A number of years ago, a friend paid for me to attend Willow Creek Association’s Leadership Summit. It was graciously hosted (via satellite) by Lancaster County Bible Church (a nearby Church that models its ministry after Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago). Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church was the host pastor for the Summit.
These conferences are intentionally broad. They are designed to appeal to business leaders as well as Church leaders. It’s not your typical pastor’s conference but more of an outreach event for the business community. Carly Fiorina, Michael Porter, and Colin Powell were among the speakers. These are really bright people who are experts in their fields.
Perhaps to push the envelop, they invited former president Jimmy Carter to the line up (I skipped that session). Many good thoughts about leadership were offered by the variety of speakers. I appreciated the opportunity to get away and think about my role as a leader. Bill Hybels has an evident heart for leaders.
A closer look
Before one session, Hybels shared about a turning point in their ministry at Willow Creek. After surveying the Church, they discovered that large groups of people did not feel their needs were being met. They evaluated the various groups under four main categories:
- Pre-Christians (or, seekers)
- New Christians
- Growing Christians
- Fully Devoted followers of Jesus
The first group felt good about Willow Creek meeting their needs. They liked the services and the way Christianity was made relevant. From this point, there was a sharp decline on how the others (Christians) felt about the Church meeting their needs. The lowest point of approval was among the fully devoted followers of Christ. They felt as if the Church did not feed or challenge them spiritually as needed.
This was not too surprising for me. Willow Creek Community is, after all, a “seeker” Church by philosophy. I have written in the past about this (see: Church growth). Willow was set up for the so-called unchurched Harry and Mary based on an earlier survey of their opinions about Church. Not surprisingly, when unregenerate people are granted anonymity in a Church where they don’t have to sign anything, give anything, sing anything or do anything, the Church receives high approval ratings from the seekers.
After discovering the data from the congregational survey of the four groups, the leaders decided that they needed to catch the Christians much earlier and help them become self-feeders who do not rely on the Church as a primary feeding place. Hybels looked to fitness centers as models for this new approach. In a fitness center, you are assigned a personal trainer who designs a fitness program to meet your special fitness needs. Ah! This is what the Church must do for the spiritual needs of people!
An eye-blinking session
I must admit that this was an eye-blinking session for me. I did not say “eye-opening” because it did not surprise me. I wasn’t surprised because the seeker model of ministry reverses the biblical pattern of the purpose of the Church gathered. “Hello!” “This place is for the seekers not you Christians looking to be fed!”
I was a little confused about why the leadership had to survey the people to figure out what to do with the Church.
Don’t misunderstand. I truly appreciate Bill Hybel’s humble demeanor but leaders are supposed to be leaders for a reason. Right? Of course, sometimes leaders miss stuff and leaders should always gain insights by listening to and knowing well the condition of the flock. But this seemed like it should be Biblical Ecclesiology 101.
This is the old (yet biblical) distinction of: Evangelism: The purpose of the Church scattered, and, Exaltation, Edification and Education: The purpose of the Church gathered.
A Great Example
If we can look beyond the debate about tongues, I Corinthians 14:23- 25 offers an excellent biblical example of the purpose of the Church gathered. It is not to offer a place of anonymity for seekers—the exact opposite! (See italicized words). If they come in they should feel challenged and profoundly convicted—even judged.
“So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Please don’t misunderstand. I gleaned some helpful stuff from the conference. But, as a leader who submits to the authority of God revealed objectively in the Scripture, I have always been troubled by the weak ecclesiology and overall weak theology coming from the seeker focus.
The market-driven, consumer-centered approach to the Church is simply contrary to the teaching of Scripture about God (His character); Humanity (Our fallen condition); the Church (centered on the Lord Jesus) and Salvation (a call to deny self and receive God’s grace).
It is a worthy goal to lead believers to be self-feeding, mature followers of Jesus. But the plan for this is to learn under the teachers Christ gifted to the Church (Ephesians 4:11-16). The Church (when gathered) is for the glory of Christ through the building up of His body. Before looking to fitness centers, study the Scripture on God’s plan for the Church.