That's about as plausible as the recent revelation from Willow Creek Community Church, America's second largest church and a longtime model for evangelical churches wanting to reach non-Christians. This spring, Willow announced that instead of focusing on attracting new believers, it is shifting its focus to maturing those who already believe.
It's hard to overstate the significance of this shift. The suburban Chicago church attracts 23,500 weekly for services in a sparkling new theater built for grand productions. And Willow puts on quite a show, with songs and sermons carefully crafted for anonymous spiritual “seekers” who want to learn about Christianity without much pressure to commit. This much-imitated “seeker sensitive” strategy made Willow the very model of a successful evangelical megachurch.
Just seven months ago, Greg Hawkins, Willow’s executive pastor, vowed the church was not giving up on its seeker strategy. He repeated the sentiments of Willow’s founder and senior pastor, Billy Hybels: “Willow is not just seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed.” So why did Hawkins just announce Willow is abandoning this strategy?
To be sure, seekers will always be welcome at Willow. But now the church will focus on mature believers, not seekers, according to Hawkins. Willow attendees will hear prayer from the pulpit, serious worship music, and even challenging sermons based on the Bible.
In a sense, Willow is returning to its roots. The church formerly crafted its strategy around what leaders believed would attract like-minded suburban seekers. Drama and sermons touching on issues of everyday living such as money and family would gently lead to invitations for seekers to invite Jesus into their hearts.
Now, after surveying 57,000 Christians in 200 churches, Willow’s leaders have developed a new strategy to reach those surveyed, who told Willow they want more from church. The survey showed these Christians want to understand the Bible more deeply, grow closer to Jesus Christ, and mature in their faith.
“Look at what they want!” Hawkins said, responding to criticism that Willow merely gives people what they want. “They want the Bible, they want to be close to Christ, they want to be challenged. Yes, I will give them what they want!”
I can second the conclusions of Willow’s survey after traveling across the country for more than two years as an editor for "Christianity Today." I spoke to scores of young evangelicals who grew up in churches much like Willow. Yet many have left behind these churches as a relic of their childhood. In the town where I live, home to the prestigious Wheaton College, students flock to conservative Anglican churches, complete with the smells and bells of formal liturgy. You won’t hear any peppy praise music.
But in other cities, many young evangelicals have gone a different direction. They join campus ministries or churches that teach Reformed theology, which emphasizes God’s sovereign control of all things. This move is surprising, since Reformed theology grates against modern American sensibilities. In a country that exalts personal autonomy, Reformed theology teaches that our will is a slave to sin without God’s gracious intervention. We cannot even choose to follow God. After all, we would never want to follow him, unless he first elected us to believe. (This theology is also known as Calvinism, associated as it is with the famous 16th-century French reformer John Calvin).
Over and over again, young evangelicals told me that Calvinism satisfies the needs Willow has admitted. As they explore these doctrines of grace, they develop a deeper understanding of the Bible. And they grow in their ability to apply it to everyday living. One young woman in Seattle shared with me about how her family has coped after learning that her father raped her sister.
“When I first became a Christian, before I had a good theological foundation, I saw the abuse as something that was apart from God,” she told me.
Indeed, sin does separate us from a holy God. But this woman told me that trusting in God’s sovereignty helped her see that God would never leave or forsake her sister. Somehow he could bring good from such awful pain. Consider the biblical story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers. After becoming a leader in Egypt, he told his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
This woman’s response is the mark of a mature Christian, someone who instinctively trusts God, even if she doesn’t always understand his purposes. Mature Christians like this are now Willow’s focus. They can’t reach them apart from more in-depth Bible teaching, more theological training. On this path, young evangelicals are leading the way.