Book Review

"Reveal: Where Are You?" and "Follow Me: What's Next for You?" by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson

Shannon B. Geiger
Greg L. Hawkins
Thursday, November 6th 2008
Nov/Dec 2008

Apparently, the latest congregational survey story goes like this: Willow Creek Com-munity Church, a 5,000-member, five-campus nondenominational church in Illinois, has been surveying its members every three years since 1992; but the latest set of surveys from 2004 to 2007 have set off an alarm bell for senior minister Bill Hybels and his strategic planning staff. They believe the results show how the church made a costly mistake in millions of dollars and programming energy over the last sixteen years as they targeted seekers and baby Christians but didn't help a significant number of people grow in spiritual maturity.

Hybels and his crew had built their ministry upon "the church activity model for spiritual growth," where "a person far from God participates in church activities which produce a person who loves God and loves others" (Reveal, 13). What they believe they found instead is that people who are mature in their faith have a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, defined by the survey as feeling "really close to Christ" and God being "all I need in my life." They are also those who say they are least helped by the church weekend services and activities.

Lots of weight has been placed on the two published studies, Reveal: Where Are You? (2007) and the sequel Follow Me: What's Next for You? (2008), leading to national leadership summits where Hybels has presented the findings and recruited more than 200 churches and 80,000 respondents around the globe to take the first survey plus a set of others to assess where their congregation is spiritually and to change the way churches help Christians grow. The conclusions drawn from the surveys and Hybel's admitted failure also have had the potential to make critics of the Willow Creek seeker-sensitive, church-activity model a tad more smug or at least validated in their differing opinions of philosophy of ministry.

Unfortunately, there's a small but important wrench in all the findings. According to Bradley Wright, associate professor in the sociology of Christianity at the University of Connecticut, the study design and analytic strategy used to interpret the data in Reveal are weak, which makes the second study, Follow Me, weak as well since it is built upon the first. In his online review, Wright says the questions and resulting data are not only ambiguous but the data is also greatly over-interpreted. So, the findings about the church and its methods to help Christians grow in spiritual maturity are, brace yourself, inconclusive. Church activities at Willow Creek may have helped its congregants grow, maybe not. The study doesn't compare Willow Creek's congregants to congregants in other churches with a different model. It also doesn't look at Willow Creek's congregants over time, who may try different activities or personal practices. It takes only a snapshot of their individual perceptions of where they are spiritually in that moment, yet the conclusions drawn predict trends over time. If Wright is right, it's possible that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars and programming energy have been spent to promote a study and its findings that in the end are not based on good interpretive science.

As a self-proclaimed Christian and a "fan" of Willow Creek, it's not as if Wright has a suspicious motivation to discredit evangelicals and their surveys. If you go to his blogspot, he repeatedly compliments Willow Creek for using surveys to bring about positive change in the local church.

Though the findings in both studies are likely questionable, one still has to commend Hybels for trying to assess the spiritual life of his congregation, say he was wrong in how he pastored or "coached" people, and then work to create a new model and help other churches do the same. As a counselor for a handful of Presbyterian churches, I have witnessed pastors and leaders who have no real idea where members are spiritually until the members come up for church discipline. We are all humbled by the task to know others well in our congregations, particularly to know how to shepherd well and to help each other grow in Christ.

That being said, there are a myriad of problems with the surveys and their findings other than research methodology, but two points to consider if you read it are the definitions for a mature Christian as well as what is the church. There is space to go into only the first point briefly.

Reveal made people put themselves in one place on a continuum of four separate stages of spiritual growth based on how close they feel to Jesus: 1) Exploring Christianity, "I believe in God, but I'm not sure about Christ. My faith is not a significant part of my life"; 2) Growing in Christ, "I believe in Jesus, and I am working on what it means to get to know him"; 3) Close to Christ, "I feel really close to Christ and depend on him for daily guidance"; and 4) Christ-centered, "God is all I need in my life. He is enough. Everything I do is a reflection of Christ" (38). The Reveal Study says that those who placed themselves in categories three and four, the most mature, also read their Bibles, prayed, tithed, and served more often than those in stages one or two. But as stated above, they were also the groups that were stalled spiritually or most dissatisfied with the church services and wanted deeper theological instruction in the Bible. As a result, Hybels changed the worship services and midweek instruction to include more meaty biblical offerings.

In Follow Me, the research supposedly found four "catalysts for spiritual growth" and two "breakthrough discoveries" for engendering spiritual growth, again defined as feeling close to Jesus. The four catalysts were: 1) spiritual beliefs (accepting Christ as Savior); 2) participating in organized church activities such as the weekend worship service and small group Bible study; 3) personal spiritual practices such as reading the Bible and praying; and 4) spiritual activities with others such as mentors who are not formally arranged by the church.

The two breakthrough discoveries were: 1) the "Christ-centered" people on the spectrum show enormous capacity for kingdom impact-they tithe, evangelize, serve, pray, and reflect on Scripture; and 2) the Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth.

Pardon the crassness, but how many millions of dollars need we spend in evangelical Christian church ministry before seeing the Bible as the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth? With all due respect to a man and his church that sincerely minister to thousands and who undoubtedly has preached believingly on the parable of the soils, how does this become a "breakthrough discovery"? Hybels writes at the end of the second study:

Undoubtedly we'll be exploring the question of what it means to support Christ-Centeredness for months and years to come, but two things are obvious. First, Christ-Centered people need to be reminded they are not crazy for taking Christ so seriously. They need to be reminded of the Scriptures that tell all of us that making our lives a living sacrifice is a normal part of the Christian life. Second, Christ-Centered people need resources. They are actively building relationships, sharing a verbal witness and helping their friends explore Christianity. They're learning more and more to die to self and to humbly do whatever Christ calls them to do. But many of them are asking, "Could we get a little help here?" (140)

If this is the level of illumination that comes after years of ministry and "2.4 million points of data," that if I already feel close to Christ and believe that I need God for everything in my life and I read my Bible, pray, confess sin, tithe, and serve others, the first thing my pastor is going to say to me is that I am not crazy for taking Christ so seriously? And then I may get a few church resources on the side? It makes me just want to weep.

Thursday, November 6th 2008

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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