Revisiting: Groothuis Withering Willow

kinnon —  December 5, 2008 — 2 Comments

This was originally posted a year ago. I'm reposting this mildly edited version based on an offline comment from a friend around WC and a recent Out of Ur post.

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) 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_willow2smallAm 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 do 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. (2008 Comment: Ford and GM are almost bankrupt – and word on the street is that a number of megachurches are struggling to service their debt as giving drops with the economy.)

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 (on the 2007 post) says that the poster's been changed recently.

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.

2008 UPDATE 1: I stumbled across this Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian quote whilst wandering the interwebs this evening. It's from an address he gave in Christchurch, NZ in '05.  I had a pastor friend in Vancouver tell me about Dr. Bilezikian's concerns a couple of years ago  – but I had never seen this piece. (Dr. B founded Willow Creek with Bill Hybels.)

“Christ did not die just to save us from our sins, but to bring us together into community. After coming to Christ, our next step is to be involved in community. A church that does not experience community is a parody, a sham.

“But the church in the West is being overtaken by individualism, which entails increased material pursuits, so you can afford to be self-sufficient. Strong anti-community forces are at work. Family life is practically non-existent as we are pulled away in different directions.”

Mr. Bilezikian fears the church has become irrelevant to both the purposes of God and to the needs of the world.

“The bane of the church is that it becomes worldly. Instead of imparting the Word and becoming an agent of change, it adopts the values of the world and integrates them into its structures and life.

“The biggest problem is the definition of its leadership structures. There are very clear directives in the New Testament for how the church is to be constituted, on the basis of community, which implies congregational participation, consensual decision-making, accountability of leaders to the congregation. Leadership should not be directive but developmental.”

However, Mr. Bilezikian says the church has discarded these directives and replaced them with worldly models of leadership, such as those found in corporate business. So we find the pastor as CEO. “We even adopt the language, for example, calling them senior pastors. Where does that come from?”

He says today’s highly hierarchical models of leadership smack of Government, military or political administrations and they result in the Church becoming institutionalized.

“Instead of being a movement, it becomes an establishment. This is not new, of course – it started when the Roman Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the state religion.”

Mr. Bilezikian chooses his words carefully, but he is not without criticism of Willow Creek itself.

“Willow Creek was on target originally,” he says, “but there’s always the temptation to seek success, as defined by the world, meaning preoccupation with numbers, with business, with facilities, and as a result there is always a danger for a church to become bureaucratic and hierarchical.”

He says this temptation is the same, though, for a small church as for a large church. “The church becomes dominated by little bosses and instead of developing leadership they hog it for themselves and run the congregation like tyrants.”

While Mr. Bilezikian raises the warning flags, he is not without hope. He points to a community movement which, he says, appeared at the end of the 20th century and has taken hold. These are churches in which lay people and clergy are raising basic questions about the identity of the Church, and about the definition of its workings.



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.

2 responses to Revisiting: Groothuis Withering Willow

  1. My name is misspelled in the headline. Thanks for posting the comments.

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for the update with Dr. B’s comments. His works have been so very helpful to me over the past 9 years … it is good to know that he has kept his balance.


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