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Willow Creek confesses wasting millions on programs

Willow Creek is in many ways the flagship for the Evangelical megachurch model. It pioneered the seeker-sensitive, program-based way of doing church. Now, in the same way that, toward the end of his life, Dr. Spock issued a mea culpa, saying basically, “Heh, heh, sorry everyone who thought I wa…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Willow Creek is in many ways the flagship for the Evangelical megachurch model. It pioneered the seeker-sensitive, program-based way of doing church. Now, in the same way that, toward the end of his life, Dr. Spock issued a mea culpa, saying basically, “Heh, heh, sorry everyone who thought I was an expert who knew what he was talking about, but my liberal way of raising children doesn’t work,” Willow Creek is coming clean about the ineffectiveness of its programmatic approach to discipling.

The good news is that they had the courage to conduct a comprehensive evaluation that showed this. The bad news is that the program-based model of disciple-making has become the de facto standard for a majority of American churches. Floyd McClung wrote a great blog about it:

Rarely I have been
more proud of a church leader than when Bill Hybels recently repented for doing
church the wrong way. I love Bill’s honesty and respect him even more than I did
before his repentance.

I also found his
confession deeply affirming. I have been endeavoring to teach, write, model and
call pastors and leaders and fellow believers to do simple church by focusing on
the basics.

programming and systems was the Willow Creek claim to fame. What Bill Hybels did
was issue a public statement repenting for some of their leadership practices.
After an in-depth evaluation of the success of their programs they had concluded
that much of their programming had not resulted in true spiritual growth. Their
conclusion was that a church that builds a dependency on programs for
discipleship will ultimately fail.

Bill and the Willow Creek team concluded that
Bible study, prayer, discipleship and missional community are all practices that
must be instilled into people in a way that makes them depend on God for growth.
It always just comes back to the basics. You can’t program the basics, you have
to instill them into people through one-on-one personal discipleship in a small
community of outward focused people.

Reading about Bill’s
repentance confirmed to me that we are on the right track in emphasizing the
following three “basics” as the only foundation for training and discipling
leaders and workers in the kingdom:

1. Love for God by
cultivating a lifestyle of prayer, fasting and reading the Word

2. Love for each
other as members of the same community by intentionally investing and discipling
in one another

3. Love for those
who do not yet follow Jesus

I would like to
quote the following article from another website about the Willow Creek
Repentance to give you more background.

May god strengthen
us all in our commitment to live a life of simple yet focused obedience.

to read the original article “Willow Creek Repents: Why the most
influential church in America now says ‘We made a mistake.'”

Comments (9)

  • I also loved to hear the “confession”. Speaking of simple church, ever read the book by the same title? It is really good.

  • I loved hearing this! Just after reading Floyds blog a few months ago I started reading “Knowing God” by Packer. I think that is where discipleship has to start. Do we know the character of God. Not just sit in the classroom learning about him, but do we truly KNOW HIM, and know that we are known by Him. Do we know His character so that when we are hit with life’s “problems” and the big questions of why this and why that that keep us awake at night.. our answer can only be… “because He is God!”

  • Very liberating when the “experts” tell you what you already sense in your spirit. This was great confirmation. I have that simple church book, but haven’t read it.

  • After reading the public statements, and watching the video of Bill Hybels & Co., the jury is still out for me. Willow Creek’s Exec Pastor Greg Hawkins stated, “Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church.” If that is true, then they would do well to look up from their data, and carefully re-examine church structure as revealed in Acts, without looking through the lens of our centuries-old Sunday worship services. More fundamental than failed programs is the one-man monologue, coupled with the pew-sitting mass listening to yet another message that teaches us to believe all the right stuff, but never connect it to living out the other six and a half days out of the pew. Make no mistake, the structure itself not only limits spiritual maturity, it actually works against it. 1Cor 14:26 states clearly that when the church comes together, that all have the opportunity to participate. Why? Because, “All of these MUST be done for the STRENGTHENING of the church.” And dear saints, if it is NOT done, then the Church (people) are NOT strengthened and are, inversely, weakened, week-after-month-after-year. I pray Willow Creek, and all Christian leaders, might be awakened to this reality and return to the simple structure that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church lived out.

    PS: the book ‘Simple Church’ also fails to address this foundational issue of church structure.

  • I was led to Christ through a program-driven-mega-church whose youth ministry happened to have a mindset focused on discipleship, mission, and leadership. In other words the youth ministry was less program-based than the rest of the church.

    In defense of Willow and many other(not all) mega churches, let me say there’s a substantial amount of “sending” going on that isn’t easy to quantify. People come in, are led to Christ, discipled, and then often on their own initiative they move on to serve and lead elsewhere. What I’ve found is it’s often the people who have learned to feed themselves that don’t stick around to sit in the grandstands or settle for involvement in a program. They are world-changers, called to advance the kingdom, and they go do it.

    Just my .02

  • I have found this blog, the article, and the study all very interesting. I went to the revealnow website and watched the videos that describe the study that has brought about these confessions and is changing the way “church” is done.

    As Bill and Greg mapped out their findings, I sat and nodded my head. As I moved to a new city and started looking for a church, it was easy to see the drop-off they talk about. They say that their programs have been effective in reaching the lost and helping brand-new Christians in the growth process. After that point, they have discovered that their programs haven’t helped the committed and “centered” Christians. It’s been frustrating to see as I’ve visited new churches.

    I have found a church that’s focused on “knowing Him” as Kelly mentioned above. The fruit of this focus has been committed disciples who are serving others and loving God more and more.

    One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed in this discussion, though not on this blog, are the reactions of the people who replied to the article. It seems as though many weren’t fans of the Willow Creek model and in light of these discoveries, are taking their opportunities to scream out “I told you so!” Perhaps these people haven’t self-fed the idea of humility and encouragment. Is this the Christ-like attitude?

    So, here’s to people like Seth and Floyd who have supported Bill Hybels and Willow Creek in this time of repentance and change. Anybody who can say, “I was wrong” has got something right in my book.

  • “Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church.” Nice.He should have just read his Bible. There was nothing wrong with the TRUE church in the first place.They changed it alright for the worse. At least his method brought in the world the crowd and heaps of money.
    Matthew 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
    Jesus Build’s his church not man. And there is nothing broke about Jesus Church. Just return to the “OLD PATHS”


  • It is interesting that Willow Creek is considered a model since they are flawed in so many big ways. For example, this past Father’s Day they showed a video tape of Bill H. interviewing Jack Wall(?) about the best business practices. Bill affirmed everything Jack said. Unfortunately, Willow does not adhere to these practices no matter what Bill H. affirms. So what, I ask, was the Christian purpose of the interview? I found myself more aggravated and frustrated than enlightened and inspired as I sat and listened. My personal experience with the staff of Willow Creek, both Barrington and Crystal Lake, is the opposite of what Jack recommended in his interview, specifically to “over deliver”. This business ethic is not only frowned upon, it is ridiculed and removed. We are instructed in the Bible to work as if we are working for Jesus, Himself. When I, in particular (but it happened to many people with whom I have discussed their departure from Willow Creek staff), demonstrated the practice of “over” delivering, I was fired. The “pastors” told me things like, “When people walk into the church, it is not your job to assist them, even if the office is closed;” and “You had no business moving your chair for the woman trying to get through the crowd with her baby and stroller.” And when I pointed out that blocking a fire escape with chairs, I was told it isn’t part of my job to worry about that fire hazard.”
    Yes Willow Creek is a big church, but it misleads most volunteer leaders and hard-workers into thinking hours of obedient service is more important than the focus of our Christian hearts.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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