When Programmatic Become Problematic: Willow Creek Apologizes

Earlier this month on Christianity Today’s blog Out of Ur there was an interview concerning Willow Creek Community Church’s recent admission of an apology for failure.  The article “Willow Creek Repents?  Why the most influential church in America now says ‘We made a mistake.’” is available here.  Before going any further, I have to give props to Justin Tapp for e-mailing me this article.

The article begins:

Few would disagree that Willow Creek Community Church has been one of the most influential churches in America over the last thirty years.  Willow, through its association, has promoted a vision of church that is big, programmatic, and comprehensive.  This vision has been heavily influenced by the methods of secular business.

Willow Creek recently published the findings of a lengthy qualitative study of the ministry at Willow Creek in a book entitled Reveal: Where Are You?.

The article summarizes Willow Creek’s philosophy of ministry saying, “The church creates programs/activities.  People participate in these activities.  The outcome is spiritual maturity.”  To their shock and disappointment, the study revealed that:

Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ.  It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.

I appreciate their humility in coming out and admitting their mistake and then publishing their failings in a book.  I think that the book will be an invaluable resource to all who have bought into the Willow Creek model and subsequently need to reevaluate their flawed philosophy of ministry.

What I do disagree with; however, is their proposed solution:

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 service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

Fundamental to their proposed solution is individual autonomy.  While that may be an easy product to sell to narcissistic Americans, it is not a biblical understanding of the church.  The church is at its core a community and the Word of God is meant to be studied and applied within the context of that community.  Now what I do not mean is the medieval Catholic understanding of this where only a trained clergy can read the Scriptures, nor should we chain Bibles to pews (if you even have pews), nor am I advocating a church-endorsed translation of Scripture as prominent within Roman Catholicism.  What I am advocating is what you find in passages like Romans 12:1-8 where we see that spiritual gifts are given to be used in the context of community; or Ephesians 5:18-21 and Colossians 3:12-17 where we are called to teach and admonish one another; to the glory of God, or Ephesians 4:11-16 where we realize that pastors, teachers, evangelists, etc. are given to equip the saints for the work of the ministry so that the body of Christ can build itself up in love.  The point being that individuals do not grow toward spiritual maturity, the body of Christ does.  Just as in the human body, the body of Christ is comprised with numerous parts, each of which has its own functions.  When these individual parts do not grow as one the result is dysfunction and distortion.  If a grown man has the legs or the heart of a five year old, he will certainly not function as he should and yet such dysfunction and disproportion is far too often accommodated within the body of Christ.

Willow Creek’s failure serves as an alarm to remind us that no matter how popular or successful a particular church paradigm may be if it is not based on Scripture then it will ultimately fail.  Willow Creek is no exception they based the church on popular business philosophy, to the point that outside of Bill Hybels’ hangs a poster that reads, “What is our business?  Who is our customer?  What does the customer consider value?”  They may have enjoyed a season of success; however, it is clear that unbiblical ministry is not sustainable ministry.

This is also a reminder that church growth must be organic growth, “so that the Church may be a living organism within an environment.”[1]  Furthermore, “it must not be allowed to grow in a foreign form but in a form suitable to the world in which it lives.”[2]  Organic growth stresses both proportion and indigeneity.  The stress upon proportion means that the church must be in a state of equilibrium where growth occurs equally on all planes; failure to do so results in distortion as certain aspects are emphasized while others are neglected.[3]  Understanding this is crucial in both evaluating you ministry as well as developing your philosophy of ministry.  Far too many churches are buying into things like “the Willow Creek Model” and other various paradigms; however, we must remember that the local exists within a particular environment and what works in one environment may not be successful or healthy in another.


[1] A. R. Tippett, “Indigenous Principles in Mission Today,” in Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1973), 128.

[2] Ibid., 128.

[3] A prime example is modern pop Christianity’s stress on numerical growth at the expense of genuine spiritual growth.

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5 thoughts on “When Programmatic Become Problematic: Willow Creek Apologizes

  1. “The church is at its core a community and the Word of God is meant to be studied and applied within the context of that community. ”

    Agree wholeheartedly. More and more I come back to this theme of living and growing in community, it’s really changed what we’re going to look for in our next church home.

    I give props to Willow Creek also for doing the self-research. I’m interested in checking out the book just to see what the surveys/metrics were like. I like how they have now proven that just because you have a full building and full activities (which are meant to promote spiritual growth) it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the desired growth. Every church should learn from this. If you’re going to measure spiritual growth purely by numbers and participation, you’re going to fool yourself into thinking you’re healthier than you really are.

  2. Great post. The program-driven church will ultimately produce lathargic men and women who fill the pews on Sunday and there ends their “Christianity”. I think Piper says it well, “The question is not whether people are being changed, the question is are they being changed the way God wants them to be changed?” Islam changes people! Mormonism changes people! Programatic, people-centered “Christianity” will change people! But are they being changed the way God desires?

    The only way to see people changed in a way that honors the Lord Jesus is through Gospel-centered ministry that seeks to push people towards the image of Christ. It comes not through a program but through expositional preaching God’s Word, through discipleship that pushes you deeper, through worship that is reverant and relevant, through fellowship that stresses unity and discussing what the Lord is doing in your life, and through church disicpline that holds the body of Christ accountable for the way they behave.

    Programs don’t do that! Unless you call that a program….

  3. “through fellowship that stresses unity and discussing what the Lord is doing in your life, and through church disicpline that holds the body of Christ accountable for the way they behave.”

    Agreed. I have yet to be a part of a fellowship that does this to the degree that I think it needs to be done. “discussing what the Lord is doing in your life,” needs to be more than “I read this passage today, it spoke to me… I’m struggling with this sin, etc. ”
    I think there’s a community fellowship element that needs to direct our behavior more than what is currently happening. I have some deep thoughts/questions on this that I’ll be sending out to people soon.

  4. JTapp,
    I actually may go get the book to see the surveys and everything. Because I think it may provide helpful insight into what are and are not adequate measures of spiritual growth. Granted this is easier to guage in a small congreation where you interact with everyone on a weekly basis but it will still be interesting. I am also excited to read your houghts on community fellowship.

    Jonathon,
    “The question is not whether people are being changed, the question is are they being changed the way God wants them to be changed?” I think that is a critical insight. So many people think that God is not concerned with methodology. Which is really just fancy pragmatism where the ends (teaching the Bible) justifies the means (any number of nonsensical things). I have a deep conviction that God has given us both a clear theology and methodology in Scripture; I just don’t think anyone has really taken the time to study this. I am currently doing a research paper on this but my grasp of the concepts is so elementary that I doubt if I am actually going to say much of anything in it.

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