Thursday morning David Fitch and I will be on WMBI radio, a little after 7:30am (Central Time), on The Morning Show to discuss Willow’s now controversial “Reveal” study. In my listening and reading of the responses to this study, I’m entirely convinced that most critics have chosen to jump up and down and say “See, I told you so” before they have read what the study says and, perhaps more importantly, what it does not say or even try to say.
For the weekend service on Dec 8-9 Willow’s leadership chose to dedicate the service to explaining what Reveal “revealed.” (Sure, this choice during Advent is a sign of the radical low church approach [non-approach] to the Church calendar. It was their choice; the service became, after a good sampling of some Christmas caroling, an exhortation in spiritual formation.)
Greg Hawkins talked about four items that have a high correlation for signs of personal, individual spiritual formation and growth. The point: the more mature believers do these things more often. The other side of the point: church attendance and participation do not correlate as highly with spiritual formation. How do people mature in faith?
1. Reading and studying the Bible
2. Prayer and solitude
3. Sharing one’s life with friends and mentors.
4. Serving others.
OK, here are my big responses to the major criticisms that are circulating about Willow’s Reveal study:
1. To those who, when they heard Bill Hybels confessing that Willow had made some mistakes in thinking programs would by themselves lead to spiritual formation, jumped on Bill and Willow and said, “See, we’ve been saying this all along.” My response: Willow routinely, since it is committed to an assessment model of its work, admits that it messed something up or failed to make the best of an opportunity, etc.. And Willow has been committed all along to discipleship (see below). I wish more churches would do studies like this and permit evidence to shape ministry.
2. To those who are criticizing the study, observe this: it is a “customer satisfaction” type survey and it measures how the local church is contributing to the personal, individual development in spiritual formation of Christians. It is not measuring a complete church life (though I wish it did more of this) and it is measuring only one aspect — how a local church “provides” spiritual formation “benefits” for individual Christians, how individuals are satisfied with the church’s offerings. There is a sense here that one moves through spiritual formation personal development the way a student moves through education, with a much greater need for attention at the grade school level than at the graduate school level.
Willow’s Reveal study shows that Willow can improve in challenging and coaching believers in development. They are working on just this right now.
3. To those who think Reveal is just a study of Willow, you need to listen more carefully. They have now studied — get this — more than 230 churches, more than 75,000 surveys, and studied churches all across the map. This doesn’t reveal just what is going on at Willow but what is going on all around the USA. 40% of the churches being studied are neither seeker-targeted nor seeker-sensitive.
4. To those who say Willow doesn’t work at discipleship but only at making life comfortable for seekers … this is not the experience of members at Willow. Willow has always worked hard at taking those far from God and challenged them to become fully devoted followers of Christ. Anyone criticizing Willow on the sole basis of what happens on the weekend is failing to consider what goes on at Willow — they’ve always worked hard at discipleship. Furthermore, the data just about Willow “reveals” that about 50% of the Christians are in the 3d and 4th level of spiritual development (see the following).
They find four levels:
a. Exploring Christianity (20%)
b. Growing in Christ (30%)
c. Close to Christ (20%)
d. Christ-centered (30%)
Can Willow do better? Yes it can. And I’m thankful it admits that. Admits that in public. And is now holding itself accountable, before God and the whole church world, for working on its weaknesses. And for that it is to be commended. Do any of your churches do something similar and make it public?
Do I think a “customer satisfaction survey” (I don’t like that term) studies enough? No way. But that’s for another time.