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Is Willow Creek the Way of the Future?

by David S. Leucke

David S. Luecke is administrative pastor of Royal Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Royalton, Ohio. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 1, 1997, pp. 479-485. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Lyle Schaller calls Willow Creek "the most influential church in North America." Judged by the amount of ink it has received, this assessment is believable. The terms "seeker service" and "believer’s service," which originated at Willow Creek Community Church (located northwest of Chicago in South Barrington, Illinois), show up in the discussions of many congregation leaders and at planning sessions of Willow Creek-inspired churches. Variations on the seeker theme make up a new vocabulary: services are "seeker sensitive" or "seeker friendly." The Willow Creek Association, a network of congregations that seeks to minister to the unchurched, is growing rapidly.

Gregory A. Pritchard describes Willow Creek church, its ministries and its leaders, then offers a critique. He acknowledges that he has provided something for everybody—advocates of Willow Creek like the first part and lose interest in the analysis; detractors prefer the analysis and are impatient with the description. Pritchard describes himself as an evangelical whose basic discipline is sociology. Though his book was published in 1995. the research was done in 1989-90 for his Ph.D. dissertation at Northwestern University, so some of the data are probably out of date.

The discussion provides a springboard for the major question underlying the Willow Creek phenomenon. Is this pragmatic, consumer-oriented approach to the unchurched the way of the future for churches in North America? If so, what is the cost to traditional understandings of church and ministry?

My bias is similar to Pritchard’s—I’m an advocate of the intent but question aspects of the delivery. If I were 25 years younger, I would undoubtedly be an enthusiastic member of the Willow Creek Association. But I am older. In addition to worrying about straying over some theologically important boundaries, I have pragmatic reservations. My training in organizational behavior and experience with "planting" churches also provide me with a distinct perspective.

No, I don’t think Willow Creek in its present form represents the future. Healthy congregations in the 21st century will undoubtedly be more "seeker friendly," but they will balance marketing efforts with a more judicious use of traditional understandings of the church and its ministries. "Theological engineering" will catch up to church marketing. But then Willow Creek itself will probably look different in 15 years. Using their market-driven approach, its leaders will likely learn to address the current weaknesses. Pritchard discusses what I consider to be Willow Creek’s most important innovation: its marketing focus on "unchurched Harry." Unchurched Harry is an important guy. He and unchurched Mary personify the baby boomers that Willow Creek is committed to reaching. The first step in reaching them is to understand them—how they feel and think, what they need and how they will respond. If an idea can’t pass the Harry test, it doesn’t go far in the seeker service. In some ways, Harry is in the driver’s seat.

Personifying the person to be reached is a helpful staffing point, and a valuable corrective to doctrinaire approaches to outreach and worship. Effective church leaders of previous generations usually had a good intuitive feel for the people they wanted to reach. Today’s marketing emphasis relies on more explicit ways of identifying what innovative pastors used to assess instinctively.

One of the most visible market researchers for churches is George Barna. He did some of his early research at Willow Creek and shares many convictions of its leaders. He is certainly a competent pollster. But I find that he overgeneralizes his data to fit with his agenda. The "market" for Christianity in America is undoubtedly changing for a significant part of the population, but there are many more "niches" out there than appear in usual discussions of baby boomers.

Unchurched Harry and Mary, as they appear in Willow Creek discussions, represent only a limited segment of the boomers that churches talk about trying to accommodate—specifically, the well-educated, professional, unchurched whites in upscale Chicago suburbs. The term for them in the ‘80s was Yuppies. Although Willow Creek leaders encourage other churches to find the comparable profile for their own communities, much of the discussion among followers repeats the South Barrington impression of Harry and Mary.

In Pritchard’s assessment, unchurched Harry represents only about 15 percent of those attending Willow Creek on a weekend. Most are what Pritchard terms "superficially churched Larrys." The pursuit of hypothetical Harry means that the spiritual needs of a lot of Larrys are often missed.

A second Willow Creek innovation is to conceive of the major Sunday morning service as a time to reach seekers instead of believers. When criticized for leaving out components of a traditional worship service, Willow Creek responds that this is not a worship service; it is a seeker service. Wednesday evening is the time for the believers’ worship service, which includes the Lord’s Supper.

The freshness of this approach is appealing. The problem of a society rapidly becoming unchurched deserves a radical solution. If Sunday morning is prime time for believers, why not recognize it as prime time for seekers? They too face the least competition for their time at these hours. Let the people who’ve made a commitment come at a less convenient time.

This would be a reasonable accommodation if those involved in seeker services remain conscious that it is not yet worship as it ought to be. In practice this distinction often gets blurred for leaders in congregations that model themselves after Willow Creek. One result is what Sally Morganthaler, in her book Worship Evangelism; sees as a nonworship epidemic. How many of those efforts will ever get to the next step? Will those Willow Creek followers even remember what the next step is?

In a true seeker service, attenders are not called on to participate or directly respond in worship. The theory is that Harry doesn’t sing any place else and resists having words put in his mouth. What Harry wants and gets is a polished professional performance. What he doesn’t get is a chance to see people like himself engaging in a worship relationship with God.

Is a seeker service the best introduction to what a Christian church stands for? Addressing such reservations has led many churches to settle for being "seeker sensitive" or "seeker friendly"—arranging the service to be more accommodating to the unchurched, but still retaining the focus of a worship service. Helping churches be sensitive in this fashion is Willow Creek’s lasting contribution.

A third innovation is Willow Creek’s use of multimedia on Sunday morning. Sophisticated lighting, sound and visual imagery seem a prerequisite in this media age. I have heard of Willow Creek-like churches that have invested more than $100,000 in stage and sound equipment.

Drama is not new to churches, of course. Willow Creek’s special contribution is to use theater as a springboard to the sermon. The five-minute drama that winsomely introduces the theme of the day is being increasingly utilized by churches concerned about effective communication. This is a plus, for any kind of service.

Two other areas that Pritchard highlights in the descriptive part of his book are the emphasis on programs that appeal to the emotions and the packaging of the gospel as user-friendly Christianity 101. Both are noteworthy adaptations of basic church ministry to the Harry/boomer part of our culture. But probably neither will stand the test of time well.

Reasons for such pessimism are underscored in the analytical portion of Pritchard’s book: "Evaluating the Willow Creek Way of Doing Church." He questions whether the Willow Creek activist, pragmatic approach sufficiently recognizes the limits of the current cultural tools and ideas that are allowed to dominate its message. He worries about superficiality that can accompany a media emphasis on image, a simplistic self-help psychology, an uncritical marketing view of success, and displacement into the background of God’s demanding transcendence.

There are two possible negative consequences. One is that biblical truth and power will be so diluted that the Christian church will lose effectiveness at ministering the gospel. This is the easiest criticism to make, and it may not be the most important. God has a way of raising new leaders and ministers to meet the needs of a changed day.

The more worrisome consequence is that when the culture changes, as it will, Willow Creek may lose its effectiveness and not know how to adapt. Perhaps the folk in South Barrington will recognize what is happening and figure out how to change. But what about the hundreds of imitators who lack the creative drive, flair and energy to adjust?

In a world of Willow Creeks, pop psychology can invert and ambush biblical truth about the relation between people and God. A firm foundation in scripture and in research-oriented psychology would generate a clearer recognition of the limits of such approaches. But cautions are not likely to receive much attention because of what Pritchard identifies as a strong pragmatic bias toward what is immediately useful. What doesn’t work now is not important. Will the Willow Creek way generate enough intellectual grounding among followers to help them spot and avoid the problems in the long run that come with attention only to quick fixes?

The same goes for the attitude toward marketing. It is a tool that ultimately has to serve the higher truths of those using it. When I taught church marketing, I stressed the need for careful, informed engineering of the product chosen for the intended market; it has to perform as promised. Letting marketing techniques and vocabulary dominate church thinking, without critically assessing how needs will be met, is a good prescription for driving "customers" away and running the enterprise into the ground. It happens regularly with businesses that give engineering short shrift.

"Theological engineering" is what seminaries, at their best, are supposed to teach. At least they offer plenty of exposure to how theology and churches can go wrong. At the time of Pritchard’s research, few of the top leaders at Willow Creek had finished a seminary education, and this was considered a strength. More seminary-trained people have come on board since then.

Those with a vested interest in theological education can’t help wondering how a church can remain effective over the long haul without a solid foundation of scriptural interpretation, church history and systematic theology among its leaders. Time will tell.

It is interesting to compare Willow Creek with Robert Schuller’s Garden Grove Community Church. Twenty years ago everybody was talking about and criticizing Schuller, his Hour of Power television show and his "possibility thinking." Dennis Voskuil did an analysis of that ministry in Mountains into Gold Mines. Church growth was a new and radical concept for many. The shallowness Schuller was accused of, caricatured as the Gospel of Success, revolved around his preaching of self-esteem without reflecting on sin and judgment, and his avoidance of controversy through relinquishing a "prophetic" role. Schuller’s Institute for Successful Church Leadership did (and does) fill the role for an older generation of church leaders that the Willow Creek Association now fills for the younger.

Schuller considers Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels his leading disciple, but Hybels is less excited about the relationship. As he once told Schuller, "At Willow Creek I preach about sin. I use the ‘S word,’ Bob."

Is Willow Creek an improvement over Schullerism? Is this church phenomenon of the ‘90s a better model for the church at large than the phenomenon of the ‘70s? Willow Creek is less of a personality cult; you can talk about its ministries without talking about Bill Hybels, and that’s a plus. Willow Creek has not opted for national TV, even though it is very media-oriented. It considers itself primarily a community ministry—another plus for church modeling. And Willow Creek is more effective at reaching the boomer generation. Schuller’s packaging reaches the boomers’ parents, but has not broken the generation barrier very well.

In terms of modeling how to understand a church’s target market, however, Schuller’s approach is more helpful. Those who want to learn about the people they are trying to reach should get out onto the street talking to hundreds and even thousands. This makes a more constructive impression than reading statistical trends and developing hypotheses about a mythical Harry.

Willow Creek loses out in the comparison because of a serious basic weakness: its leaders have not yet worked out how to move seekers beyond self-fulfillment to a thorough grounding in scripture and ministries. In recent years they have developed hundreds of need-meeting small groups and now offer some seminary courses, but one wonders where they will find the determination and example needed to move into disciplined encounters with the full word of God. Schuller’s Garden Grove Community Church, on the other hand, is a full-service congregation with an extensive adult education curriculum that traditional churches would be proud to claim. Before they can serve, volunteers must complete many hours of course work on Christian topics. There is depth, with effective ways to involve the "loosely churched."

To these reservations I can add some specific comments from my own experience. I’ve spent six years on the front line of church planting. In 1991 I became a mission developer and established a suburban congregation that aimed to attract the unchurched. A few years later, I left behind a healthy but decidedly small congregation that is now calling a new pastor.

My effort was the fourth church plant in the community in seven years. The first was a traditional conservative Presbyterian church that had limited growth. The second was an Evangelical Friends restart that offered a seeker service; it achieved Sunday morning attendance of several hundred but has had to contend with conflict and lost momentum. A "community church" with unstated Southern Baptist backing (the SBC’S fifth try in the area) is doing very well with a highly contemporary "seeker sensitive" approach. It is a textbook example of a good plant. The congregation’s motto is "Making a difference for those who’ve almost given up on church," and it regularly advertises that its service and message are not boring like those of other churches. I attended one of these services before starting mine and had to acknowledge that they were doing everything I came to do, and doing it well.

I have learned that developing topical events with contemporary music and coordinated drama is hard and demanding work—far different from picking three hymns to insert in the same liturgy with the assigned texts for the day. It calls for high energy from the pastor and many others as well.

Keeping everyone motivated and inspired is a challenge in itself. New members and rapid growth can help stimulate energy, but rapid growth remains more the exception than the rule. If the reason for all the extra effort is to attract the unchurched and the results are spotty then this approach seems a prescription for burnout. How often does this happen among the leaders of churches in the Willow Creek Association? Will many last ten or 15 years, let alone 20 or 30?

Pastors and leaders in this movement must be exceptionally competent at their contribution, whether oral communication, contemporary music or drama. A part of the Willow Creek success, according to Hybels, was staffing with a musician, a media person and a drama person who were each of national caliber. I am embarrassed to think about my initial contemporary music efforts; it took our church years to become reasonably good at it, but by then the first impression had been made.

I discovered firsthand that church planters tend to attract people of their own age, and that means leaders need to be the age of the people they are trying to reach. Traditional churches worked when participants of all ages were willing to adapt themselves to church culture. In those days, an older pastor was often seen as a better representative of the tradition. But when the explicit intent is to adapt church culture to a distinct culture of a specific age cohort, the leaders need to be born into that culture. This may partially explain the strong Willow Creek preference for leaders who have not been shaped by a different, seminary culture.

Being so culturally bound, will the Willow Creek way work with the next generation? Or will the typical Willow Creek audience 15 years from now have the same prevalence of gray hairs one sees in a Crystal Cathedral audience today? Willow Creek leaders have responded to the generational challenge by adding programs for Generation X, and they are reporting effectiveness. Time will tell.

Is any one way of doing church the wave of the future? Is there any one set of techniques that will open the door to reaching the unchurched?

I’ve come to believe that there is more randomness than method to church planting and growth. More than anything else, having the right people at the right time is what matters. Success does not depend only on the personality and competence of the pastor. Three or four other leaders with the right competence and connections can significantly alter the outcome. Great things can happen if these people show up and little if they don’t. Getting access into networks of friends and acquaintances is the most important door to growth. That is why momentum is so important. New people bring new people, and losing momentum is a major setback.

Will technique assure that the right people show up when needed? Techniques and methods can increase the chances, but the specifics depend much more on God’s providence. We can celebrate those churches where everything comes together, but imitating their approach offers no assurance of a second success, because the mix of people and circumstances will be different. Churches grow where a lot of people are excited about what they are doing and are doing it well. One practical implication for church bodies wanting to plant congregations is that they need to sow three or four seeds in the hope that one will grow.

Apparent randomness can be explained as the movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls and gathers the church. The Spirit wind blows where it will, without our knowing where it comes from or where it is going.


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