Of course I am happy that many who attend Willow Creek are recognizing what their leaders should have themselves known all along. And I am glad that they are making some of the changes they are making. But I am still troubled by at least a couple of things.Because it’s the mature Christians who drive evangelism in the church Hawkins says, “Our strategy to reach seekers is now about focusing on the mature believers. This is a huge shift for Willow.”One major implementation of this shift will occur in June when Willow ends their mid-week worship services that had been geared toward believers. Instead the church will morph these mid-week events into classes for people at different stages of growth. There will be theological and bible classes full of “hard-hitting stuff.” Hawkins said most people are very enthusiastic about the change.
On the seeker end of the spectrum, Willow is also changing how they produce their weekend services. For years the value people appreciated most about the seeker-oriented weekend services was anonymity. This is what all their research showed. People didn’t want to be identified, approached, confronted, or asked to do anything. But those days are over.
“Anonymity is not the driving value for seeker services anymore,” says Hawkins. “We’ve taken anonymity and shot it in the head. It’s dead. Gone.” In the past Willow believed that seekers didn’t want large doses of the Bible or deep worship music. They didn’t want to be challenged. Now their seeker-sensitive services are loaded with worship music, prayer, Scripture readings, and more challenging teaching from the Bible.
Willow has been wrestling with the research from REVEAL since 2004. Hawkins said, “We’ve tried incremental changes for four years, but now we know we have to overhaul our whole strategy.” Small steps are no longer the method; Willow is revamping everything. “It would be malpractice for us to not do something with what we’re learning.”
In the larger REVEAL survey taken by 200 churches, people were asked what they want most from their church. Three of the top four responses were:1. Help me understand the Bible in greater depth2. Help me develop a closer personal relationship with Christ3. Challenge me to grow and take the next step in my faithHawkins said that sometimes Willow gets accused of managing the church based on market research; of simply giving people what they want. “Look at what they want!” he said while pointing to the screen. “They want the Bible, they want to be close to Christ, they want to be challenged. Yes, I will give them what they want!”
First, I am disturbed that what is driving the changes and motivating the leadership to implement them is yet another survey of what people are saying they want, rather than a commitment to Scripture as the guide to church practice. Nowhere is there any apparent repentance for having abandoned Scripture in this regard. Nowhere is there a clear indication that they are driven by what the Bible has to say about what we should be doing in the church.
Second, because they are apparently are not driven first and foremost by a desire to obey Scripture as their final authority, I am not surprised that we are not reading that one of the proposed changes is to stop the practice of placing women in positions of authority in the church. For example, I believe at least three of their current elders are women, which is in direct opposition to Scriptural teaching (see, e.g., 1 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-5).
True repentance must come from a Biblical conviction of sin, and there doesn't seem to be enough regard for what the Bible actually has to say about their practices for the leadership at Willow Creek to even see this. I am hoping that when they do start teaching the Bible more fully — as their current plan suggests — they will also begin to be convicted about how they are still ignoring so much of what it has to say. Let us pray to that end!