Navigation key

The Article Archives

Willow Creek's Confession

November 26, 2007
S. Michael Craven
tweet this  share this on facebook  

Willow Creek Community Church located in suburban Chicago has become one of the most influential evangelical churches in America. Giving birth to the “seeker-sensitive” church model with its emphasis on attracting large numbers, it has helped shape the ecclesiology of a generation of pastors and church leaders. Willow Creek has also been the recipient of much criticism from many fellow evangelical leaders. Critics argue that the “seeker-sensitive” approach has produced the proverbial church that is “a mile wide and inch deep” referring to its lack of spiritual and theological depth. I tend to agree with this criticism.

Of course, this criticism requires some qualification. The phrase “a mile wide” implies that despite any other shortcomings the Church is still growing, when according to the American Religious Identity Survey; Christianity is actually shrinking in America and regardless of the numbers, there is no question that Christianity no longer exerts the same influence on culture that it once did. Furthermore, while mega-churches appear to be popping up on every corner, smaller churches are closing in record numbers. It could be argued that the mega-church rather bringing more people into the Kingdom is really only driving smaller churches “out of business” and consolidating Christian “consumers” in much the same way that Wal-Mart impacted small businesses.

Recently, Willow Creek published the results of their 2004 congregational survey entitled, Reveal: Where are You? The surprising results required the study’s authors, including executive pastor Greg Hawkins, to tell senior pastor Bill Hybels that “the church isn’t as effective as we’d thought.” In the Forward to the report, Bill Hybels makes an astonishing [and I think humble] admission, “…parts of the research did not shine brightly on our church. Among the findings, nearly one out of every four people at Willow Creek were stalled in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the church—and many of them were considering leaving.”

In the report, Willow Creek acknowledges that they have long-employed the “The Church Activity Model for Spiritual Growth.” Essentially, the premise was that as “a person far from God participates in church activities” they will eventually become “a person who loves God and loves others.” Now, this could mean any activity whether it be directing traffic in the parking lot or volunteering in the nursery. I call this the “faith by osmosis” approach—the idea that as long as people are in the church environment, they will grow spiritually.

To their credit, Willow Creek asks and answers the question as follows: “Does increased attendance in ministry programs automatically equate to spiritual growth? To be brutally honest: it does not. …Church activity alone made no direct impact on growing the heart…”

The problem begins when you embrace the belief that in order to attract people “far from God,” the church and all of its practices and traditions should change in order to avoid those things that outsiders may feel are “turn offs.”  Once embraced, this would dramatically alter worship, preaching and ecclesiology in general. Under this new paradigm, everything in the institutional church that was formerly directed toward and reserved for those who were baptized believers was now redirected toward unbelievers or, in Willow Creek’s language: “seekers,” thus the term “seeker-sensitive.”

Practically, this would mean that traditional expository preaching, which emphasized theology and doctrine would be replaced with topical preaching addressing the felt needs of the listener. Worship would center more on the audiences’ experience and satisfaction rather than the glory and majesty of God—not that both can’t be achieved but the former should follow the latter. And, discipleship would be replaced by large-scale programs designed to train and deploy the newly “saved” in simplistic evangelical techniques and “programs.” In the end, the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) tends to govern everything, further adding to the anti-intellectual spirit that has rendered the contemporary American Church largely irrelevant.

The shortcoming of this approach is made apparent in the fact that the “most dissatisfied” group within the church, according to the survey, was those considered to be the most spiritually mature. Their chief complaints? “They desire much more challenge and depth from the services” and “60 percent would like to see more in-depth Bible teaching”—the very things that the seeker-sensitive model diminishes.

Just to be clear, I do not think that Willow Creek or any other seeker-sensitive mega-church is, or was, purposely trying to undermine the church or water-down the gospel. Quite the contrary, I am willing to believe the best: that these new methods and techniques are genuinely motivated by a desire to “go out and make disciples.” Unfortunately, that has not been the case and this is, to some extent, Willow Creek’s realization.

While I don’t agree with all of Willow Creek’s interpretations of the survey results or the “consumer research” approach to ecclesiology, I do nonetheless appreciate Willow Creek’s courage in coming forth with revelations critical of their approach to ministry. This is honest and reveals what I can only believe is a sincere desire to serve Christ and His mission in the world better.

I do still think there is a whole way of thinking about Christianity in America and what we understand the church’s mission in the world to be that demands serious critique and reformation. For one, the Willow Creek report reveals that prior to this survey they believed that “spiritual activity” produced spiritual growth whereas today they understand that “spiritual growth is all about increasing relational closeness to Christ.” In other words, it’s all about following Jesus! I wonder how many other churches have missed this essential point!

It remains to be seen what Willow Creek and the followers of this model will do with the critical information revealed in this survey. It could prove instrumental in bringing about real and needed reformation in the American Church. I pray that is the case. Certainly, it will take great courage, strength of conviction and humility to confront the serious questions raised by the results. We should all be in prayer for Willow Creek and all of those who have followed her model as they wrestle with their response to these challenging revelations. I am personally thankful to my brothers and sisters at Willow Creek for their transparency. I pray all of us would examine how we “do church” and look once again to Scripture rather than “marketing experts” for guidance in carrying out the Church’s mission on earth for the glory of Christ.

© 2007 by S. Michael Craven

Back to Top

Response from : nelia lynn  

November 26, 2007 10:25 AM

Thanks for this eye opening report. I agree that we (churches) have too often gone for numbers rather than spiritual depth. Of course we want eveyone to be saved, but we should want them to grow deep roots so their lives will flourish and be a witness to others.
God bless you-thanks for keeping us aware of what's really going on in our churches.

Response from : John Long  

November 26, 2007 7:45 PM


Thanks again for another great article, touching on important issues for the Church.

I am not entirely clear what you mean when you say "following Jesus", however. Is it increased intellectual in depth study of scripture? Increased outward facing church activity (evangelism, helping the poor, etc.)? More devoted worship? None seems like it would be sufficient by itself. And if a church has good internal spiritual growth (as measured by such surveys) but the world at large is barely aware of it's existance, of what good is that?

Response from : Bill Patterson  

November 26, 2007 8:48 PM

I've visited Willow Creek several times. My brother has attended there for 20 years or so. They don't do the serious Bible study in the main services. They have a communion service with more traditional worship, and the weekly small groups are where the emphasis on spiritual growth takes place. They have small groups for all ages. Willow Creek pioneered this, I believe.

I've appreciated your articles in the past, but I think this one is a little on the critical side. Most of the issues you bring up are issues at most evangelical churches, where activity is often substituted for relationship with God or seen as a measure of spirituality.

Thanks for your work!

Response from : brother carlos  

November 27, 2007 10:17 AM

I initially appreciated the admitted mistake but was disappointed and grieved that a Pastor would think no repentance is necessary even though he has not been feeding the Sheep. (Go to revealnow website and look at the FAQ).
What about all the brothers and sisters that were driven out when they stood up and warned the pastors about this direction the church was going? They were labeled as divisive and legalistic, and uncaring for the lost. I think Hybels and other pastors need to seek forgiveness from those they drove away who were right to stand against them.

Response from : Pastor Jack  

November 27, 2007 7:08 PM

Michael -
I understand that you are trying to address a weakness in the body of Christ at large by critizing Willow, but I believe Bill Patterson makes a good point above, and the other point is Willow's midweek service that has stressed expositional preaching. Willow's stated intention was to use Sunday morning as an outreach service for unbelievers, recognizing in the 80s and 90's, in particular, the unbelieving would attend Sunday morning church. As the times are changing, Willow is changing. I do not agree with everything that Willow does, but I think we really need to be careful about jumping on the bandwagon of those who criticize Willow for being "a mile wide and an inch deep." I personally do not believe that criticism is fair in regards to Willow as they have many deep people. I just want to encourage you as a brother to be gracious in your criticism. Willow has reached thousands for Christ, many who otherwise may never have come into the kingdom. Let's be sure to seek Christ's perspective on their heart and their diligence, when many other churches have remained very orthodox and have reached almost no one for Christ.

Response from : Greg Williams  

November 28, 2007 10:30 AM

Mr. Craven

First of all, thanks for your excellent and gracious article.

Here is the better part of my response omitting only those parts that would be repetitive to you) to the 'Reveal study' by Willow Creek. I sent this to Mr. Hawkins as well as my best friend (I mentored him through a divorce and into a second marriage based on God's Word and Holy Spirit leading)is an Exec. Minister for a local church or appr. 1600 who knows Mr. Hawkins as well, as sending it to Mr. Jon Weece, Sr. Pastor at the church body where I belong, Southland Christian Church (one of the mega churches that will be doing a "Reveal survey" in 2008. I received a very gracious response from Jon and my friend and I have been able to discuss this (and continue to do so as) as we meet every Fri. for lunch to 'sharpen the iron' and he has been on board with what we've taught for some time with regard to all of this (I've addressed several groups at both of these churches.

Not to presume anything but just to be clear in communication, this is fairly lengthy so if you choose to publish any of it feel free to edit accordingly (just let me know before final publication.

My email to follow:

Here is the info about the Willow Creek study and book that I sent to Jon Weece. I sent it with much prayer and seeking the Lord's leading as to all that is said.

Based on conversations we've had over the years (all by email since you've become Sr. Pastor), I'm sending this to you with a heart and passion for God, His Son and our Lord and Savior, His Kingdom and our mandate to seek it first, along with His Righteousness in all we do. I truly believe that you are doing this as well. You may have already seen the videos and accompanying articles (or other related articles) but I'm including them (link and attachment) just in case. This speaks to a lot of things regarding where I believe the Lord has led me and our ministry and programs. My heart and my prayer is to reach as many as possible with this in the Lord's leading.

Please know that I send this with much prayer and trepidation. First of all, I come to you in true Humility (confidence in what God has created and continues to prune me to be, in order that I can freely lift others above me and help them reach their God-given calling without any thoughts or concerns as to who gets the credit other than the Lord).

When the first article about this study/book was sent to me, I cried because of the sadness of the Truth revealed and the years wasted on both Spockian parenting and family philosophies as well as those of "seeker sensitive" driven church philosophies and the damage that has been brought about in our homes, marriages, families and the Church! I am not overreacting here as I see and deal with it every day! AND please don't miss the connection between the 2 philosophies not so much in core belief but in their outcomes and the order in which they came to us culturally. The connection between Home and Church is clearly made in Scripture when it calls for servant-leaders of the Church to be drawn from servant-leaders in the Home, strongly implying that the leaders time and efforts are first and foremost needed at Home (both for the sake of the leader and those in the Home) before they are ever to consider taking the wisdom they have learned in the Home into Church servant-leadership!

As the article points out, most all of this was done with the best of intentions and I truly believe that each of you are seeking the Lord's heart with all of yours. And yet there have been many that have pointed these flaws out for years, often with it falling on 'deaf' ears as the numbers in the pews increased but the depth of faith and discipleship did not. The relativistic and Humanistic teachings through our education and media systems and endorsed by our governments of relativistic truth and "false compassion", i.e., decisions made that are 'full of so-called compassion' but void of, or redefine, Absolute Truth to fit certain agendas, have led the Church down much the same path as the culture and the proof is in the pudding. I'm not a legalist as most anyone who knows me can attest to but as we have done this we have spit in the face of God's Law of the Harvest by sowing in this 'false compassion' only to wonder why the results in the Church continue to be devastating and much the same as the world's!

It is evident in the context of the findings that the Church has not done a good job of continuing to encourage, equip and disciple those who are more mature (the latter 2 'categories' as related by Hybels and Hawkins). However, according to Hebrews 6, mature believers should be continuing in their own maturity and really shouldn't need as much of this. One of my main concerns is that because of the 'seeker sensitive' approach it is clear by the findings that seekers and new believers have been brought in to the fold (seemingly) and yet it is also clear that due to the lack of depth in teaching and discipleship very few, if any, are reaching greater levels of maturity as they are perfectly satisfied to remain at the immature level and very little is being done by the Church to help mature them or better yet, teach them how to mature themselves (again, Heb. 6)!!!

Many of you know this and I'm not stating it in vain, rather to make my point more emphatically as I believe it needs to be. I've been teaching and speaking about this for 15+ years and it has cost me (I know this from both direct and indirect consequences and conversations) in jobs, influence, etc. That is perfectly fine as I've trusted the Lord to teach, prune and bless me in His time and will and He continues to do all of these to have the influence that He purposes for me to have. This may prove to be another one of those "costly" times but I'll take that chance as I write it with the growing Faith and Humility and now not only with the backing of God's Word (which is all we really need) but empirical evidence from those who were the front-runners and leaders in the "seeker sensitive" movement. Another sad note regarding this that I hear from a large percentage of the several thousand that our ministry has presented to over the past couple of years is, "Wow, this is good stuff. I've been in church all my life and never heard this!" I even have had pastors/ministers make comments to this effect, "This is really good, can I use it?", to which I replied, "Sure, it isn't mine, it's right here in His Word!" (Jon, this is certainly not the case with you as I know you know and love God's Word of Truth!)

As I've spoken about many of the discipleship, servant leadership, marriage/home parenting/family issues over the years it has been so well received by those who were hurting and/or truly seeking that it is what actually spawned, with the Lord's leading and continued blessing, our IP315 Ministries (based on the paradigm of Lordship, Discipleship, Relationships and Sexuality and/or other related issues). We continue to do several seminars each year on these issues with audiences ranging from a few to several hundred across KY and in several other states.

The only ones that I've seen politely dismiss or reject this has been the lead pastors of larger churches and any Elders/other leaders that have been in the conversations or decision-making process.

This is not a condemnation at all as I truly believe that these pastors and elders really desire the Lord and His Word and how to reach others with it. I simply believe that there has been much well-executed and subtle deception that allowed for the "seeker sensitive" philosophy, along with Spock's parenting and family philosophies which not coincidentally preceded this, to prevail by becoming the "driving" philosophies in all that is done in these churches.

Neither is this a plug for our ministry, although we will go wherever the Lord leads us and prepares our hearts and those who will hear.

This is a call for the Church to implement the whole of the Great Commission (evangelism through discipleship and discipleship is tough!) as this is Christ's and His early follower's model that "turned the world upside down."

We can do it again in His Truth and Spirit and under His Lordship!!!

I believe, and I think you do as well, that this is a wake-up call and we must take this very seriously and get serious about discipleship as the key to Church growth in both depth and numbers, in this order. If there was another way to principally grow His Church I'm sure the Lord would have used it. In His model and the early Church, discipleship always preceded evangelism! He reached out to everyone right where they were but He was very clear as to what the Truth was and wasn't regardless of where they were and what their response might be. He even allowed some to walk away and yet He was always Love. His Sermon on the Mount, as you well know from Matthew 5 - 7, would not make it through most church boards today as it would offend many lives and lifestyles in the 'seeker sensitive' model and attendance. He knew that but He also knew that "false compassion" and 'redefined truth' would only lead to worse results in the lives of people no matter how much it spared them in the present. We must do no less and trust Him for our opportunities, words and the outcomes in other's lives! We must care about them as much as He did and learn to care about them to the extent that He did, without regard for numbers or popularity!

Please know that I send this again with the utmost humility and respect for you. It is not my intent to offend or hurt anyone, simply challenge us as Christ's Bride and Body to make sure we are working in every area of our lives to prepare the Kingdom that He established in every arena in this world (Marriage, Home, Business, Govt. and Church), thus preparing for His return and the fulfillment of His Kingdom.

I love you and respect the work you are called to do and are doing in the Lord! Please accept this as from the heart of one servant-leader to another and...

God bless in Christ!

In His service


Response from : Penny  

November 28, 2007 11:51 AM

In re: Willow Creek Confession - PRAISE THE LORD! and thank you for putting forth that which has been in my heart for years. I have felt that the church is on the threshing room floor and true disciples are being set apart. My strong desire is to see the lukewarm church set aflame again and words of correction and redirection such as these are for such a time as this. Thank you for speaking what, obviously, the Spirit has given you.

Response from : Kathy  

November 29, 2007 7:21 AM

WOW! Praise God! Many churches in our area, including ours, adapted this approach. Something in my heart would never let me fully embrace the change. It seemed that we were drawing a crowd, but nobody wanted to hear the truth about sin. This new way did seem shallow to me. I am very grateful for Willow Creek's honesty. I pray other churches who were trained by them wuold be willing to consider this too.

Response from : obewan  

November 29, 2007 2:44 PM

25% dissatisfied? Still, there are tens of thousands of satisfied growing Christians in the "seeker friendly" church movement. To be fair, you would need to cite a similar statistic on the percentage of "pew sitters" in conventional churches.

The classic Willow Creek model is the whole group, small group structure. I am sure they have weekly small groups where people are encouraged to find more serious growth.

I attend a mega church in Jacksonville, FL that follows the Willow Creek model. We have over 400 small group Bible studies that meet weekly for more intensive study. Small group attendance is mandatory for church membership.

"Faith works" is also pushed, and my take is that the osmosis does work when people become involved. It might only start out at parking cars or handing out bulletins, but it can end up in small group leadership.

We recently had the Willow Creek and World Vision study series titled "Don’t GO to church, BE the church. It was a multi week sermon and small group Bible study focused on "faith works". At the end of the study, over 2500 people completed over 100 community service projects all over northeast Florida. You know what the scripture says, "Faith without works is dead..."

Response from : SAM CALDWELL  

November 29, 2007 3:04 PM


Response from : Joel  

November 29, 2007 5:55 PM

I've always wondered how mega churches are organized and how the congregation can have any level of intimacy with each other. My wife remarked that it would probably be a big deal to just even see somebody else that you saw the week before. I don't see how some of the deep real family like relationships that I've formed in my much smaller congregation could develop in a huge church like this. Interesting...

Response from : jeremy  

November 30, 2007 12:25 PM

Joseph Farah at Worldnetdaily website just posted an excellent article that addresses another problem with this seeker friendly model. Under Hybels leadership, the WCA has instructed their members to push out any opposing views to their plan. As we just read, Hybels confessed their model is not feeding the sheep. Thats what us "troublemakers" have been saying for a long time now. I agree with brother Caldwell who posted here earlier. Read AW Tozer's Pursuit of God and do away with this consumer driven madness. Pastor David Wilkerson warned the Body of Christ about this some time ago when he went to the Assemblies of God in Springfield. Keyword search Wilkerson and Gospel of Accomodation to see what I'm talking about. May God bless each of you with His wisdom.

Response from : Sharon  

December 9, 2007 6:24 AM

Interesting.... my husband and I have been to Willow Creek's arts conference several times and enjoyed the modern twist on "doing church". After attending a fundamental church that my husband grew up in (and that we were very much dissatisfied with), we had been attending more "seeker-sensitive" type churches. But none of these churches were "home" and we decided that maybe seeker-sensitive was not for us. It's not that we didn't like these churches, they just weren't what we were looking for. So... now we are looking for a new church that is still upbeat and contemporary but is stronger in it's teachings and doctrine. Does such a church exist??
Again, interesting....

Response from : Pastor Arthur L. McGuire Sr  

December 11, 2007 10:41 AM

Greetings in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ our Great Shepherd and Saviour. This article has been a blessing. Romans 2:4 Or do you despise the riches of God's goodness forbearance, and long-suffering not knowing that the goodness of God has led Pastor Bill Hybels the shepherd of WillowCreek to Repentance. I believe this is going to cause this Church to fulfill its purpose Now.
Pastor Arthur L. McGuire Sr.

http://God's Goodness

Response from : Ivan Thompson  

December 13, 2007 6:04 PM

Amem and Amen.
This article is right on target . The analogy of a mile wide and inch deep describes my local church . For fear of being labeled and treated as old fogies our observations and comments have been behind closed doors, waiting patiently for this shallow means of "doing church" to find it's end.
Here is hoping that the same pastors and staff who bought into this model, will just as quickly abandon.

Response from : Paul Griffiths  

December 17, 2007 7:44 AM

I welcome this article even though I do not "hold a position" either way on the Willow Creek model. We need to be made to think about what we are doing. I am unsure that using figures from 2004 gives the reader confidence that this article has the impact it might have if written a couple of years ago. We need up to date thinking and reflection. I also commend Willow Creek for a humble rsponse to the findings. O that we were all so humble.

Response from : cooper  

January 23, 2008 9:21 AM

I was not surprised at the results Willow discovered about the growth of their people, but not because I blame it on a "seeker-sensitive" model. Rather, because it is the same issue plaguing most American churches...we are not effectively discipling people! I was part of a much smaller church in a rural community that undertook a survey to see where our people were in terms of spiritual growth. The results were almost identical to Willow's! And this was in a much more traditional, bible believing, bible preaching church. We didn't utilize anything close to a seeker model. What we did share with Willow was the assumption that getting people into our programs will help them grow (and this is the philosophy of most churches today). What we realized is that we need to design our programs to bring people through identifiable discipleship "steps." Also ironically, our approach paralleled what Willow published regarding their new paradigm of spiritual growth (4 identifiable steps). We, like Willow, found that our biggest shortcoming was helping people develop personal spiritual disciplines...that is, becoming self-feeders. the end, it is easy for many of us to sit back and criticize Willow's seeker model, but the truth is that their issue went way beyond the "front door" and had much more to do with what they did with the people they "caught." You could have the most unwatered down preaching, full of deep theology and doctrine, and preach all you want about the "non-seeker-sensitive" issues, but if your people don't become self-feeders that develop consistent personal spiritual habits(e.g, bible reading & prayer), then you will find the spiritual health of your church to be much like that of Willow. These results are not about calling churches away from the "seeker model", but back to personal discipleship!

Response from : Mark Merritt  

August 11, 2009 12:43 PM

I agree wholeheartedly that we need to get back to the bible to find the proper way to do church I very easy really Love God Love People Serve the world

Response from : Debra  

June 29, 2010 2:59 PM

I can't agree with you more. I am currently attending a "seeker" friendly church that has followed the model of Willow Creek and a few other church's and i am ready to leave. I can find no where in the NT that shows this model of Church. I believe our "mission" is outside the church. When a church is going in the right direction, the Holy Spirit is at work in people's lives and their hearts are right and they overflow with God's love to those around them and often win them to the Lord. What is happening in America today is a real downslide for Christianity. Many many smaller churches have been trying to copy these mega churches only to disban or end up with real problems.. thanks for your insight on the issues at hand.


Return to topics Return to articles
Back to Top

Respond to This Article

Form Authentication: 

Refresh the page if  
image does not appear  

Please enter the form validation code
you see displayed above.

Your Information:
You must include your full name. Submissions that do not include both first and last names will not be posted.



Email Address:


Respond to This Article:

Your comments will be reviewed and either approved or denied publication.


Back to Top

Navigation Key

 Return to topics
 Return to articles 
 Read article with responses 
 Respond to this article