Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Chruch in Hudsonville, Michigan.
By their own admission, and according to their own studies, the “seeker sensitive,” “emerging church,” mega-churches of modern-day America have failed. Under the title “Seeking but not Finding,” World Magazine, December 1, 2007, published the following story.
Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago has been the epicenter of the “seeker” movement for three decades. During that time, Willow Creek has grown from start up to around 20,000 in regular attendance. The influential Willow Creek Association has taught its 12,000 member churches—including many that do not share the mother church’s evangelical theology—how to grow.
That’s why founder Bill Hybels’ recent confession that the church’s brand of ministry has been a “mistake” came as a shock to the evangelical world’s system.
The confession came in the wake of a book published by Willow Creek.Reveal: Where Are You? was co-written by Willow Creek Executive Pastor Greg Hawkins and Callie Parkinson, who leads Willow Creek’s Reveal ministry. Reveal, and the book that bears the ministry’s name, promote the results of a multi year study on the state of the American church. The study suggests what many critics have said for years: Most churches are not doing a good job of true disciple-building.
“We made a mistake,” Hybels said at Willow Creek’s annual Leadership Summit, where the results of the survey were presented. “When people crossed the line of faith and became 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.”
Hybels’ words have been reported on several blog sites (including townhall.com). According to Callie Parkinson, the online conversations have generated a flood of inquiries to Willow Creek and a response by Hawkins on the Reveal website. Parkinson told WORLD that the Reveal study would result in a “broadening of the movement. There’s been a breakthrough in our understanding.” But she reiterated that Willow Creek remains not just “seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed.”
Many evaluations of and reactions to this study are available from the Internet and from a variety of magazines. Some justify what the mega-churches have done. Others try to discredit the study. Others praise Hybel for his “confession” and apparent resolve to change. But perhaps the best evaluation comes from Prof. Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary in California. The article in Worldcontinues,
That means, according to Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, that American evangelicalism is likely to see “more of the same” from Willow Creek. “In the ‘seeker’ view, evangelism and outreach are spiritual technologies that must be made more efficient,” Horton said. “Having a survey tell you that you need to add ‘discipleship’ to the list of technologies that we’re trying to make more efficient doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.”
Is the use of surveys as a replacement for true spiritual discernment among evangelical church leaders at the core of the problem facing the modern church? Horton criticizes the idea of church, worship, or the gospel as “product,” and lost sinners as “consumers.” People, he said, “are not consumers who need to be satisfied. They’re sinners who need to be justified. Preaching is not a technology. It is a means of grace.”
The problems go beyond Willow Creek: Parkinson said the study included 30 churches that “were not all Willow Creek clones. The findings in the study are true of all churches.” Horton agrees with that: “The state of the church in America today is poor, and it’s a condition that you can’t blame on Willow Creek alone. It’s increasingly difficult to swim against the tide of materialism, consumerism, and narcissism in the culture.”
This whole study demonstrates several things.
First, it shows that church growth is not to be measured primarily by numbers. The strength of the New Testament church is not in her size but in the gospel and truth that she possesses. The Word of God is the power of the church. The Reveal study reveals that the most satisfied members were those who were part of smaller groups who actually studied the Scriptures together. In these small groups they were getting something that they were not getting in the worship services.
Second, it tells what does not work in church growth. Willow Creek, and the other mainline mega-churches, are all about innovations in worship and having a host of programs for people to be a part of. The message is, “Get involved, and you’ll feel better about yourself. Your religion will help you, by you doing something.” What is this, but a salvation based on the works of man? And it bears no real fruit, no spiritual growth.
Third, it shows the need for the church today to return to the age-old practice of preaching and teaching from the Word of God. This is what churches need. This needs to be the central element in worship. This is the work that the church is given to do. If members are to be “involved,” their involvement must first be that they sit under biblical preaching.
So, are they learning these lessons? An Ohio radio commentator, quoted by the Baptist Press, summarized the seeker-sensitive movement this way.
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.
Are they learning? It maybe sounds like they are, but maybe not. Greg Hawkins, Willow Creek’s Executive Pastor, summarized the “new direction” of the church this way (wordpress.com).
Our 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.
Can we expect something different, a new direction? The answer is, “No.” The reason: nothing really has changed, and there are two things here that show this.
First, the premise is wrong. They are still “seeker-sensitive” and not biblical in their method. They may be acknowledging some failure, and that the Bible has some things to say about the nature and method of church outreach and growth, but they are still letting the “consumer” determine the direction of the church.
Second, there is a basic misunderstanding of the reason for the existence of the church. God doesn’t ask the church to “transform this planet” but to preach the gospel of the cross to sinners, in the power of the Spirit. The church exists to keep alive the name and witness of God in a world that is perishing, so that men and women may be saved from that destruction and so that the name of God may be honored also in the earth.
The lesson for us is to continue in what we have. The lesson is to love what we have and to be thankful for it. The church does not need innovations. The church needs the pure preaching of the gospel of Christ.
This has application especially in the area of ministering to the youth in the church. In the Reformed church world the emphasis has not been so much on church growth from the outside and on church size, but on maintaining what we have. That fits with our covenant perspective on church growth. You might say that the mega-church mentality has not come into Reformed circles, but its methods have. We see Reformed churches, in an effort to keep the youth, adopting many of the same innovations in worship and programs for their youth that you find in the emerging church movement. And, just as Willow Creek has discovered, so Reformed churches are discovering, this is not working. The youth are not spiritually alive, and the youth are not committed any more to the church. Again, the message is, the church needs preaching and teaching. The youth of the church need instruction. They need catechism. They need to hear the sermons. They need to be incorporated, not segregated. They, as sinners, need the means of grace as much as any other. Without it, they will die, spiritually.
“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18).