Months of misleading headlines and rumors floating in the blogosphere have prompted one influential megachurch to set the record straight about the major changes the church is making.
Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., recently morphed their midweek services into university-like classes, catering to everyone from those just starting to explore Christianity to more mature believers who want to go deeper in their study of theology and Scripture.
That's just one of many changes the megachurch is implementing after a churchwide study showed long-time and fully devoted attendees weren't as satisfied as those new to the Christian faith and were stalled in their spiritual growth. While many were participating in church programs and activities, attendees were not necessarily growing more as disciples of Christ, the study found.
Although the study, published in Reveal: Where Are You?, was groundbreaking and an eye opener, the release of the findings and Willow Creek's leaders admitting they made a "mistake" led to a storm of online discussions and reports that say Willow's leaders made shocking confessions.
"If the most shocking confession to come out of Willow in 32 years is that we did research and came out with tools to help people toward full devotion to Christ, I feel really good about our church,” said Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, according to a statement. “I don’t call it shocking; I call it honest. We have never wanted to play church here; we have always wanted to be the real deal."
"We learn and grow at Willow. We make no apologies for wanting to get better at leading this church. We are dead serious about helping seekers come to know Christ, about helping Christians grow to be Christ-centered," Hybels said last month in response to inaccurate reports. "And any time we can find a more effective way, any time we gather more information that informs us to be able to lead this church better, we humble ourselves before God, we humble ourselves before our own congregation, and we say 'we think we found a way that we can serve you better. So our apologies for not waking up to this sooner but we're doing the best we can. And our church usually applauds and says 'thanks for your honesty and lead on.'"
Some reports indicated that the seeker-sensitive church was shifting their focus from seekers, or those exploring Christianity, to more mature believers.
Nancy Beach, vice president of the Arts Willow Creek Association, said last month that such reports were "terribly inaccurate in their assessment of what we're learning and exploring these days."
"Let me be very, very clear," she said during WCA's annual Arts Conference. "We are never ever going to abandon reaching nonchurched people. This has been a part of our DNA since we started this church. It was built on the foundation of saying 'we want to reach our friends.'"
"And if you cut us, we bleed evangelism," she added in an emotional response to misinformation. "This is a place that wants more people, as many as possible to come into heaven with us."
Hybels also stressed that they are still highly focused on seekers and are further looking to increase evangelism effectiveness. "We have had the same one-sentence mission statement for 32 years – we're trying to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers to Christ. We have never been more committed to either side of that mission statement."
The Reveal study is not about Willow, church leaders have clarified. Rather, the findings are based on 30 churches besides Willow – that aren't Willow clones. And since the release of the findings last year, over 500 churches and half a million congregants have undergone the study.
The purpose of the Reveal study is to find out what is really happening in the lives of people attending churches today. It identifies a spiritual continuum where church attendees are categorized in four different stages of spiritual development: Exploring Christ, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ and Christ-Centered. Furthermore, it reveals insights about what helps people move along the spiritual journey.
"We want to see movement," Beach said. "We don't want anyone stuck."
The study found that many churches, while effective in helping those in the first stage of their spiritual journey move to the next, have trouble getting the more mature believers to move from the Close to Christ stage to a Christ-centered life.
At Willow, two out of every 10 are Exploring Christianity; three out of every 10 are Growing in Christ; three out of every 10 are Close to Christ; and two out of every 10 are Christ-centered.
No matter where people said they are in their spiritual journey, it is the church's job to challenge them to grow and to provide them the tools to advance acceleration," said Greg L. Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and co-author of the Reveal book.
As the church recalibrates, Willow Creek is still developing how to conduct their weekend worship services in a way that will be "catalytic" to all attendees, from seekers to mature believers.
Hybels noted that seekers have changed over the last three decades. While in the 1970s, seekers were passive, put off by spiritual conversation, and wanted a service that was presented to them, seekers in the 21st century are open to spiritual conversation and to participating in worship services.
Thus, Willow is now finding ways for seekers to participate in worship and to be connected, as Marshall Shelley, editor of Leadership journal reported. "Now we understand that Willow is as seeker-focused as ever, but the definition of 'seeker service' is changing," Shelley stated.
The Reveal Spiritual Life Survey will be launched for all churches to use as a resource. A new book, titled Follow Me: What's Next for You? , was released to expand on initial findings and describe the spiritual catalysts most influential to moving people on the spiritual continuum. The findings in Follow Me are based on input from 80,000 surveys completed by people in more than 200 congregations.