Maturing Christians and the Church: A Response to Willow Creek's Recent Survey

Results from a survey recently conducted by Willow Creek Community Church, and Willow Creek’s subsequent response, not surprisingly have attracted serious attention. In an online CT article published today, Mark Galli offers a helpful critique of both the results and Willow's response to those results.

The most statistically (and perhaps theologically) significant revelation was that, of all regular participants in the 30 Willow Creek network churches, those who would describe themselves as "fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ" were the least satisfied with their church experience. They confessed that they were "not being fed" and that they felt they needed "more serious-minded Scripture taught to them." The response of Pastor Bill Hybels and survey coordinator Greg Hawkins was shocking to many, though not suprising to those who recognize Willow's characteristically evangelistic and new-Christian-oriented organization...

What was their response? "They need to take the responsibility to become self-feeders." To some, such a solution initially seems borderline genius--that is, to typical individualistic, Western minds. "We got you this far-- It's up to you to get yourself the rest of the way!" And so goes the good old American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps version of Christianity... and one that fits conveniently into the suburban landscape in which Willow is so comfortably nestled. After all, wrestling through the deep issues of faith in the context of real community is simply unfeasible in such a context. Or is it?

Galli helpfully highlights one of the weaknesses of the response of those surveyed, pointing out that a big part (nearly the whole, perhaps?) of Christian maturity and full devotion to Christ is expending one's life in service to others. His critique of Hybel's response to them likewise questions the healthiness of further strengthening their inward focus in becoming "self-feeders". Not that there isn't an element of truth to it, but it seems as if Hybels--being finally overwhelmingly confronted with the lack of theological depth that has characterized WC for so many years--has attempted to slickly evade responsibility for the care and integration of "seasoned" followers of Christ.

I would be amiss to neglect to address one pressing concern I have with this mindset. My own experience over the past several years, and such experiences more recently explored on this blog and the blogs of some of my friends, illuminate the fact that growing in understanding of God's word and mission does not become easier as one "matures" in the faith. Rather than a steep incline out of the starting line which becomes increasingly horizontal with time, the Christian learning curve typically seems to follow more of a bell trajectory. The more the believer learns and experiences, the more he realizes he has to learn and surrender to the will of God. If he continues and does not plateau, he will reach a point where he needs much more than the patronistic answers of his youth Sunday school teachers. He may even reach a crisis if no avails themselves to help him sort out the complexities that accompany the deeper things of God and faithfulness to His mission. Eventually, he will emerge from the Refiner's fire stronger and sharper than before, until he settles into the steadfastness of a life built on the Solid Rock of Jesus Christ, sold out to the glory of God whatever comes his way.

Again, from the experiences of friends, acquaintances, and of my own, I will attest to the firm fact that "fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ" need equally devoted brothers and sisters in the faith to come alongside them and "spur them on toward love and good deeds... and all the more as we see the day [of His return] approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25). The greater the maturity, the greater the questions and the greater the temptations from Satan. We need the support of our pastors and the believing community more, not less! Certainly, books are good--even necessary--to facilitate this. And a pastor can only extend himself so far (then again, there ought to be more of them in every church!). But the respondents to this survey have hit a major pipeline of vulnerability not just in the mega church, but in churches across our nation, if not the world.

It's not enough to say, "Now that you 'get it', get out there and get busy doing it." We have to be constantly "getting it", because of the very nature of God-glorifying service: lives of acceptable worship are lives which explode in love and truth in response to the greatness and grace of God. Greater revelations of our Almighty God are the very fuel for lives of true worship! Heaven forbid that we should leave the experience of this to individual, lone-ranger Christians. God help our beloved Willow Creek to discern this indispensable truth, and God help us all.

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