In a previous post I revealed the despite my persistent reading of Christian living-style books (1-2 per month) in all likelihood my spiritual life is unchanged. I’m none the better for investing my time in dozens of books meant to propel my heart closer to God. A little bit after publishing that admission I heard about a statement Pastor Bill Hybels made about his mistakes in ministry, and I think it has everything to do with what I brought up. (confession: the study was released in 2006, I just don’t exactly keep up with the mega church scene).
Bill is known for founding Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, which is one of the original mega-churches and is most certainly seen as a model, if not the model, for churches and pastors everywhere. They regularly host visitors who come to check out why on earth 20,000+ make the trek to go to church there, so that they may copy their strategy to transplant it elsewhere.
(It’s odd I’m writing a post about this because I find mega-churches totally uninteresting. I’m not a mega-church hater like a lot of people, in fact a lot my qualms about mega churches are equally as true for churches of 200 people. I shall digress no further.)
Bill admitted that he made a huge mistake in his church ministry career after the conclusion of a multi-year qualitative study was released. The study, in sum, just wanted to find out if the various programs the church ran were actually doing anything – if the programs were inspiring personal/spiritual growth. The philosophy of the church was formulaic in a sense – if a person commits to engaging in these programs for a length of time it will equal greater spiritual maturity.
Considering the church spent $60+ million alone on its building, and their annual budget is in the $30 million range, you can imagine the church had an enormous amount of programs going. They are/were known for having a program for just about any type of person out there, so that everyone could belong. So when Bill discovered their programs were not necessarily inspiring greater devotion and love of God (and subsequently people) you can imagine it was a bit dumbfounding and disheartening.
In some ways I think their ideas are the product of the corporate Dilbert business world – of standardization and efficiency and searching for guaranteed outcomes. It seems every big preacher has a “ministry” with a spiritual name to it, like John MacArthur, John Piper, and Chuck Swindoll that churns out literal tons of material for their ministee’s to digest.
But I wonder if there is a flaw in our system – if the failure of a thousand ministers, book writers, and preachers is that all of the information they are publishing and delivering really amounts to anything. It surely serves a purpose, but maybe we think our ideas and beliefs will save hearts. All of the programs of one of the most successful churches in the country did not translate to authentic growth. All of the books I read only marginally move my heart, and even then it’s temporary.
Bill concluded that the “biggest mistake of [his] adult life” was believing in programs, and not teaching people to pursue spiritual practices (ex: personal bible study) in between church services. Even then I think the failure of the thousand ministers is not due to a lack of teaching on how to have a devotional time – I think the failure of the thousand ministers is believing he’s better off simply preaching because it is an efficient and reaches more people.
I think the power of God and the gospel is not necessarily the message itself, but when its raw, untamed, and spontaneous love is distributed. And unfortunately for the corporate world such a thing is not easily bottled and shipped throughout the country. Spiritual growth and maturity are far more likely outcomes when they strip it all down to people being with people, and leave the curriculum and programmatic on a shelf in the pastor’s office. To me, the command to go and make disciples of all nations has a lot less to do with preaching sermons to whomever will listen and a lot more to do with friendships that start at home and quickly branches out like a spider web.
What do you think about the “mistake” Willow Creek made? How do people grow and mature spiritually? Do you agree people grow closer to God through other people rather than books, sermons and conferences?