Pastor Bill Hybels didn't give his life to the development of the local church just to gather a bunch of casual Christians, he says. He gave it to see people far from God find the love of Christ and fully devote themselves to God and what He is doing.
Expressing similar sentiments, Pastor Tim Gray of Bridge Community Church, a congregation of 400 in Leadington, Mo., says, "We're called to make disciples ... not members, not pew-sitters."
Many pastors would agree. But since the early Christian church, pastors have only had three ways to measure the spiritual growth of churchgoers and assess how effective churches were in developing Christ followers and not pew-sitters.
Those three methods were attendance, baptisms (or conversions), and resources (i.e. tithing), at least according to Cally Parkinson of Willow Creek Association.
"Those were your three ways of measuring because you really had no other way to figure out whether or not what you were doing was really helping people become increasingly intimate with Christ and increase their love for God and of others," said Parkinson, one of the leaders of WCA's Reveal research.
That is, until now.
Parkinson and a small team at WCA have recently made available to all churches what has been called a groundbreaking study that provides a "vivid picture of the 'unseen' hearts" of congregants and their spiritual growth. The Reveal Spiritual Life Survey serves as a "lens," as Parkinson explained, for pastors to be able to view where his or her congregants are spiritually.
So far, more than 500 churches and half a million congregants have taken the survey and many have found the results surprising.
Willow Creek Community Church was the first to take the survey in 2004. At that time, the influential megachurch in South Barrington, Ill., was at a crossroads, according to Parkinson, as they were in the midst of building a new 7,200-seat auditorium but was also at the end of their strategic planning cycle.
"It was like 'where is the church going next?'" Parkinson said.
Then out of what Parkinson described as a divine, extraordinary coming together of circumstances, the Reveal study was born and soon survey findings at Willow Creek and six other churches across the country rocked the megachurch.
Among the findings, what "really caught us off guard" was the discovery that involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth, Reveal's leadership stated in Reveal: Where Are You?.
Instead of the direct linear relationship between the level of participation in church activities and spiritual growth – defined as "increasing love for God and others" – that they expected, they discovered that the connection between the two is actually limited.
When the findings were presented at WCA's Leadership Summit in 2007, Pastor John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church said, "You could hear thousands of church leaders responding to the single finding that was to me the most important and unsettling: that as spiritual life progresses, increased involvement in church activities ceases to predict spiritual growth."
"I have rarely heard information that was such a surprise when it was announced, yet made intuitive sense to all the church leaders as soon as it sunk in," he wrote in Follow Me: What's Next For You?, which is the second book detailing the latest Reveal findings.
The results were even more shocking to Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek.
"You can imagine my reaction when three people whose counsel I value told me that the local church I've been the pastor of for more than three decades was not doing as well as we thought when it came to spiritual growth," Hybels wrote in the first Reveal book.
And it was scientific research, Hybels acknowledged, that he could not ignore.
"As brutal as some of church facts can be, facts are still your friends," Hybels said at the 2008 Leadership Summit.
“People couldn’t grasp why Willow wanted to self critique … we really, really, really wanted to know … [what was] … adding value with people’s walk with God,” he also stated. And what people at Willow Creek wanted was not trendy services but challenges to go higher in their levels of devotion to Christ.
"They made it clear they wanted access to more rigorous learning opportunities," Hybels said.
Since the Willow Creek pastor revealed the findings to his church and admitted to making a “mistake,” many reports and bloggers have made inaccurate assessments and misunderstandings have abound.
"Was it hurtful when bloggers misunderstood [and] spread bad stuff? Yes," Hybels told pastors at the Summit. "Would I pay the price all over again in order for the church to make the gains it did in the last year? Dumb question. Of course I would."
Expounding on what Hybels said when he first talked about the study, Parkinson commented, “How I would interpret what Bill said is that … there’s been a bit of miscommunication and there’s been a bit of support missing and we can do a better job."
“He said, you know we really might have led people down a path to think that the church is always going to be the source of their spiritual growth … And that’s miscommunication in the sense that the church’s role as people get more and more mature is to help support them and encourage them as they [grow],” she added. “We need to encourage people to become more independent in their lives but we also need to think about what kind of role the church has in terms of support and influence.”
And Willow Creek wasn't alone.
"What’s important about his (Hybels') statement is that the issues we saw at Willow Creek that he’s responding to, we see in virtually every church that we have surveyed.”
Next month, WCA will host its first Reveal Conference where 16 of the most effective churches in the country – ranked by WCA based on the Reveal surveys – will share how they have been successful in the spiritual development of their congregants. The 16 churches range from a 200-member church in the poorest city in the country to a 9,000-member church that worships at a palace-like campus, according to Parkinson.
"Whether you’ve got a whole bunch of resources or not a lot, you can be incredibly effective at developing your people spiritually," Parkinson noted.
On the Web: Reveal survey at revealnow.com