Of What Use Is the World's Wisdom-e.g., Marketing-in the Redemptive Enterprise?

Thursday, July 5th 2007
Sep/Oct 2000

As this issue's Letters to the Editor section readily testifies, our May/June issue on the dangers of seeker-driven (as opposed to theologically-driven) congregational outreach-"The Malling of Mission: How Suburban Values Control the Church Growth Movement"-raised the hair on the necks of more than a few readers. Some of the most interesting conversation this debate sparked was with Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, a body often popularly identified as the leader of the megachurch movement. Some of Willow Creek's leaders objected to MR's treatment of the subject on a number of grounds, most notably that we understated the distinction they typically draw between a weekend "seeker service" and a midweek "worship service." Similarly, they protested that, on a number of occasions, we used the term "Willow Creek" as a sort of shorthand for a large and diverse church growth movement, some of which they too would like to distance themselves from.

As such, in the spirit of "Free Space"-as a column where we pursue open, unedited dialogue with articulate spokespeople of theological systems and practices that are largely outside the bounds of Reformational or confessional Evangelicalism-we thought it might be beneficial to allow Willow Creek officials to speak for themselves. Dr. Bill Donahue, long-time director of small group leadership development at the church and now with the Willow Creek Association, a network of over 5,000 congregations that compare notes on outreach methodology under the Willow Creek umbrella, agreed to sit down and talk with us about their theory and practice. -EDS.

MR: Dr. Donahue, you have expressed frustration with MR for, in your view, making too much of the influence of Peter Drucker in your circles. [Drucker is the management guru famous for insisting that every "company" repeatedly ask who their "customers" are, and what the customers consider value. In the May/June 2000 issue of MR, we said that the church growth movement, via the "felt needs" concept, seems to have made this business logic a mantra in determining how the Church is to reach non-Christians.] If we've misunderstood, please set us straight. What is your view on the proper role of business thinking in the evaluation of the Church's mission and means?
BD: I cannot comment about the influence of Peter Drucker in other churches because, frankly, I am not aware how other churches view him. My frustration was directed to the comment that this "mantra" hangs over Bill Hybels's desk when actually it hangs in the administrative area, a gift from Peter Drucker to Bill. Frankly, I would be surprised if more than a few staff members (out of over 280 full-time) would even know about Drucker's three questions. Our true "mantra" has been in the lifeblood of Willow Creek since its inception in 1975: To turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ, a restatement of the Great Commission. (1)

But I do understand your concern and agree that churches from a variety of backgrounds and traditions have substituted clear biblical teaching for savvy principles and catchy slogans. It is the Spirit of Truth, using the Word of Truth (Scripture), leading us to the Person of Truth (Christ) and his substitutionary atoning work on the cross that produces transformation. We don't for a moment believe that business, or education, or politics, or science, or anything else can transform a human heart. We state unequivocally that, under God's providence, "The Church is the hope of the world!" because it is his chosen vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

I would allow a nonredemptive but nonetheless important role for other disciplines (business, education, sociology) to inform matters that concern the Church. Drucker is not a pastor or a theologian. But neither was William Wilberforce. Influenced by George Whitefield and John Newton, Wilberforce, a politician, together with a group of lawyers and members of Parliament, initiated efforts to abolish slavery. His political work was a "wake-up" call to the Church in this neglected area. Did this call replace the message of saving grace? Absolutely not.

But knowledge from businesspeople can be used to help a local church understand how to navigate change, develop a strategy for mission-without compromising or weakening biblical principles-manage a budget, run board meetings with effectiveness, and handle complex staffing issues (a particular need in larger churches.)

As to meeting felt needs, it is clear that Jesus, James, and Paul exhorted us to address the needs of our hearers, even enemies of the cross (Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 12:20; 1 Cor. 9:19-23; James 1:27; 2:15-16). If people in our community "need" to be better at parenting teens, developing authentic biblical relationships, managing stress, dealing with loss and grief, finding their next meal, or raising a disabled child, we can help many of them. It is a great bridge to the Gospel. And love demands that we respond. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a powerful example of the kind of neighbor we are to become. To walk past those in need would be a travesty to the very Gospel that addresses the whole person in the fullness of its redemptive effects. Meeting some legitimate felt needs demonstrates Christ's love and invites them to hear the message behind the love expressed, which alone can meet our deepest needs.

If, however, you are concerned that meeting needs be an end versus a means to an end, then I would share your concern. You cannot substitute the meeting of a felt need for the preaching of the Gospel. It has never been our intent to simply help people with daily needs. Neither has it been our approach to say, "Be warm and filled." Rather, ours is a "both-and" approach, to preach the Gospel and feed the hungry, whether that hunger be physical, emotional, or spiritual. We provide free cars for single parents, donate tons of food to the poor, and provide shelter for the homeless. It is our intention to give the Gospel alongside of "cups of cold water."

MR: The church growth movement typically segregates congregations based on their generational demographic (boomer, buster, etc.). Some confessional Christians have expressed concern that such a program is as contrary to the reconciling effects of the Gospel as is building on class, race, or gender distinctions. Do you think there is cause for concern? And, since the Church has inherited this practice from Madison Avenue, to put the question more generally: Is marketing neutral?
BD: Yes, I think it is dangerous to target one group exclusively. But look at Jesus. He chose men-twelve Jewish men in their late teens or early twenties, all from Galilee. He could have chosen Gentiles and Jews, men and women, Ethiopians and Greeks. We have theological answers to this dilemma, but the facts remain. Even the apostles, who were called to take the Gospel to the world, remained in Jerusalem after being commissioned. And Acts 6 records a very homogenous selection of men for the service of waiting tables. So, should we choose only male Jewish elders to lead the Church?

This discussion always presents a potential problem in hermeneutics-taking that which is descriptive and making it prescriptive. We must ask ourselves, "What is mandated or commanded, what is regularly practiced and deserves close observation, and what simply occurs in Scripture?" That the Old and New Testament communities began with homogenous groups (Jews in both cases) does not mean that we can ignore the more robust and clear teaching of Scripture on the matter. The Abrahamic covenant, Psalm 67, the Great Commission, and exhortations from the epistles call us to oneness while embracing diversity.

Concerning the segmentation of groups based on age (boomer, buster, etc.) this may be helpful for initial evangelistic focus ("to the Jew first," for example). But soon every people group must come to grips with the reality that they are to become more inclusive and expansive in mission. We started a service, for example, to reach unchurched generation X persons. But the group now is enjoying an ever-widening age range and ethnic diversity.

If by "marketing" you mean finding ethical, moral, and creative ways to get the truth to those who need it most, then I find no problem with it. Any church with a sign is marketing itself to passersby. If, however, you mean discovering what will make people "feel better about themselves" and never preaching the Gospel to confront them with their sin, we have no use for it. It is our responsibility to do everything we can, in the spirit of 1 Cor. 9:22, to reach the guy who is about to crack open a six pack and watch the Bears on Sunday afternoon. We work and pray and plan in order to compel him to get up and come to a seeker service, an event, a small group, or a personal meeting. We open the truth of the Word as it speaks to perceived and felt needs initially (his failing marriage, rebellious kids, meaningless work, spiritual confusion), as well as his fundamental need for Christ. The seeker service is ideal because it is an open invitation to come again next week and investigate further, "to hear more on this subject."

MR: We don't question your belief in the great doctrines of the faith. But, as we've said, we wonder if certain methods might, in practice, undermine those doctrines. Paul says that the preaching of the cross is foolishness. Yet, to some, it would seem that you're trying to make the Gospel look like wisdom to those who are perishing. Isn't Paul warning about accommodating the preaching of the Gospel to different cultures and demographic groups? How would you defend Willow Creek and its association congregations against such a charge? (And, along the way, help us understand the relationship between Willow Creek and Willow Creek Association members.)
BD: The Gospel is an offense, a stumbling block. But our traditions, language, and ignorance do not necessarily have to create stumbling blocks. To speak truth in a language people understand does not dilute it. In John 11:35, concerning the death of Lazarus, the apostle wrote, "Jesus wept." It would have been just as truthful and accurate to say, "Aqueous fluid seeped from his lachrymal ducts." But which version is more memorable, clear, and simple? The Gospel is profound in all its implications, but the great paradox of Scripture is also its simplicity. I fear that at times churches diffuse the raw power of the Gospel by wrapping it in man-made theology about the Gospel.

The teaching at the seeker service is Christianity 101, not 301. It is designed to meet the questions and needs of the skeptical, fearful, and confused. We work hard to make sure it is always biblically faithful, evaluating every message (by at least five people) for theology, structure, and delivery. Bill Hybels has never preached a message over the last 25 years without such evaluation and feedback from elders and others. There is always room for improvement. But we strive never to compromise the message. If our Gospel said, "Come to Christ and you will always be happy" or some such nonsense, then we would be accommodating the culture. But the message is the biblical message-there is a holy God, you are dead in your sins, and Christ's finished work on the cross is your only hope. From this we have never wavered.

We are aware that some seeker-style churches, in an effort to speak to the culture, can compromise with it. That is unfortunate and we do what we can to exhort churches to maintain absolute integrity when it comes to biblical truth and moral judgments. Churches that are members of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) sign a basic evangelical doctrinal statement and pay a fee to join. They represent about 80 denominations and 27 countries. Presently there are about 5,600 members in the WCA, joining at the rate of three per day. But they are not joining a denomination. Membership has benefits (conference discounts, resources, etc.) but is a loose affiliation for the purposes of sharing ideas and networking with other like-minded churches that want to function biblically and reach lost people. We hold no sway over member churches. In instances of known aberrant behavior or doctrinal heresy, membership can be revoked, but we hold no governing authority.

But compromising the power and veracity of the Gospel can also occur when a congregation gives more attention to its ecclesiastical heritage and denominational traditions and, perhaps unknowingly, turns people from the faith because they cannot understand the rituals. And, in other settings I see the Gospel preached without emotion-without passion-and I wonder, "Does this person really believe this is good news? Or is this just simply a set of theological propositions being propounded in rote fashion, week in and week out? Where is the Creator God and all his creativity?"

Jesus rarely preached the Gospel in the same way. The woman at the well, the rich young ruler, and Nicodemus all heard a different presentation, each time confronting their sin and offering salvation. Are we surprised that the Creator of the universe would use fresh approaches to presenting the life-giving Gospel to each person, based on their spiritual understanding and heart? Some needed to be confronted with their self-righteousness while others required compassion and tenderness. It was the risk-taking, truth-telling Jesus in the homes of prostitutes and tax collectors, teaching women, dining with publicans and sinners, and drinking water from a Samaritan cup who had the words of life. Yet he was breaking many of the "rules" of his day. Often his toughest words were reserved for the unchanging, uncompromising, tradition-worshiping Pharisees whose need to be "right" rather than loving brought only death to the souls of people.

Paul also followed this course of varying the approach. He spent three weeks in the synagogue at Thessalonica reasoning with the Jews from the Old Testament Scriptures but did not use this approach with Greeks on Mars Hill. Was Paul accommodating the Greek culture? Hardly. It was always "for the sake of the Gospel." It was worth becoming all things to all men in order to win some.

MR: Willow Creek often has sermon series on how to have a happy marriage, or how to order your finances, rather than on explicitly redemptive topics. You and we obviously agree that an individual's greatest problem is not that his finances are out of order, but that he is an enemy of the living God. So why shouldn't all churches immediately follow the Apostles' example, and set before everyone (believer and unbeliever) Christ crucified? What is the relationship between teaching morality to unbelievers and bringing them to saving faith in Christ?
BD: Your question contains an assumption that is unfounded-that teaching about marriage and finances is somehow divorced from the Gospel. Those who regularly attend weekend seeker services would find your assumption confusing because we see the two inextricably linked. How can you preach the Gospel and have no moral impact? How can you preach a biblically-centered morality without discussing the nature of God, the incarnation, and the cross? We seek to integrate these, but not to the fullest extent possible in every single message. The "wisdom" and "morality" we teach come from Scripture-the wisdom literature and the wisdom sayings of the New Testament.

Perhaps it would be helpful to understand how we integrate the two-service approach here at Willow Creek. Years ago when the church began, a group of believing youth and young adults sought to reach their friends with the Gospel. Inviting them to regular church or youth group services proved fruitless, and friends did not return. Observing that the regular services were designed for full participation of believers without sensitivity to the visitors present, they decided (under the tutelage of some theology professors and discerning, mature mentors) to design a service especially for their friends-for "seekers." Seekers were people responding to the drawing influence of the Holy Spirit and open to Christianity and its claims, but with questions and doubts. A seeker service was held on weekends, when people would be open to visiting a church, and the believer service was held midweek.

The seeker service is a presentation of some aspect of Christian truth through teaching, drama, music, and media. It is not the same as "New Community." It is not a "worship service" as some mistakenly call it, at least not in the formal sense. Rather, it is a place for seekers to investigate without pressure or manipulative tactics to force a decision. We regularly present the call to commitment to Christ, but not every single week in a "turn or burn" appeal. It more closely resembles the sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Paul finds a common point of interest with the audience, commends them for being seekers (literally those who "grope" after God), challenges them with their idolatry (but actually calls it "ignorance," -is he compromising?), and calls them to repent in light of the coming judgment by the one resurrected from the dead. No explicit reference to Christ crucified, the cross, or that they stand condemned in their sin. Notice that the result is that some sneered (we have that happen every week), and others become followers of Paul, and he later leads them to a saving faith.

I do not claim to speak for all of Willow Creek. Nor do I present Acts 17 as a model for all church-based evangelistic activity. But I am saying that, when speaking to spiritual skeptics and seekers, there appears at least a biblical precedent for speaking the truth in a way that confronts the hearer but does not necessarily call for a decision each time. This encounter gave Paul an opportunity to have lasting and repeated spiritual discussions with those wanting to hear more (that is, those whom the Father was calling). Much like the listeners in Acts 17, we are hoping seekers at Willow Creek will say, "We would like to hear more about this" and return again next week, or talk more with the friend who brought them. It is in this seeker service that we address some felt needs and questions that seekers would be asking about life, faith, and God. But we also speak of greater needs (for salvation, forgiveness of sin, etc.). Contrary to many presumptions, we often teach books of the Bible at seeker services and have covered the Sermon on the Mount (nine-month series, much longer than it took Jesus!), Proverbs, James, and Malachi to name a few.

Interestingly, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount covers the two topics you mention! As a matter of fact he preaches on giving, adultery, divorce, prayer, relational discord, evangelism, and worry, to name a few. It is clear that the sermon is about life in the kingdom. So, with that as a backdrop, to teach through sections of the Sermon is to give people a look into life in the kingdom. Of course this means weaving in the clear message of the cross throughout, but does not mandate that we repeat this to the same degree at every seeker service. Instead, we allow them to swallow the meal one bite at a time, processing, wrestling with the truth, challenging the assumptions. After two to three weeks, we hit the core of the Gospel very directly. Most scholars agree that this "sermon" was not all given in one place and at one time.

In our New Community or "worship" service, we sing for 30 to 40 minutes a variety of hymns, praise songs, and psalms. Scripture is read and taught faithfully, communion is administered, and baptism is celebrated. Presently we are teaching the Lord's Prayer, one phrase per week.

MR: How does Willow Creek conceive of its relationship to the Church across time and space? And, to break this question into its component parts: Why does your liturgy look so much like popular culture, and so little like the dialogue between God and his covenant people that the saints have known for generations? What is your accountability to the rest of the universal Church? And, especially, what do you see as the proper place in congregational life today of the creeds and confessions of prior generations of believers?
BD: Like all churches and individuals we are judged by our faithfulness and our fruit. This is a sobering reality. These are the clear measurements in Scripture, not whether we conform to a given tradition or methodology, are large or small, read Drucker or play contemporary music, or recite the Nicene Creed. Look at the number of people coming to saving faith, evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, changed behavior in conformity to Christ and the teaching of his Word, and the faithful witness to Christ and his kingdom. Willow Creek is far from perfect, but much fruit is being borne, and it is the right kind of fruit. People are turning from idols to the true and living God.

The liturgy of which you speak arises largely from the Western, Monastic, Scholastic, European, and Roman traditions of the third century through the Middle Ages, and into the Reformation. It certainly is not totally Hebrew (it is rare to be in a church where Psalm 149 and 150 are modeled or practiced). And it certainly is not entirely reflective of the Acts 2 community, where the large group/small group dynamic was a common element. It also is not reflective of the vast array of styles and expressions found around the world in indigenous churches. Again, we test the Church by its fruit not its conformity to man-made liturgies. Willow Creek has a liturgy, and it is different. If it looks "contemporary" then we are glad: It is supposed to. We speak to a contemporary culture. When planting a church in Austria I adopted customs, language, and dress of Austrians. In Barrington, Illinois, I communicate through customs, language, and dress that are culturally normal. But in neither culture-Austrian or Illinois-did I compromise the message.

It is assumed that we neglect tradition. We are grateful for the sacrifice and sufferings of the Church throughout the ages. Tradition has a place. To study it is wise. To respect it is honorable. But to be constrained by it is dangerous (see Jesus' comments in Mark 7). Our accountability is the same as yours-to Christ and his Word, and to the elders of the church who "watch over our souls." The Scripture demands no more and no less. When the historic Church sought to develop systems of accountability not mandated by Scripture, it also created hierarchical structures. We have learned lessons from observing these structures. Such hierarchy often erodes the mutual ministry and servant leadership taught and modeled by the writers of Scripture. Far too often the result was abuse of power, a stifling bureaucracy, the creation of "offices" instead of Spirit-gifted ministries, and the separation of "clergy" and "laity." This unbiblical separation is advocated by those who deny the expansive and inclusive nature of the New Testament Church in Scripture, and narrowly limit "ministry" to preaching and the administration of the sacraments. This teaching ignores the priesthood of all believers.

As a mentor of mine articulated years ago, "Contrary to its detractors, the seeker movement is not about the Church becoming contemporary-it is about the Church becoming community, the way it was intended to be from the beginning. The biblical principles that inspired it were inclusive community, mutual submission and accountability, communal life actualized through small groups, universal use of spiritual gifts, leadership as servanthood, nondifferentiated clergy and laity, gift-specific ministries, plurality of leadership, congregation-based evangelism, and preaching as intelligible discourse. This is a movement of the Spirit that will not be stopped." I believe he was right. And I trust that no Christian who really understands this work of the Spirit would want it to stop.

1 [ Back ] If I may, I will refer you to the article, "Myths About a Movement: Answers to Common Misunderstandings About Seeker-Oriented Churches" in the Willow Creek Association (WCA) News, September/October 1997. You can access it at
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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