Beliefnet News

Chicago Tribune – November 28, 2007
CHICAGO – For more than three decades, Willow Creek Community Church has defined its success by tallying the throngs who walk through its doors.
But a survey recently revealed something the South Barrington, Ill., mega-church hadn’t realized: Some of its members had become unsatisfied, saying they felt abandoned on their spiritual journeys.
The research yielding this uncomfortable revelation came from the business world. Using a model originally designed to find what emotionally drives consumers to buy perfume, running shoes and insurance, each of Willow’s members was placed on a spectrum of belief, ranging from curious about Christ to seeing Christ at the center of their lives.
It then pinpointed what kind of spiritual formation works best for each believer.
Willow Creek Association paid for similar surveys at 30 more churches, with similar results. Now Willow is offering to conduct surveys at 500 more churches around the world. More than 1,500 churches from 14 denominations applied, including Methodist, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.
“We are doing an exemplary job with people who are far from God and just beginning to explore Christian life,” said Rev. Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s founder and senior pastor. “But there were some unpleasant surprises we had to face. If people are not feeling supported by the church, they don’t grow in faith.”
The business model doesn’t sit well with all Christians. Some say the survey fails to grasp that not all things spiritual can be measured empirically. Though Rev. Erwin Lutzer of Moody Church commends Willow’s intentions, he says it’s risky to measure applause.
“The marketing approach might have some benefit, but we must be careful that we simply not consider our members to be customers who we need to satisfy,” he said. “The care of souls is very different from the goal of satisfying shareholders. We must be willing to give people what they need, not just what they want.”
But surveying customer satisfaction is part of how Willow became a model mega-church.
In 1975, Hybels spent six weeks knocking on doors to find out why people stayed home on Sunday mornings. Some didn’t like the way pastors pestered them for money. Others described church as “boring,” “predictable” and “irrelevant.”
Hybels decided to “defer to the customer except where it conflicted with Scripture.” With simple sermons, rock `n’ roll and no collection plate, Willow took off, growing to nearly 20,000 members.
Recently other mega-churches have left Willow in the dust by drawing even more members and retaining them. To figure out why Willow was static, Hybels turned to noted consumer scientist Eric Arnson.
For 25 years, Arnson studied consumers for Fortune 500 companies such as Nike and Procter & Gamble. He revolutionized the insurance industry by gauging buyers’ attitudes toward risk and redefined the perfume market by mapping customers’ romantic sentiments.
To do something similar for churches, Arnson “segmented the market” by defining churchgoers’ relationships with Christ and placing them on a scale of Christian maturity. Questionnaires probed the circumstances that brought people to Willow and sought to rate their experience since then.
Arnson discovered that two-thirds of those surveyed traced spiritual growth to difficult times in their lives such as addiction or personal loss.
He also interviewed nearly 300 people who had left Willow; about half said they did so because the church was not helping them grow. Those who came to Willow 30 years ago said they were hearing the same message though their faith had matured.
“What we need is a different framework that says each of us is at a different place,” said Greg Hawkins, Willow’s executive pastor. ” Creating a different lens for people would quite honestly generate higher satisfaction with the church.”
Jerry Thornhill and his wife are among the seekers who came to Willow Creek based on its reputation as a relevant and welcoming place. And it was. “When we first started there, we really loved it,” he said.
But after a few years, Thornhill said, “We felt like we were kind of stagnating.”
Thornhill, who is a veterinarian., only had time to attend church once a week, so he relied heavily on the message from the pulpit to stoke his faith. He found the guidance he was looking for at Harvest Bible Chapel, another mega-church in nearby Rolling Meadows.
“You don’t dare show up there without a Bible – we dissect the verses and put them back together. We didn’t find that at Willow,” Thornhill said. ” Harvest is more like a classroom … whereas Willow is a very emotional roller-coaster.”
Lisa Kieres said she came to Willow for the same reasons Thornhill left. Her previous church just wasn’t feeding her spiritually anymore. Participating in Willow’s survey, she added, made her realize she has to push herself further to grow, and not necessarily by adding more church activities.
“So much of our messaging is a one-size-fits-all framework,” Hawkins said. “That ignores the reality that everyone’s relationship with Christ is unique.”
Churches often act like marriage counselors or therapists, he said, coaching the relationship between believers and God through inevitable seasons and changing needs.
“Increased church activity wasn’t producing a great love for God and a greater love for people,” Hawkins said.
Some church scholars say it’s about time the sleeping giant woke up. While Willow was an innovator 30 years ago, they say, its methods have fallen behind the times, as staffers fell into the trap of measuring mainly what church leaders call the three Bs: “buildings, budgets and butts.”
“Most of us long knew that their strategy would be unsatisfactory for their mature members,” said Scott Thumma, co-author of the book “Beyond Megachurch Myths.”
Rev. Lee Powell of CedarCreek Church in Perrysburg, Ohio, leads one of more than 1,500 churches to apply for the survey. He says he has never understood why people rely on strategies to do business or raise children, but spurn strategies for growing closer to God.
“Truth is truth, no matter where it comes from,” Powell said.
Rev. John Regan of St. Walter Catholic Church in Roselle anticipates frustration from some parishioners when they hear he signed up too. But he thinks they will come to see it as a valuable instrument to serve Christ.
“Best practices don’t always come from within your own organization,” he said. “We’re so attentive to sacraments and devotional life … we don’t pay attention to other avenues to Christ. Inviting people to Christ is something the Catholic Church can do a lot better.”
Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.

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