Up a Creek
S. M. Hutchens on the Dangerous Success of Rudderless Christianity
The most disturbing and widely publicized finding of Reveal, Willow Creek Community Church’s years-long exercise in consultant-directed self-analysis, was that a significant percentage of the members who have profited most from its ministry, having moved forward along its continuum of measurement for spiritual growth (tithing, serving, and evangelizing), are dissatisfied and thinking of leaving.
A more amenable result to the church, of course, would be that the dissatisfied are the less rather than the more mature Christians, but Willow Creek has discovered that the more advanced a person becomes by its own measures of spirituality, the more likely it is he is thinking of going elsewhere.
This finding not only shook the church’s leadership, but caused significant disturbance in the larger Evangelical world, since the model provided by the huge congregation in the Chicago suburb has in the last generation become almost paradigmatic for the movement of which it is a part.
Deeper & Less
The principal mission of Evangelicalism being to evangelize, the methods used by Willow Creek, representing the most advanced and sophisticated applications of market analysis and Church Growth technique, have been so successful that they have not only formed the basis for a large connection of churches, but are widely studied and imitated among Evangelicals as the best modern example of what they are in the world to do.
Since the criteria used by Willow Creek to measure spiritual growth are by and large the same as those used by other Evangelical churches, if this study is valid the entire movement has been confronted with the question of whether the deeper one ventures into the Christian faith—the better he knows his Bible, the more faithful he is in the service of Christ, the more concerned he is for the welfare and mission of the Church—the less of a modern Evangelical he must perforce become. I have not heard it articulated this way, but think the conclusion inescapable.
Willow Creek’s ministry deserves praise for two important virtues. Its critics, I believe, should allow that if its more advanced members can become dissatisfied with the form of Christianity they have found, it is more than likely they have been there provided with criteria against which to measure it. (This, I am bound to say, is one of the well-recognized dangers of turning people loose with their Bibles: There is nothing, as a famous English Chancellor once correctly observed, more apt to alienate them from their churches.)
While, if this book represents it well, its leadership’s attitude toward the Church appears to be self-referential, still something has been learned at Willow Creek that allows the more advanced member to understand he is in a spiritual nursery and can no longer live satisfactorily on its lactations. This means, however, that there must have been a competence of nourishment to begin with, with all this implies about the effectiveness of its ministry of the gospel as far as it goes—and this is no small thing.
The second commendation is of its willingness to look seriously at itself, both naming and making public findings that not only reflect faults in its ministry, but tend to cast doubt upon the validity of the entire project. If the more mature members, whose normal task is to lead the church into a more perfect faith, are instead finding that their church cannot accommodate it, this casts the character of the whole into serious question.
It appears to me that this church, while professing a high regard for Jesus, does not think nearly as well of the apostolic ministry which formed, supposedly under his direction, the Church of the New Testament, knowledge of which is a principal part of what long-standing members of Willow Creek are expected to gain from the teaching of their church and their private devotions. Its enthusiastic adoption of the egalitarian heresy is the most notable sign of this deficiency.
A Mixed Message
I do not see evidence here (although perhaps it may be found elsewhere) of the conviction that any of these problems are due to sins that need to be forsaken. Rather, they are treated as ineffectiveness, the result of ignorance from which the church claims to desire relief.
Since the story whose beginnings are chronicled in Reveal is not yet over, this writer is not willing to write Ichabod over the portals, but must note the lack of promise in the mixed message of its concluding parts: While on one hand, it desires the aid of others to make the necessary corrections and improvements, on the other, one senses the probability that whatever advice it receives, to be found useful, must be domesticated to the small corner of Christendom where it lodges, a place dominated more by marketing experts who ask people what they want than by Christian leaders who tell them, with the authority of apostolic teaching and tradition, what the Church believes and does.
Willow Creek seems to be cheerfully maintaining and listening to its business-school pastors while losing—not cheerfully, to be sure—those who may be beginning to understand what the Church is about.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Up a Creek” first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.