News out of Willow Creek is that programs are not the key to real success. Does this spell hope for the small and medium-sized church?
To some extent there's no arguing with sheer success in numbers. Megachurches have found a formula for attracting people to church.
To its credit, one of the most well known of those megachurches, Willow Creek, has studied it success beyond mere numbers. Moreover, it has shared those findings even though they are not entirely self affirming. Out of Ur reports:
Directly or indirectly, [their] philosophy of ministry—church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage—has impacted every evangelical church in the country.
So what happens when leaders of Willow Creek stand up and say, “We made a mistake”?
Not long ago Willow released its findings from a multiple year qualitative study of its ministry.
In the Hawkins’ video he says, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This has been Willow’s philosophy of ministry in a nutshell. The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”
Having put all of their eggs into the program-driven church basket you can understand their shock when 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.”
Read it all here.
Over at Opinion Journal there's a discussion of James B. Twitchell's Shopping for God:
As Mr. Twitchell acknowledges, most don't have "high barriers to entry"--that is, they don't demand a lot of their congregants. They're often referred to as "seeker" churches because they appeal to nonbelievers--and not always successfully. It's easy to get in; but it's also easy to get out.
So "pastorpreneurs," as Mr. Twitchell calls them, face a challenge: How do you get more people to join than quit? One way is by having current members proselytize. The fastest-growing denominations, Mr. Twitchell says, are "selling, selling, selling." They are "foregrounding growth as a sign of value." As he explains: "Missionary zeal is at the heart of their attraction not only because showing the Way to others is a source of jubilation but because it means that you yourself must have found your way. The value of the next sale (the convert) proves the value of the previous sale (yours)." It all comes down to a kind of narcissism, apparently, like taking pride in your Prius.
Another key to product success, Mr. Twitchell argues, is "innovations in supply." Thus megachurches offer playgrounds, coffee shops and a mall's worth of services. But megachurches have also, crucially, found ways of attracting men. Just as department stores put men's products near the entrance because they know that men are the hardest customers to draw into a retail space, so megachurches, Mr. Twitchell says, have catered to men's interests.
Citing Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, Mr. Twitchell explains: "Men are the crucial adopters in religion. If they go over the tipping point, women follow, children in tow." So now megachurches sponsor sports ministries and groups whose members ride motorcycles together. The language of prayers and sermons has moved away from a condescending lecture tone and taken up sports metaphors instead, asking congregants, for instance, to step up to the plate and help the team. In such a way are men induced to buy the megachurch product.
The article concludes, 'But consultants can only do so much, and the point of church outreach surely has less to do with improving "brands" than with saving souls.' Or advancing the Kingdom.
Read the Opinion Journal article here.
Other analysts are more positive about megachurches. See also the recent work by Scott Thumma and Dave Travis, Megachurch Myths described here. The myths:
MYTH #1: All megachurches are alike.
REALITY: They differ in growth rates, size and emphasis.
MYTH #2: Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about Christianity.
REALITY: Megachurches generally have high spiritual expectations and serious orthodox beliefs.
MYTH #3: Megachurches are not deeply involved in social ministry.
REALITY: 79 percent of churches surveyed have joined together with other churches on local community service projects, and 72 percent on international missions.