Willow Creek is a mega-church, one of the largest in the United States, and has approximately 20,000 attendees weekly. Recently, this congregation released its findings from a study conducted over several years. The purpose of the study was to determine which programs and activities of their church were actually helping people mature spiritually and which were not.
Willow Creek's philosophy of ministry has always been centered upon participation. They believed that the more participation a church has in its programs and activities, then the more faithful and devoted the disciples will become. The function of the church, from their perspective, was to create the programs and activities, and the members would spiritually mature through increased participation in them. However, the results of the study were not what the Willow Creek leadership expected.
The research revealed that "increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does not predict whether someone's becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does not predict whether they love God more or they love people more."
Bill Hybels, one of the preachers at Willow Creek, called this "earthshaking" and "the wake-up call of [his] adult life." Understandably, he feels this way after having spent three decades creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same.
Hybels confesses: "We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become 'self-feeders.' We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own."
The study revealed that its members actually wanted "deep Bible study." "Fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ were disappointed with the church. They say that they are not being fed. They want more of the meat of the word of God. They want more serious-minded Scripture taught to them. The church is not helping them grow spiritually and increasingly, these folks are thinking about leaving the church."
Is it earthshaking that a congregation would desire deep Bible study? The fact I find astounding is that these religious leaders are shocked that their members desire deeper knowledge of the Scriptures! It says much about the current religious landscape (and the lack of substance found in many classes and sermons) when one of America's most influential congregations "discovers" the necessity of serious Bible study in 2007!
Spiritual growth doesn't result from making oneself dependent upon certain church programs or activities. Growth results from the age-old spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and reflection upon God's word (cf. Rom. 10:17; it should be pointed out that these things don't require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff members to manage). Hebrews 5:12-14 declares - "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."
Ultimately, spiritual growth is an individual responsibility! People must understand that it is up to them to grow, not the church (likewise, with their children)! Although the church, through relationships, Bible classes, and public worship can help, these things alone will not turn a babe in Christ into a mature disciple. The church can help equip Christians (those who want to be equipped, that is), but each individual must develop the personal drive and motivation to become a mature servant of the Lord.
Friends, programs and activities do not make a church. The Lord's church proclaims God's message and leads people to discipleship and the glory of salvation (Matt. 28:19,20; Eph. 3:20,21). Scripture is what leads people to heaven and heals broken hearts. There are people in our world looking for the truth of Christ and we must present it to them! Those who are looking for various programs and activities will find those who offer such, but those who seek the saving truth should find us holding forth the word of life! Indeed, there are fields still white for harvest and God needs laborers (cf. John 4:35). Accordingly, as we work in these fields, we must preach the saving gospel message anywhere and everywhere, regardless of the weaknesses and itching ears of the listeners (cf. II Tim. 4:1-5).