Groothuis Withering Willow

kinnon —  November 10, 2007 — 7 Comments

I’ve been hesitant to join the conversation around Willow Creek and its recent admission of gaping holes in its ministry model. Read the Out of Ur post here and then Greg Hawkins’ spin (Willow’s executive pastor – whatever the heck that is) at Out of Ur here – and make a point of reading the comments both pro and con.

Having been a mega-church insider for many years (ending rather abruptly in the late Spring of 2005), including working inside two different ones over a three year period this first decade of the new millenium – I bring both my own baggage as well as my own insight to the issues.

Apr05_willow2small Am I shocked by the facts that show people don’t mature spiritually in these cross-less architectured environments? Hardly. I’ve seen the lack of discipleship up close and personal. And when the questions about discipleship arise, the leadership has often responded by “people just need to be at all the services and they’ll grow.” As if forty to sixty minute bibliotainment sermons, surrounded by pop culture music are going to disciple believers to a reasonable level of spiritual maturity.

Constructive Curmudgeon, Doug Groothuis, with a lot more theological horsepower than I’ll ever have responds this way, (partial quote)

The flawed model is that a program-driven church–big, slick, professional–will generate disciples (those who grow in love for God and others) by getting people to show up for activities. Now Bill Hybels and others are claiming this was a mistake. People need to take responsibility for their spiritual growth instead of just "participating" in the all the events.

This is no surprise to many of us who never bought the Willow "model," who never believed that "giving the customer what he wants" (Hybels’s slogan) was biblical, who never believed that painting the church in the image of consumer culture would call people to deep repentance or build biblical disciples. Think about it. What kind of atmosphere do you create when your building looks like a theater? Os Guinness spoke to this prophetically long ago in his small gem, Dining With the Devil. See also Douglas Webster, Selling Jesus and David Wells, No Place for Truth and God in the Wasteland.

Now Willow is making their failure into an "event." Buy the book, watch the video. What will round #2 bring us from Hybels and company? Honestly, I’m not interested. We need a church that challenges our culture, not one that apes it…

I’m not a Willow-hater. I think their ministry style is an accurate reflection of boomer-driven, McDonald’s influenced, narcissistic culture. The perfect religious style for the “Me-Generation.” But that generation is rapidly diminishing in its cultural influence – though its vast wealth seemingly suggests otherwise.

Bondjamesbondsixties My friend and occasional teacher, Roy Williams said this about boomers (and I quote it in my short book, A Networked Conspiracy which Roy published)

Baby Boomers were idealists who worshipped heroes, perfect icons of beauty and success. Today these icons are seen as phony, posed and laughable. Our cool as ice, suave lady’s man James Bond has become the comic poser Austin Powers or the tragically flawed and vulnerable Jason Bourne of The Bourne Identity. That’s the essence of the new worldview; the rejection of delusion, a quiet demand for gritty truth. We’re seeing it reflected in our movies, our television shows and our music. (Bill notes: the newest Bond iteration has more in common with the flawed Bourne than the Sean Connery-embodied Bond of the sixties or the Roger Moore-embodied Bond of the seventies.)

Baby Boomers believed in big dreams, reaching for the stars, personal freedom, "be all that you can be." Today’s generation believes in small actions, getting your head out of the clouds, social obligation, "do your part."

A Baby Boomer anchored his or her identity in their career. The emerging generation sees his or her job only as a job.

Baby Boomers were diplomatic and sought the approval of others. The emerging generation feels it’s more honest to be blunt, and they really don’t care if you approve or not.

I don’t think Willow will fade into oblivion any time soon. But I do think there culture has more in common with the diminishing American brands that include Ford and GM – and without significant change and a loss of the desire to market their products to the rest of the church world – Willow’s descent into irrelevance will continue.

It is reported in the book Shopping for God, that Bill Hybels has a post outside his office that says,

“What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?”

Cluechunneltrainsmall_2 The mistake is self-evident. We are not customers. We are people. Would that Willow and the rest of our seeker-sensitive family members come to that realization. The Cluetrain left the station eight years ago. It’s time for these folk to get on it.

UPDATE: My friend Mark, in the comments says that the poster’s been changed recently.

Somehow this video (via our English/Kiwi family member, Susan) seems to fit this discussion. I’ll let you connect the dots.

UPDATE 2: Groothuis points to the Baptist Press’ repost of Bob Burney’s take (originally posted @ Townhall) on what Willow has Revealed. Here’s part of what Burney said,

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 "ground breaking," "earth shaking" and "mind blowing." And no wonder: It seems that the "experts" were wrong.

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. In a shocking confession, Hybels states:

"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 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.

One of the 132 responses on Burney’s Townhall post quotes A.W.Tozer,

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.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

7 responses to Groothuis Withering Willow

  1. Bill,

    A couple of things… Email me as my computer crashed and I lost your emails.
    Now, I understand Bill Hybels has changed his surrondings and put up pictures of the global intiatives that Willow is involved with. So, in his defense my understanding is he now has pictures of African poverty highlighting the Aids in Africa campaign and has had them up for over a year now. Part of their intiative is compassion!

  2. Thanks for posting Roy’s comments. It’s so nice to hear that there are boomers who understand the heart of this generation. Although I do agree that “generations” are collectively shaped by the eras in which they are raised and come into their own, and in this way, they manifest distinct cultural value systems… I also see a “generation” as a company of people who share the same heart and happen to be alive at the same time (so this can encompass many age groups). In this way, I would consider people like you and your friend Roy part of my generation. While at the same time, I have friends my age that embrace the ‘boomer’ mentality you describe here, and feel worlds apart from their value system.

  3. Sarah,
    Thanks for the comment and for considering me part of your generation. (I doubt my kids would agree – but we’ll wait to see if any of them weigh in.) I checked out your blog, and was impressed. I hope others will wander over to it from the link here. You are one who is well worth reading. I’ve added you to my Google Reader and am sure I’ll be linking to one of your posts soon.

  4. Thanks for the reference and partial quote. My name is spelled Groothuis, not Groothius.

    The perfect church for boomers is one that opposes all their sinful tendencies. “Love not the world,” said the Apostle John.

  5. Fixed the typo, Doug. ‘Tis why I need to get my wife or kids to proof my posts.

    Might I suggest that the perfect church for all of us is one that opposes all our sinful tendencies. And, unfortunately, “love not the world” has been used much too often to remove Christians from “being in the world but not of it.”

  6. I have been in hundreds of churches over the last 20 years… NOT being like Willow Creek doesn’t make you any better at making disciples. It’s tiresome to hear that just because this church or that church is not “seeker-sensitive” etc. they are obeying Jesus and therefore more “spiritual” then Willow or Saddleback. The proof is in the pudding, not in the packaging.

  7. Dennis,
    I’m a little slow on the uptake today, so I’m probably missing what you are saying, but…

    I don’t think the issue is that other churches are better at making disciples (although I’m sure there are thousands who are), the issue for me, at least, is that Willow has marketed themselves as the folk who know how to grow churches…and they want you to follow their strategy. The WCA is a case in point.

    The fact that they’ve experienced dramatic numerical growth, without growing disciples is rather disastrous for the thousands of churches who have followed in their footsteps – achieving the same kind of discipleship results.

    And what further drives me nuts, is that Willow is now marketing Reveal. Good grief!


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