Posted by: Johnold Strey | July 26, 2008

Willow Creek Wisdom

While a student at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, one of my professors suggested that, once we got out into the parish ministry, it might be a worthy investment to subscribe to Christianity Today. CT is a generally a conservative Protestant/Evangelical magazine. Our professor said that reading CT was a good way to keep our finger on the pulse of American Christianity. He clearly was not suggesting that we adopt generic Protestant theology, but he was suggesting that we would benefit from being acquainted with the American Christian culture that surrounds us, and reading CT would be one way to do just that. After seven years of ministry (and just as many years of subscribing), I agree with my former professor’s suggestion.

One of the observations I’ve noticed in American Christianity, and recent CT articles confirm this, is that more and more Protestants are looking for something that offers them more substance than the “Jesus Lite” many of them feel they’ve been fed lately. Robert Webber’s “Ancient-Future” movement discussed in CT’s September 2006 issue, and numerous pro-liturgy articles recently published are just some of the puzzle pieces that provide evidence of this trend.

Another recent piece of evidence came out of Illinois’s Willow Creek Community Church. CT’s June ’08 issue highlighted a recent WCCC self-study, and the current issue [August ’08] contains a letter in the “Reader’s Write” section with insightful observations about WCCC and megachurches in general.

So what did WCCC discover through its self-study? As Christians matured, they found WCCC to be more and more shallow. The old church growth movement’s premise, “Do whatever it takes to get ’em in,” is causing folks to leave out the back door almost as fast as you can get them in the front door. One Evangelical-turned-Lutheran said to me that such a church’s name ought to be, “The Church of the Revolving Door.”

Obviously when a church appeals to felt needs, the answer isn’t always going to be found in a bleeding and dying Savior hanging on a cross outside Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. God, who knows the human condition better than we do, tells us that that’s the real solution to our real problem. But if a church’s proclamation is determined by a set of felt needs, and if those felt needs are determined by the unconverted who have no concept of sin and its damning effects, nor of the no-string-attached grace proclaimed in the gospel, well, then Jesus as Savior just doesn’t cut the mustard, so to speak.

There’s no question that churches can do a better job when it comes to evangelizing. But an approach that strives to get people in the door through felt needs, and that simultaneously minimizes the message of sin and grace to the extent that many megachurches have done, will only bring people into a church, but not the Church.

With that preface, I offer for your reading the aforementioned CT subscriber’s letter, which comments on the WCCC self-study and overall megachurch/church growth movement. This writer almost sounds like he’s a confessional Lutheran!

“I was pleased to read your Head-Lines article, ‘Willow Creek’s “Huge Shift”‘ [June]. For too long megachurches have neglected theological and biblical education in the name of church growth. While I am glad Willow Creek is changing its methods, it is an unfortunate mark of the American church that an in-depth survey was needed to begin the change. Making changes based on polls testifies to the level of biblical ignorance in the U.S. Scripture is clear about how to disciples all nations: ‘baptizing and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.’

“Somehow we think offering babysitting, self-help groups, car mechanics, and coffee shops will make mature disciples. If churches divided the Word correctly, they would realize the futility of program-centered, felt-needs approaches. God is not in the business of provided his people the ’12 Steps to Victory’ or the ‘Keys to Financial Freedom.’ Instead, he provides the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

-Daniel Smith; Corona, California [Christianity Today, August 2008, 52:8, p. 8]



  1. what exactly is your “biblical”alternative you propose? you rip on willow but offer nothing other than “focusing on God” or “the Word”. that’s not exactly helpful. especially if, when you actually read the Word and focus on what Jesus did, it was appeal to the needs of people where they were at, explain Grace to them and condem the religous establishment who focused on the letter of “the Word” without getting the heart of the word. your very condemnation of willow condemns you.

  2. The biblical alternative I propose was, and remains, “a bleeding and dying Savior hanging on a cross outside Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.”

    Dear sir, please reread your statement. What is wrong focusing on Jesus (Heb. 12:2) and the Word (Ro. 10:17)? Is this not the message and the means God has given us to win the lost and strengthen the found (Ro. 1:16)? Didn’t the apostle Paul say that the message of Christ crucified is the central message of the Christian faith (1 Co. 2:2)? So when a church such as Willow Creek dilutes that message (to the point that they won’t even put up a cross in their auditorium, as seen on the famous Peter Jennings interview with Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels over a decade ago), how can I not point out the problem? And don’t forget that Willow Creek’s own self-study pointed out this problem! For years, they have simply given people what they want, thus leading many away from what they don’t necessarily want but do absolutely need – the message of the forgiveness of sins and sure hope of salvation through faith alone in Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection!

    Your statements about Jesus reveal an unfortunate misunderstanding regarding his ministry. He did not simply appeal to the needs of people where they were at. When people thought he would appeal to their felt needs, and then he didn’t deliver, many deserted him (Jn. 6:25-69). No, the miracles of Jesus weren’t meant to give people what they want, but to demonstrate his divine power as the Son of God (Mk. 2:1-12). He is not primarily our example to follow; he is primarily our Savior in whom we find eternal life (Jn. 3:14-17).

    Did Jesus condemn the religious establishment because it was an establishment, or did he condemn them because of their self-righteous teachings and anthropocentric focus (Lk. 18:9-14)? To suggest that Jesus was an anti-establishment guy in spiritual matters is to miss his message. Pardon my directness, but your very condemnation of this post exposes that.


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