After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church now plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in their faith.
The change comes on the heels of an ongoing four-year research effort first made public late last summer in Reveal: Where Are You?, a book coauthored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins. Hawkins said during an annual student ministries conference in April that Willow Creek would also replace its midweek services with classes on theology and the Bible.
Whether more changes are in store for the suburban Chicago megachurch isn’t clear. Hawkins declined CT’s interview request, and senior pastor Bill Hybels was unavailable for comment.
Since 1975, Willow Creek has avoided conventional church approaches, using its Sunday services to reach the unchurched through polished music, multimedia, and sermons referencing popular culture and other familiar themes. The church’s leadership believed the approach would attract people searching for answers, bring them into a relationship with Christ, and then capitalize on their contagious fervor to evangelize others.
But the analysis in Reveal, which surveyed congregants at Willow Creek and six other churches, suggested that evangelistic impact was greater from those who self-reported as “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered” than from new church attendees. In addition, a quarter of the “close to Christ” and “Christcentered” crowd described themselves as spiritually “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of the church in their spiritual growth. Even more alarming to Willow Creek: About a quarter of the “stalled” segment and 63 percent of the “dissatisfied” segment contemplated leaving the church.
As Willow Creek expanded its research into churches of varying geographic locations, sizes, and ethnic and denominational backgrounds, the church said the same general pattern emerged, an indication that the problem extends beyond Willow Creek.
Dave Terpstra, teaching pastor of The Next Level Church in Denver, a Willow Creek Association member congregation that draws about 600 people on Tuesday nights, said he’s unsure Willow Creek can provide greater depth to mature believers by its moves, especially since more traditional churches wrestle with the same issue.
North River Community Church in Pembroke, Massachusetts, recently completed the Reveal survey. Senior pastor Paul Atwater said he recalled Hybels telling pastors that Willow Creek planned “to get deeper” about 10 years ago at its annual leadership summit.
“They got more challenging” by bringing in teaching pastors like John Ortberg, Atwater said, only to see attendance drop. “I think they’ve paid the price before in different ways to address their early, surface-level depth, and maybe this is another step in that trend.”
Greg Pritchard, author of Willow Creek Seeker Services, told CT the church “sporadically has recognized it was not teaching a robust enough biblical theology and needed to turn the ship around.
“It is a huge shift,” Pritchard said of the church’s planned changes to its services. “But they’re still using the same marketing methodology. Willow appears to be selecting a new target audience with new felt needs, but it is still a target audience. Can they change? Yes, but it will take more than just shifting their target audience.”
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