Monday, April 27, 2009

Reveal: Willow Creek on evangelism, discipleship, and a key failure in the "seeker-sensitive movement"

Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago, is a deeply influential church, especially within the "independent churches movement".

As far as I understand, their model of ministry has made "seeker-sensitivity" a by-word and a buzz-word-- as they have effectively reached out to non-believers in terms of evangelism and nominal believers in terms of church involvement. Their model has been replicated by some-- as if it is a franchise-- and studied and applied less directly by others.

One of their ministries has been an effort to study the effectiveness of various ministry models and programs-- and to communicate those findings. A few years back, they released their "Reveal" study. Reveal reveals a deficiency in the efficacy of their efforts to promote discipleship.

Here's the description of the book and the project from their website:

Are you really making a difference? How do you know? For years, church leaders have relied on numbers to help answer questions like these. In other words, we ask the “How many?” question. How many attend each week? Are in small groups? Actively serve? Tithe? Numbers can be helpful, but they don’t reveal the whole story.

The study is based on "5,000 surveys from seven churches", describes "four segments that characterize the journey of spiritual growth" (Exploring Christ, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ, Christ-centered) and describes "what catalyzes and stunts spiritual growth". (They go into more detail with this last goal in their follow-up book.

The punchline of the study: Increased attendance and participation in church activities does not automatically equate to spiritual growth. And beyond mere exceptions to a proverbial rule, the authors question any kind of strong correlation between the two (at least given the approaches in the surveyed churches). Putting it another way: connecting people to church does not mean that we're helping them connect with Jesus. This takes us back to Kyle's distinction between a fan and a follower of Jesus.

Instead, it's "relational closeness to Christ" that points to growth, endurance, and greater fruit. Another key finding: the church is key in the early stages of spiritual growth, but becomes more secondary afterwards.

Recommended next steps: emphasize growth and "next steps" which are laid out by the church and coached by individuals within lay or professional ministry.

In the Men's Ministry at Southeast, it's relatively easy for us to get people to show up for large groups or big events-- e.g., our Saturday AM Bible study and the "Wild Game Feed".

The two biggest gaps to be bridged: 1.) going from large group to small group; 2.) going from passive attender with nothing required between meetings to some-level-of-active participant with at least something required between meetings. Once they do #1, they're in a great position to move along the lines described by Reveal. Once they do #2, it's almost a slam-dunk for them to develop various practices which promote growth, accountability, community, and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum, we offer "DC": our "capstone course" in lay-leadership development and a higher-end discipleship curriculum called Thoroughly Equipped. DC is a 21-month guided self-study where participants study about five hours per week and come together for a weekly 1.5-hour small group meeting led by co-facilitators. We don't know of anything else like it-- unfortunately. Beyond what we've produced, it is rare that churches have ANY plan for developing biblically-competent lay-leaders or even offer anything in terms of higher-level discipleship.

Reveal is key. The Great Commission is to "go and make disciples"-- not attenders or converts, but disciples.


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