Interview: Parkinson on A Study that Rocked Willow Creek and Others

It is Cally Parkinson's dream to put in the hands of every pastor a tool that is just as effective and up to par with that of the corporate world, a tool that would reveal more than just numbers when measuring a congregation's health.

For Parkinson, "Reveal" is just that as it provides insight into and scientific evidence about the hearts of those who would otherwise seem a regular pew-sitter or even an active volunteer.

After surveying thousands of churchgoers, Parkinson and her small team - Greg Hawkins and Eric Arnson - discovered a highly predictive spiritual continuum, where a person's spiritual growth could be predicted by where they stood in their faith journey - exploring Christianity, growing in Christ, close to Christ, or Christ-centered. The continuum showed that those just beginning to explore the Christian faith were least likely to serve, tithe, evangelize, pray, read the Bible and declare love for God and belief in Christ while people who were Christ-centered were most likely to demonstrate these behaviors.

More than 500 churches have taken the Reveal survey now and many have already implemented changes after discovering the gaps that exist between where congregants were spiritually and where they wanted to be. The Reveal team published a new book, Follow Me: What's Next For You?, detailing catalysts that help move people from one segment on the spiritual continuum to the next.

The book comes as the survey has now become available to all churches throughout the country and Canada. The Christian Post had a chance to speak with Parkinson of Willow Creek Association about the exciting new tool, misunderstandings about how Willow Creek Community Church has responded to its own survey findings and the upcoming Reveal Conference.

CP: Who and what prompted this survey?

Parkinson: This is an interesting story. I honestly think it was a divine, extraordinary coming together of circumstances because the way it came together is that Willow Creek approached me about being their communications director. I was at Allstate Insurance Company. I had worked there for 25 years. Most of my experience was in finance, not in communication. Anyway, they decided that I looked like a communications person so I took the job. And I loved this job.

But a year after I got here, I got an e-mail from a consultant that I had worked with … One consultant had come in when I was at Allstate and had done this blockbuster piece of market research on how people go about making decisions in their financial world. And it was just phenomenal work. But that was several years ago. Here I was at Willow Creek and I got an e-mail from this guy and he said "How are you doing? Why don't we catch up?"

So I invited him out to lunch at Willow. He had never heard of Willow Creek. And this guy was probably the top national brand strategy kind of guy in the country at the time because he ran it for the McKinsey Company, a pretty well-known business consulting firm. He just was really intrigued with Willow Creek, with what he saw and I gave him a whole bunch of tapes and books because I was trying to convince him to do something for me for free and I never dreamed it would be this. But he gave us four years of pro bono work to do this work that we do because he decided that it would be really intriguing to see if the approach he takes – to figure out how a market works – would have application in what he would call the "spiritual space." Because what he does is that he defines or tries to figure out how a market works not based on what people do but how people feel. Basically, he goes after their attitudes, motivations, needs, that kind of thing. He uncovered – in this survey that we did just for Willow Creek in 2004 – what we call the "spiritual continuum" that really seems to be highly predictive of someone's spiritual growth.

CP: When and how did your team come to the point where you felt numbers weren't enough to measure a church's health?

Parkinson: That is the outcome of the spiritual continuum. It's not that attendance and that type of thing aren't important. …Numbers are important but they don't define numbers in terms of participation how many people show up at the services, or go to their small groups, or go to their classes, those are important things to understand, but they don't define whether or not someone is growing spiritually. What defines whether or not someone is growing spiritually is whether or not they are increasing in their love for God and their love of others.

CP: What was the main problem these churches came across in terms of finding stagnant or dissatisfied congregants? Was it too much emphasis on programs?

Parkinson: No. I think that we uncover, not just at Willow Creek but now in 500 churches that we've surveyed, large percentages of people who acknowledge they were stalled in their spiritual growth. The stalling, one of the things that's very consistent with that expression, tends to be possibly someone hitting a life circumstance that is very challenging. And they are early in their journey – that's another characteristic. So you hit a life circumstance that is a challenge and you don't have the roots of that faith to kind of lean into and you kind of stall out. It's kind of a "How could God do that to me?" kind of deal. You know that these types of life circumstances occur in people who are more mature in their faith at the same level they do to people who are less mature but they don't express having stalled out in their faith. They lean into their faith and deal with these issues. That's our hypothesis on that. So I'd say it had nothing to do with the programs of the church. It really had to do with the circumstances people were facing in their lives and the fact that they were just early in their journey.

CP: What about those who are dissatisfied, who are actually Christ followers but are just dissatisfied, as shown in the Reveal survey?

Parkinson: The dissatisfied … I think they are misinterpreted as kind of like the whiny, cranky people who just want to go deeper. I had one pastor say to me once "they're always like the poor, they're always going to be there." It's like you can't make some of these people happy. But it's not that. These are people who tend to be long-tenured with the church so they are not church hoppers. They, on average, have been with the church about seven years. And they tend to be people who are dissatisfied with the church's role in helping them grow spiritually. That's how they express it. Our hypothesis on this is that there's an expectation just of more support than the church is giving them. And that's pretty much the bottom line. When you look at the needs they express – they want more challenge, they do want more in depth Bible. But they also tend to be a bellwether of the issues that you see in the rest of the congregation. The needs that they express are not dissimilar to the needs being expressed by people in the rest of the congregation, they just tend to be more intense.

CP: In the book, you or Greg say it's "wrong" to think church can meet all the spiritual needs of a person. So when it comes to this dissatisfied group, should the church still meet all the needs of these people?

Parkinson: The really hallmark of Reveal and the survey results polled together out of the congregations is that it's a very holistic spiritual experience that we capture. What it is is it's saying the church is only a part of people's spiritual experience. It is a central part, it is the most important organized influence, obviously, but there are two other strong influences. One is how much they're investing in their own spiritual lives. What are they doing in terms of their personal spiritual practices – reflection on Scripture, prayer, etc. And then the second one is just what we call faith in action – evangelism, serving at the church and those in need. What I like about what Reveal does is it captures all of that and it gives the pastor, who is the spiritual leader of his congregation, a sense of where his people are spiritually not just in terms of how church relates to them but in terms of that whole view of their spiritual lives.

CP: This study, especially Willow Creek Church's findings, has gotten a lot of attention, as well as misunderstandings. Many have commended Pastor Hybels for coming out with this honest picture of how his church is really doing but some have also been critical. They say that a person's spiritual growth should have been the focus all along for a church. How do you respond to that?

Parkinson: What I would say is what my, I think Jim Mellado, who is the head of Willow Creek Association, says it really well. Spiritual growth is at the heart of all churches and is the heartbeat of all pastors. That is what they want is that they want people to grow spiritually and have an increasingly intimate relationship with Christ. However, the real issue is how do you measure that. How do you know whether what you're doing is working or not? And the only way pastors have had, Jim says, for 2,000 years, basically there have been three ways you can measure or not what you're doing is working. And that was attendance, how many people you were baptizing, so conversion, and then sort of a resource deal – how many were volunteering, what does your tithing look like. Money and time type of thing. 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.

This is just a lens. Reveal is really two things – it is a new view so that pastors now … every pastor this Sunday is going to look at his congregation, and I guarantee you there are going to be those four segments. It's a new way to think about where people are. That's what the first book was about – the view. The second book is a real upgrade to the first one because now with 150,000 people in the database, we actually could get in there and discern what catalyzes growth from one stage. What is it that seems to be most effective in moving people along. And we looked at 50 different types of catalysts.

CP: Is this something that all people in the corporate world do – surveying their customers?

Parkinson: It's very common. And my friend has experience in 60 different categories (i.e. athletic wear, insurance) in 250 different brands. At this conference we're going to have in a few weeks, we're going to bring in some of the people who his work has not only helped but they've actually acted on them and can report on results. We're going to be talking to a guy who was very integral to Olympics deal and someone from Gatorade and the WNBA. So it's very common in the marketplace to try to figure out how your market works so that you know the kind of things the target market needs.

CP: At the conference in October, who else will be featured?

Parkinson: The voice of the Reveal Conference are these churches. Sixteen churches were ranked – we came up with a way to do that. We ranked all 500 churches that we surveyed on their ability to be effective at the spiritual development of their people. Now we have 16 churches that were at the top and they are coming to talk about how they do that. How do they grow their people spiritually, what are some of the real practical things that church leaders can take away from these pastors. What's really cool about this is that these churches are small – I've got a 200-person church out of the poorest city in the U.S., I've got a church of 9,000 that has worship at a building that looks like a big palace in Dallas, I've got a church that operates out of a building that looks almost like a log cabin in Montana, a rural setting. We've just got churches from the smallest to the very large settings. What's so cool is that they are all equally effective and they are all doing basically the same sort of things incredibly well. Whether you've got a whole bunch of resources or not a lot, you can be incredibly effective at developing your people spiritually.

CP: When Pastor Bill Hybels came out with the survey findings in front of his church, is what he said along the lines of 'we did these things wrong and we need to make these changes.' Is that how you'd interpret what he said?

Parkinson: How I would interpret what Bill said is that we have, there's been a bit of miscommunication and there's been a bit of support missing and we can do a better job. And what's important about his 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. So this is all about all churches being able to see those insights so they can have the option of acting on them.

If you want me to unpack a little bit the miscommunication and a little bit of the support, the miscommunication is something along the lines of implying that the church – back to my three things that your spiritual experience and life is more abundant than simply what you do at church – 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, that what they would do in the church was the course 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]. In the book I use a parenting analogy when you have young kids, they're dependent on you to change their diapers, do their homework, etc. Now I've got young adults and my kids still need me but they need me more in an influential place not in helping them do stuff. And that's really what he was talking about – that 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 because I think many pastors would acknowledge that much of their time and much of their resources tend to be focused on the things that really tend to be catalytic early in the journey – those are weekend services, small groups, volunteering in the church. Those types of things are highly catalytic early in your spiritual journey, not so much later on.

CP: The survey became available to all churches last month. What has the response been like?

Parkinson: We've had a very good response, we're encouraged by the response. But what is interesting when we offered it for free – last year we said we want to build the database and make sure we can do this, so we offered 500 slots for churches and we had 1,500 churches very quickly come to us and apply to be part of the survey. But now that the survey is something they would purchase, you know churches manage on a tight budget and have approval processes (i.e. through board of elders, deacon board), so the decision is not quite as straightforward as it used to be when it was free. So I think that's been an interesting twist to the process which is not a bad thing because it makes them very familiar on the front end on the type of insights they're going to get on the back.

CP: What exactly is the process? Do they get the survey and they themselves study the results or turn it back to you?

Parkinson: They choose a date when they're going to launch the survey and there's a two-week window for launching that. They basically have three weekends to promote it. When it closes, all the results are polled into a report and that report plus a big appendix that gives them every piece of data that they could ever want to see will be delivered within 30 days. There's two-and-a-half of us that make that happen.

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