Church Growth Movement Fall Down and Go Boom!


It done blowed up real good!I’m late to the game in commenting on Pastor Bill Hybels’s recent admission that Willow Creek Community Church’s ministry model doesn’t make disciples like he thought it would. (Out of Ur has all the details in “Willow Creek Repents?” And yes, read the whole thing.)

No freakin’ duh on the certain failure of that ministry model. I could’ve told Pastor Bill that 16 years ago.

Enter now the Wayback Machine and witness a snotty-nosed, wet-behind-the-ears Wheaton College senior sitting in the third row of the massive balcony at Willow Creek circa 1991. Look at that guy. Consider the utter cluelessness, the vapid stare, the hapless scribbling of notes as Bill Hybels ladles up another patented feel-good message for Unsaved Harry and Mary. Who does this whippersnapper think he is, sitting in the crow’s nest examining the church? Examining!

That would be me.

See, as part of a senior ministry project, I did a semester-long analysis of Willow Creek’s ministry model. Back then, Willow Creek was hitting its stride as the church everyone else wanted to copy. If your church and mine were the waltz, Willow Creek was the lambada. We’re talking a sea change cultural phenomenon, especially in the Greater Chicago area.

So I spent the better part of my senior year attending Willow Creek. And when I’d scrutinized the last detail, my paper on the project came up with one conclusion: No sir, I don’t like it!

Now, I’d love to say that I—someone whose middle name is “Backup”—have a copy of that paper to post here, seeing as I saved it on not one, not two, but three separate floppy disks stored in three separate locations. But amazingly enough, over the years, a fungus destroyed all three disks and said paper is now lost to the ages. Urgh.

(Hey, and no jokes about my conclusion being rotten.)

Anyhow, the obvious problems existed in the model. Yes, just about everyone could see it was Christianity Lite. No cross, no self-sacrifice, no holiness, and a Jesus who kind of resembled that nice boy your daughter dated once. You know, Chip, or Biff, or Eugene, or something like that.

This is not to say that Willow Creek didn’t offer a lot of scientifically-derived programs styled to meet their target demographic. They could plug people into a small group Bible study faster than you could say “Hegelian dialectic,” though the Bible studies were not so much geared to babes in Christ as they were to zygotes.

But for all the trendiness, the slick production, the worship orchestra, the theater seats, the pre-sermon dramatic skits, and the general showbiz feel of Willow Creek, three glaring faults stood out:

1. Commitment – The major problem with Willow Creek and every single church based on a Church Growth Movement model is that at no point is anyone asked to make a serious commitment. Why? Because commitment exacts a cost, and Willow Creek could not expect Unchurched Harry and Mary to meet that cost. Ask them to commit to anything and they’ll pack up and leave. And under the CGM model, that’s the last thing you want them to do.

This is why the Gospel had to be made lowest common denominator to the point of no longer being the Gospel. This is why you never heard about dying at the cross. This is why the message had to be propped up with some man-inspired incentive.

All the offensiveness of a scourged Savior bloodied by Unchurched Harry and Mary and hung on a cross would be too much for them. Jesus said that no one could be found in Him unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood and He lost nearly every follower He had because that was too much to ask. No one could ask for a commitment like that.

So no one at Willow Creek did. No one bothered to stand up and say that if you want to follow Jesus you’re going to have to lay it all down. All of it. Even yourself.

Too much commitment.

You don’t create future martyrs using Church Growth Movement techniques. Snazzy businessmen with a fish on their business card, but not a martyr. Gleaming housewives in gleaming houses with gleaming children, but no one prepared to die for the Gospel.

Because nothing is asked, nothing is gained. Strangely enough, in the end, everything is lost. Including the”disciple.”

2. Communication – In a church that could not be more wired for sound, with hundreds galloping around the grounds with wireless headsets and walkie-talkies, how is it possible that such a church built around communicating like mad couldn’t communicate?

Blame it on the business world model the Church Growth Movement idolizes.

No large organization can function without communication. But as many of us who have been in the business world know, communication grinds to a halt the more levels of management exist. Monolithic corporations with a dozen layers of middle management still exist today, but their inability to get the message from the lowest rung on the heirarchy to the top means they operate in slow motion, stuck in endless meetings, never knowing what the right hand and left are doing. GM or Ford, anyone?

In the West, the more levels of church bureaucracy that exist between the average guy or gal in the seat and the senior pastor, the less effective that church will be. Try to have a one-on-one with the typical CGM-influenced megachurch pastor. Good luck! You’ll have to go through multiple layers of people with titles like “The Administrator to the Intern of the Assistant Undersecretary of Church Community Development’s Adjutant General” just to get an appoint with the Intern himself. Senior Pastor? Fuhgedduhbowdit.

I was in a church like that, where I’d known the pastor from when he was a small group leader, yet when the church started to drift off message—as all CGM-based churches will—I could not for the life of me get a personal appointment with the guy to say two words about it. I kept on getting routed through one level of bureaucracy after another. Yeah, they eventually got the message, but only after God knocked the supports out from under the creaking foundation they’d built. Then I had leaders calling me on the phone constantly to talk to me, but only after I’d left the church.

When a model exists that intentionally prevents direct communication between the lowest levels and the highest, failure results. Don’t believe me? Consider the whole point of the torn temple curtain. That’s an image CGM adherents need to understand.

3. Community – The one thing that immediately struck me about Willow Creek circa 1991 was that I could walk in and walk out without anyone caring that I had been there. No one needed to say one word to me. I could just go, sit in my seat, have a quasi-spiritual experience and then drift back into the crowd and be forgotten. And people went to that church and hundreds of other CGM churches like it just for that reason: anonymity.

But that’s not how you make disciples.

Yes, Willow Creek had a huge emphasis on small groups, but even then, the small groups felt disconnected from the Body. A white widower with one child would be herded into a group of White Widowers with Precisely One Child, but which of us wants to be stuck in a group that looks exactly like us? Even then, studies have shown that the maximum small group participation any church can expect runs at a measly 30 percent. How then does someone plug into that community?

In the end, most people have their connection through the Senior Pastor they hear give the message every Sunday, yet the layers of the ministry model never allow people to actually meet with him. Or with any other of the senior leadership. Disconnects exist at every level.

What results is that people are always looking in the wrong place for their growth. It’s better to sit back on Sunday and try to soak up the fluffy message. Forget about all the other stuff. Because of the anonymity, people can skate by unknown for years. Then because of the lack of commitment, they never come under any kind of authority on a direct level. The failures simply compound. The entire reason for the church to function as a discipleship engine shuts down.

I saw all this 16 years ago. Me, with a year of formal Christian Education training. How then did Willow Creek’s heavily-educated leadership miss this for more than two decades?

What troubles me even in the face of their acknowledgment that their discipleship model is broken is that they still don’t get it. As Hybels says:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become †˜self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

While I’m sure that confession from Hybels had a lot of Willow Creek haters hooting, it’s still only a partial truth. Worse, the haters can’t see the other half, either.

What strikes me more and more as I read the New Testament is the emphasis on the words we (plural) and you (plural). The Church is viewed as a Body, not pieces. Christianity is not a religion of individuals but of community. In light of this, Evangelicalism’s”personal Jesus” idea has damaged us as badly as the Church Growth Movement has.

So while some are happy that Willow Creek’s planning on making people into better self-feeders of the Gospel, the Gospel must be presented and worked through within community. That’s what makes it stick!

How many Christians go to churches that hammer the self-feeder message, yet aren’t making disciples because they continue to downplay community? I would suggest far too many for us to be comfortable.

We all know Paul’s Body illustration in 1 Corinthians 12. But where does the self-feeding ear or hand come into play? Cut off an ear and then try to force it to take nourishment. How long will that ear survive?

We need each other. A church with communication and community problems can have all the commitment in the world and still make deficient disciples.

Until Willow Creek gets this, their stab at making better disciples will probably not go very far. It’s sadly ironic that churches that criticize Willow Creek are making lousy disciples, too, because they completely miss how communication and community are essential to becoming all we can be in Christ.

So while it looks like the flagship of the Church Growth Movement has struck an iceberg, it’s far from clear sailing for those churches that criticized its captain and his charts. We might have superb commitment, and may even be adept at self-feeding, but unless we get our community and communication down pat, we’ll be adrift, too.

The Small Group Boondoggle


It’s hard to get away from the emphasis in some Christian circles on small groups. Just today, I was reading Brad Hightower’s excellent blog 21st Century Reformation and his post “Are the Popular Methods of Doing Church Working?” It’s a good question and good people are trying to answer it. Many of them are saying small groups are the answer, as does Brad. The bleeding edge of ecclesiology today runs red with the hope that house churches will be the salvation of the American Church.

I dunno.

We tend to forget that small groups in the church are not new. I’ve been in small groups since the 1970s. The modern roots of the small group movement predate even that time. Small group guysPsychologists of the 1950s had discussed the need for small encounter groups, but that idea didn’t express itself until the 1960s and the experimental groups of Big Sur. (The less said about them the better.)

In another attempt by Christians to co-opt what was going on in psychology circles, we started seeing a redemption of pop-psych methods by certain churches, parachurch organizations, and nationally-known Christian leaders. Who could impeach the argument that Jesus gathered twelve men around Himself? (True, yes, but that idea hadn’t been re-examined until pushed into the limelight by 1950s behavioral science.)

Since the 1960s, folks have been trumpeting the salvation of the Western Church through small groups. All I ask is this:

We’ve had 40+ years of small groups in churches, but are we any better for it?

I certainly would not say that the Christian Church in America is more devout, more mission-minded, more prayerful, or more effective for Christ now than before the small group push started. If that’s true—and I’m sure most of you reading this will agree we’re not better off—how then can we insist that small groups will somehow turn the tide in the future if they’ve failed to do so thus far?

Part of the reason I believe that small groups have resoundingly failed to deliver on their promise is that no one seems to look at them from the right perspective. We never view small groups as aiding the church as a collective body. Our model is more based on the idea that we’re helping individuals plug-in on a more granular level.

But that’s the typical Evangelical obsession with the individual. Meet the individual’s need on a very intimate level and you’ll build a wildly effective church from that core. Forty years later, that failed mentality still prevails.

We’ve got to stop viewing the world through the lens of the individual and start thinking more about the corporate Body of Christ. If small groups are not translating into a better church filled with better people, then perhaps we need to start thinking about making our entire church a small group, the whole assembled mass of people. Rather than fragmenting our assembled community into small groups, perhaps we can find ways to translate what small groups do well to an entire church.

For instance, we belong to two small groups that start their meetings with a shared meal. What if we decided that our churches would meet every week for a shared sit-down meal and serve communion at the same time? What if we made our Sunday messages open for whole church comment just like the discussions we have in small groups? What if…?

Obviously, megachurches will have some troubles with these things. But then maybe a 500-person church that acts like a small group is the better model than a 5,000 person church cookie-cuttered into 500 small groups.

All I know is that the small group model that was supposed to better our churches hasn’t. If the model’s broken, then we either fix it or dump it. Or we find a third way that considers the whole church a small group. Whatever the answer, pouring more energy into our current practice of small groups isn’t going to get us anywhere.

For more on the problem of small groups, see this previous post:  That Nutty Small Group Dialectic

That Nutty Small Group Dialectic


Diane over at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet discusses one of my pet issues when she takes on the Hegelian dialectic. For those unfamiliar with this philosophical term, Diane explains:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelHegel basically created his philosophy to explain the process of history. First there is one view or event called the thesis. Then there is the opposing view or event called antithesis. Out of these two (many times a compromise of the two; other times simply the end process of the two clashing) is the synthesis.

Here is an example from Hegel’s writings:

THESIS: In Ancient Greece the stoics believed in a moral absolute that applied to everyone.

ANTITHESIS: During the Enlightenment period, Rousseau believed that the individual decided what was right and wrong for him.

SYNTHESIS: Society decides what is right and wrong for its citizens.

In the continuing process, the new synthesis then becomes the new truth or thesis. Then an antithesis is introduced which culminates into synthesis which becomes the new truth or thesis and so on—the process continues ad infinitum.

The obvious problem with the dialectic is that it can be used to come to a synthesis that is blatantly false. As a perfect example of this, consider

    Thesis: All men are sinners and doomed to hell unless their sin is dealt withAntithesis: Jesus took away the sins of the world

    Synthesis: Because Jesus broke the power of sin, now no one will go to hell.

If this kind of reasoning seems familiar to you, it’s because nearly all small group Bible studies are beholden to the Hegelian dialectic. After nearly thirty years of Christian small group experience, I can say without reservation that every small group I have been in (spanning ages, sexes, denominations, and maturity levels) has employed this kind of faulty reasoning at some time or other to make pronouncements on spiritual truth.

The crux of the problem is the group leaders. By and large most small group leaders are either too passive to rein in flawed group synthesis or they lack the command of the Bible they absolutely must have to counter a heretical synthesis with the actual truth of God. Fast-growing churches are bedeviled by this, assigning (or allowing) group leaders who have no business leading a group because they lack Christian maturity and the inner witness needed to stop mangled synthesis in its tracks.

Now here comes the controversial part.

Though I have studied under some of the best-known small group proponents in Christendom, I believe with all my heart that small groups are a disastrous place for people to learn the Scriptures. Let them be about fellowship, prayer, worship, service to others, or anything else, but not about studying the Bible in depth. The tendency for synthesis of ideas that contradict the Scriptures is rife within these groups. Time and again I’ve heard leaders assent to heretical ideas synthesized by a group trying to reach some consensus. The need for group leaders to maintain peace at all cost necessitates this, even if truth is sacrificed.

I have come to this sad pronouncement because too many churches are using small groups as their main means to teach the Scriptures. Seeker-sensitive churches where the preaching on Sundays is more chatting than teaching, where the sermons are not sermons on the Word but reflections from life on some topical idea that demographic studies say the people want to hear, suffer from this to an extraordinary extent. The outcome is that a person desiring sound biblical exposition and a knowledge of the Scriptures instead sits through a small group study where the conclusions reached by the group may contradict the word of God. That person never develops a comprehensive view of the unity of Scripture because the topical teaching doesn’t provide it, nor does his small group.

The naivety of church leaders is to blame for this. A couple hours of weekend trainings for a month doth not a small group leader make; it is silly for churches to believe that small groups can possibly provide the depth of Bible exposition that a trained and approved handler of the Scriptures—supposedly the pastoral leadership of the church—can provide. Yet too often the pastor in the church preaches topically on Sundays and believes that a small group meeting during the week led by someone with a passing comprehension of Scripture can make up for what he’s leaving out.

That’s just plain crazy, if you ask me.

The small group movement and its emphasis on moving Bible study to these groups to make it more accessible has instead compounded the very lack of understanding of the Scriptures that it sought alleviate. Preachers who abandoned expositional preaching and teaching made this worse because they gave no opportunity for their best seekers to hear the Bible in its complete context. Is it any wonder then that the people who fill our churches on Sunday have no holistic Christian worldview?

Unless we have small group leaders who know the Bible inside and out and can take firm control of a group striving for heretical synthesis and steer them back to real truth, I think we should stop studying the Bible in our small groups. Put Bible study and teaching back into the hands of workmen approved to handle the Scriptures. If that can’t happen in small groups or adult Sunday School classes, then put it back into the pulpit. As the word of God says,

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge….
—Hosea 4:6a ESV

Thanks to the Hegelian dialect and the loss of sound expositional preaching from the pulpits across America, the destruction continues unabated.