Thursday, November 8, 2007

converts to Christianity vs. disciples of Jesus Christ

Wow! From Bob Burney, a report on Willow Creek's epiphany about the potentially vast downsides of the "seeker-sensitive" movement for which they have been a primary catalyst.

Although a "seeker-sensitive" approach is completely appropriate-- a la I Corinthians 9:22-- in excess, it can lead to perpetual milk-drinkers instead of meat-eaters. At the least, the call of Mt 11:28's "come all who are weary and I will give you rest"-- to enter into relationship with Jesus-- must be followed with Mt 16:24's call to his disciples "to pick up one's cross daily and follow him".

The "gospel", the "good news"-- for salvation and sanctification, for eternal and abundant life, for fire insurance and kingdom living-- includes both. After all, the Great Commission of Mt 28:18-20 calls believers to "make disciples", not to "make converts".

Although Southeast is not as seeker-sensitive as Willow Creek, we are on that end of the spectrum. And much of that is good, or even, great. But recognizing the far-less-than-ideal extent to which discipleship was happening and lay-leadership was being purposefully developed-- five years ago, Kurt Sauder and I developed our 21-month Discipleship Curriculum (DC): Thoroughly Equipped.

We've seen God use DC to do awesome things in individual lives, marriages, and families-- and we've seen the development of a contingent of lay-leaders. We've had 160+ graduates and have another 240 involved right now. And DC is being used in a handful of other churches, accomplishing the same goals. If you're interested in more info, drop me a line at

Burney is, I think, overly harsh toward the seeker-sensitive movement and over-generalizes. And again, there's nothing inherent in a somewhat-seeker-sensitive approach that renders discipleship impossible, or even, less likely. All that said, Burney still has a number of great insights...

If you are older than 40 the name Benjamin Spock is more than familiar. It was Spock that told an entire generation of parents to take it easy, don’t discipline your children and allow them to express themselves. Discipline, he told us, would warp a child’s fragile ego. Millions followed this guru of child development and he remained unchallenged among child rearing professionals. However, before his death Dr. Spock made an amazing discovery: he was wrong. In fact, he said:

We have reared a generation of brats. Parents aren't firm enough with their children for fear of losing their love or incurring their resentment. This is a cruel deprivation that we professionals have imposed on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it with the best of intentions. We didn't realize until it was too late how our know-it-all attitude was undermining the self assurance of parents.


Something just as momentous, in my opinion, just happened in the evangelical community. For most of a generation evangelicals have been romanced by the “seeker sensitive” movement spawned by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. The guru of this movement is Bill Hybels. He and others have been telling us for decades to throw out everything we have previously thought and been taught about church growth and replace it with a new paradigm, a new way to do ministry.

Perhaps inadvertently, with this “new wave” of ministry came a de-emphasis on taking personal responsibility for Bible study combined with an emphasis on felt-needs based “programs” and slick marketing.

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.

Thousands of pastors hung on every word that emanated from the lips of the church growth experts. Satellite seminars were packed with hungry church leaders learning the latest way to “do church.” The promise was clear: thousands of people and millions of dollars couldn’t be wrong. Forget what people need, give them what they want. How can you argue with the numbers? If you dared to challenge the “experts” you were immediately labeled as a “traditionalist,” a throwback to the 50s, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times.

All that changed recently.

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 “earth shaking,” “ground breaking” 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.

Just as Spock’s “mistake” was no minor error, so the error of the seeker sensitive movement is monumental in its scope. The foundation of thousands of American churches is now discovered to be mere sand. The one individual who has had perhaps the greatest influence on the American church in our generation has now admitted his philosophy of ministry, in large part, was a “mistake.” The extent of this error defies measurement.

Perhaps the most shocking thing of all in this revelation coming out of Willow Creek is in a summary statement by Greg Hawkins:

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.

Isn’t that what we were told when this whole seeker-sensitive thing started? The church growth gurus again want to throw away their old assumptions and “take out a clean sheet of paper” and, presumably, come up with a new paradigm for ministry.

Should this be encouraging?

Please note that “rooted in Scripture” still follows “rethink,” “new insights” and “informed research.” Someone, it appears, still might not get it. Unless there is a return to simple biblical (and relevant) principles, a new faulty scheme will replace the existing one and another generation will follow along as the latest piper plays.

What we should find encouraging, at least, in this “confession” coming from the highest ranks of the Willow Creek Association is that they are coming to realize that their existing “model” does not help people grow into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Given the massive influence this organization has on the American church today, let us pray that God would be pleased to put structures in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere numeric growth, but growth in grace.


At November 12, 2007 at 11:14 AM , Blogger dudevf1 said...

I agree with the general criticism of the seeker based approach but the man making the criticism seems to be a bit harsh and at least from the comments provided does not address whether the alternative was any better or even worse. For example if you were in a "traditional" church during this "seeker" movement it is apparent that this traditional approach didn't produce disciples either. People can be entertained in any number of ways and at least the "seeker" movement has an audience to work with. The main problem with traditional churches is the hateful insistence of many "mature" believers to be "right" on doctrine v. loving others and discipling people in a loving way. Who on earth would want to be a Christian if it didn't change your life such that you actually loved other people and you could overcome sin? I'd rather ride my mt. bike than waste my life with so-called Christians arguing over style of worship and whether so and so is saved or whether they can be perfect or they are just sinners and will always be...Notwithstanding all of the above--yours was a great post!

At November 12, 2007 at 12:08 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Great points Dave!

I wish I had the made the point that you do: your assessment of a common reduction of Christian maturity to correct doctrine-- and, I would add, engaging in certain practices (or even more accurately, in avoiding certain practices).

At November 30, 2007 at 2:58 PM , Blogger Ginger said...

I am slow in getting around to reading it, but I love this article. I think one of the problems in the seeker-sensitive movement is an addiction to drawing large crowds and "feeling successful" and an extreme hesitancy to do anything that might drive the crowd away. In John 6 Jesus drew a huge crowd and fed the 5000 but in the end he saw many disciples quit following him because his teachings were too hard for them to accept. We don't need to purposely drive people away but if a gospel message that calls for devout discipleship drives people away, so be it.


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