere numeric growth, but
growth in grace.
Burney is Salem Communications’ award-winning host of Bob Burney Live, heard
weekday afternoons on WRFD-AM 880 in Columbus, Ohio. Contact Bob at