The “parish life” dictum of Thomas Chalmers—“Gargantuanism and the care of souls cannot co-exist"—was borne out recently by no less an authority on gargantuanism than Bill Hybels and his Willow Creek franchise.
Last year, the church released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry. Essentially, they wanted to know what programs and activities of the church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not. The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels called the findings “earth shaking,” “ground breaking,” and “mind blowing.”
According to Hawkins, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs and activities. People participate in these programs and activities. The outcome is supposed to be spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”
Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when the research revealed that, “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”
Speaking at the church’s Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings of the shocking study, “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.”
Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, it is obvious why Hybels called this research “the wake up call” of his adult life. What’s not so obvious is why the rest of the church has failed to share in his gargantuanism epiphany.