Willow Creek Church, the ultimate model of church success, where hundreds of thousands have come to learn the secrets of church growth, has admited that success requires far more than numbers. In 2008, the Christian Examiner wrote:
- Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study's findings are in a new book titled "Reveal: Where Are You?," co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels himself called the findings "ground breaking," "earth shaking" and "mind blowing."
- And no wonder: It seems that the "experts" were wrong.
- The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels laments:
- "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."
Meanwhile, the seeker-sensitive megachurches are booming. We automatically conclude that they must be doing something right, but are they?
While we don’t want to dismiss the concept of success entirely, success is more than numbers and offerings. Instead, it should be measured in terms of pleasing God. The Book of Hebrews alludes to heroes of the faith who were not recognized as successful. However, God viewed them otherwise:
- Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-- the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. (Hebrews 11:36-39)
However, the seeker sensitives might be booming at the expense of the more biblically sound churches and a Christian impact on the general culture. While the seeker sensitives have grown, the Christian impact on the culture has seemingly diminished and the Christian faith has become more marginalized. This is evidenced in many ways – the growth of atheism, evolution, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, pornography, singleness, trial marriages, children born to single parents, and even the worldwide persecution of Christians and the corresponding silence of the church. If we are to measure success by numbers, we also have to regard these troubling observations.
How can we explain this correspondence between the growth of the “sensitives” and the diminished influence of Christianity? The more sensitive the church becomes towards the prevailing society, the less prophetic it will be. The more it seeks to pander to society, the less it is responsive to God and the light he wants us to shine.
Numbers are not God’s measure of success. Well then, what is? The Book of Daniel offers us an insider’s view:
- He [the angelic visitor] said, "Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you." And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling. Then he continued, "Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. (Daniel 10:11-12)
This should be our measure of success!