The Popular Church Movement

In 1975 a second movement was born with the founding of Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago. The founding pastor, Bill Hybels, had been strongly influenced in his thinking, which gave birth to WCCC by two individuals. The first, Gilbert Bilezikian, a professor at Trinity College in Deerfield, IL, where he taught for two years, (1972-74) before moving to Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. Bilezikian was dissatisfied with the current protectionist state of the church.

Bilezikian recalls two aspects of his teaching about the church that were particularly influential on Hybels:

He resonated with the concept of the church as community – rather than as an institution or organization – as body, as community, as organism.

And then the second thing was the mission of the church, not to be just self-sustaining, or self-perpetuating, but to reach weekly into society and claim it for Christ.(1)

Bilezikian and his young protégé, Bill Hybels, recognized that the church had largely walled itself off from the culture around it. As a result it had marginalized itself and in so doing was perceived as having nothing to offer and therefore was simply boring and irrelevant to life.

The second major influence was a very well known and highly successful pastor in California by the name of Robert Schuller.

He [Hybels] was attracted to Schuller’s message of the “unlimited potential” of the church. In 1975, before he started Willow Creek, he attended The Robert Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, a yearly conference that Schuller sponsors at his Crystal Cathedral in California. This experience solidified a profound influence that Schuller was to have on Hybels and Willow Creek.(2)

As pointed out earlier Schuller is not a fan of Theo centrism. In pushing that out he was very much in favor of something else as the means of reaching people spiritually. The two things he offered were retailing principles and psychology.

He [Schuller] argues, “If you want to succeed in marketing a church, you cannot ignore the retailing principles.” In his book Your Church Has Real Possibilities, Schuller claims that there are proven “Principles of Successful Retailing”(3)

At its core Schuller’s view essentially extends from the idea that the mission of the church (evangelism) is to happen within the corporate meeting of the church. This has been fairly ineffective due to the lack of non-believers there and many believers have become bored with the continual repetitiveness of a seemingly unfruitful task. Schuller’s solution was not a return to the ministry of the church, training, equipping and growing believers to perform the mission of the church in culture but to figure out a way to bring in nonbelievers. How does one best do that? Wall Street type marketing. But once nonbelievers check out this particular retail establishment what is the product that they will find? For that we must turn to Maslow and psychology. The product which Schuller proposed the Church should be marketing is the way to fulfill the customer’s hierarchy of needs. Item number three of Schuller’s “Principles of Successful Retailing” demonstrates this quite well:

3. Inventory. “You have to have what they want….Find what their needs are. You have to study psychology to know what the deep emotional needs of human beings are before you open your mouth and start talking to them…There enters self esteem psychology and theology.”(4)

By officially establishing the idea that the corporate meeting of the church is the “mission,” armed with marketing as the way to expand the market base for the church product of Jesus being the best way to meet the hierarchy of needs and armed with psychology to guide the understanding of humans and the Scriptures, the “Church Growth Movement” was born. Bill Hybels, with a genuine heart for the lost, the enculturation of the idea that evangelism is to be done in the church and armed with the tools of psychology, founded Willow Creek Community Church. There is nothing that Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church has done that is really new in a historical sense. They have just been very intentional and effective about their task. Rather than focusing on Maslow’s self-esteem element, Bill Hybels drew from the hierarchy of needs which in a practical sense transforms the gospel presentation.

Seen from this perspective, Hybel’s communication makes perfect sense as a modern update of what De Tocqueville observed pastors doing. Americans are still committed to their own self-interest. In the present context, this self-interest involves a search for fulfillment and satisfying their felt needs. If Hybels can convince [unchurched] Harry that Christianity is the best means to do this, he will get on board. Hybels has not sought to redirect the river of self-interest, but like preachers of de Tocqueville’s era, argued that he has the fastest boat.(5)

This is somewhat reminiscent of Augustine in his early writings and views:

In one of his first books, The Happy Life, Augustine argued that happiness consists in true learning and religion: “What else is it to live happily but to possess an eternal object through knowing it?” Since Augustine understood the source of happiness as knowing an eternal object, he concluded that happiness comes from a perfect knowledge of God.

Two years later, Augustine said that people can be happy only when they are good. He believed that adoption of the classical virtues would help him achieve happiness: “The function of this virtue is to restrain and still the passions which cause us to crave things that turn us away from the laws of God and of His goodness, that is to say, from the happy life.” Augustine believed that individuals could grow in virtue, they would restrain their passions and thus become fulfilled.(6)

The view of self fulfillment and meeting our needs tends to discourage sound doctrinal teaching. That is not to say that Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church and the CGM in general do at least assert sound theology if questioned. In fact, they subscribe to a very historically orthodox statement of faith. If one were to ask any of the WCCC leadership they would reiterate this point. However, that does not appear to be the grid through which they carry out or understand their mission. In fact, theology does not appear to be highly regarded within the CGM in general:

At a crowded seminar I once heard C. Peter Wagner confess that he was not a theologian, adding, only half in jest, “That is a Church Growth principle!” How sad it is that his lack of theology leads people away from the very gospel which alone can feed the multitudes.(7)

We should emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong with the respective tools which were being developed to reach non-believers. There is certainly nothing wrong with seeking to appeal to the lost in words and with illustrations that they might understand. NONE of these things are inherently good or bad but are essentially cosmetic. However, the Gospel itself must never get displaced by the methodology. To rephrase a popular metaphor: The Gospel is the “Baby” that should not be drowned in the bathwater.

It is worth noting that a number of these “success” models which were popular in the 1970s have gone considerably out of fashion and some have even spawned reactions among Christians who believe that such practices sacrifice a biblical sense of the awesomeness and transcendence of God on the altar of appealing to the masses.

The Church Growth “principles” formulated by such gurus as Donald McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, and Win Arn have also begun to fall out of favor, and with good reason: they haven’t produced! According to Lutheran pastor, Curtis A. Peterson, this has not escaped the notice of the movement’s founders, who are at least honest enough to admit their failures.

C. Peter Wagner is quoted as saying, “Somehow they [the Church Growth principles] don’t seem to work.” In spite of everything they have taught and advocated, he sees the percentage of American adults attending church remaining almost the same, while Protestant church membership is actually declining.(8)

It wouldn’t be true to conclude that there are virtually no “points of light” amidst this darkness. As Peterson notes, “On the other hand, the rapid growth of several mainly independent mega churches is one of the most important developments in modern church history.”(9) But as a pastor of one of those mega churches, Bill Hybels, might say: when you “net it out,” the Church Growth Movement has over-promised and under-delivered while separating many Christians from a critical part of the church’s raison d’être: teaching.

It is not the case that the CGM intentionally denigrates Scripture, but they clearly misunderstand the proper relationship between the Bible and theology. They also have a dangerously naïve faith in the notion that what Ronald Reagan called “the magic of the marketplace” holds the key to evangelistic success. And once faithful pastors (of whom, thank God, there are still many!) begin to help their congregations sink their roots into Scripture they begin to absorb truths that call into question any marriage between evangelism and marketing. As Craig Parro warned:

Marketing solicits, woos and entertains. But the [Word of God] confronts; it calls to repentance and commitment. There is a judgment to be avoided, a hell to be fled, and thoughts to be taken captive. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “We must not leave our hearer’s worldview intact.”(10)

A marketing mentality, however, begins with the assumption that we can use our hearer’s worldview as the ground on which to stand as we “sell” him our “product” (which in this case, by mere coincidence, is the Gospel). It doesn’t warn him to flee from the ground on which he’s standing because that ground will be consumed by God’s judgment. Such a mentality will not risk offending the “customer” by advising him that his worldview itself is what makes him an enemy of God (Eph. 2:1-3; cf. Rom. 1:18-33), because it doesn’t want to risk losing the “sale.” And once the deal is closed and the sale is made, all that is left is to recruit the “customer” into our sales force. Thus evangelism has not only been reduced to marketing, but multi-level marketing at that! There are strong similarities between marketing evangelism and multi-level marketing:

As pastor Steve Schlissel has noted, multi-level marketing “literature is often liturgical in form. It contains praises for the company and /or its leaders, thanksgiving for its products, testimonies to the greatness of both, confessions of doubts and even songs of adoration.” He adds that for multi-level marketers “’church’ can meet in small groups (devotionals?) or large auditoriums. In the latter the atmosphere is truly reminiscent of tent revivals in both program and intensity.” Not surprisingly, the styles and techniques of multi-level marketing are mirrored in large segments of popular evangelicalism.(11)

Some may think we are being harsh in this assessment but our church culture is being more and more influenced by church growth gurus and televangelists and their marketing principles than by sound Bible teaching and solid doctrine.

…televangelists are helping to transform American Christianity from a church into a business, from a historic faith into a popular religion based at least in part on superstition. An examination of these trends indicates that marketing and ministry are now close partners. Each influences the other, and not usually for good.(12)

Despite a lot of talk about how believers should cultivate their spiritual gifts and grow in the faith, we’ve observed that many in the CGM at least act as though these goals can be pursued without a serious emphasis on teaching and have persuaded many that good marketing will grow the church. In addition, some have even taken an unbiblical separation between evangelism and doctrine to an extreme which appears to deliberately disparage doctrine. This may go a long way in explaining why pollster and CGM advocate, George Barna has discovered that only 9% of Evangelicals have a biblical worldview.(13) Why is biblical literacy and believers having a biblical worldview at such low ebb? That may be due to nearly 50% of pastors not having a biblical worldview.(14) The result is a doctrinal anorexia which in turn unwittingly jeopardizes real evangelism.

1 G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI , Third Printing, February 2000, 48
2 ibid, 49
3 ibid, 51
4 ibid, 51
5 ibid, 252
6 ibid, 243
7 Curtis A. Peterson, “A Second and Third Look at Church Growth Principles,” paper delivered at the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s Metro South Pastors Conference, February 3, 1993, Mishicot, Wisconsin, 13.
8 ibid, 3
9 ibid
10 Parro, “Church Growth’s Two Faces,” Christianity Today, June 24, 1991, 19. Cited in Peterson, ibid., 12-13.
11 Quentin J. Schultze, Televangelism and America Culture, Baker Book House, ( Grand Rapids, MI., 1991), 161
12 ibid, 11
13 Church Doesn’t Think Like Jesus: Survey shows only 9% of Christians have a biblical worldview; WorldNet Daily December 3, 2003; http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=35926
14 Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have A Biblical Worldview: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?PressReleaseID=156&Reference=A


Comments

The Popular Church Movement — 4 Comments

  1. I think one of the problems is that the church has become obsessed with bringing in new people when they often don’t know what to do with, or have dropped the ball on getting the Gospel preached to, those that are already in the pew.

    I’ve always been of the mind that church is one hour on Sunday to teach and encourage us how to be Christians the rest of the week. Worshipping God is an element of that, where we are reminded that He comes first in our lives, and where we take some time to thank Him and praise Him. But then we are to do what Jesus commanded right before he ascended into heaven: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Again in Acts1:8 Jesus is quoted as saying, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Right after this, Acts says, Jesus was taken up into heaven. Obviously Jesus put a high priority on each believer going out into the world to share and be witnesses to the Gospel, as it was one of the last things He reiterated before leaving this earth. Church is to equip us so that, through the Holy Spirit, we can fulfill this mandate.

    Each person’s individual outreach and living out of the Gospel during the week is what not only will build the church (probably much more slowly than CGM would like) but will also make disciples. But we must know and have a right handling of the Gospel in order to do this. I believe the church, along with personal Bible reading, is (or should be) the primary place for believers to obtain the Biblical worldview necessary to carry out the Great Commission.

  2. I know you didn’t include Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven programs and books, and some of his church methodology in your article, but I see some similarities in Warren’s ministry to what you say above. One of the pastors of my church posted on facebook an online video of John Piper defending his choice of Rick warren for his pastor’s conference. While Piper sounded very persuasive, I’ve read just enough of Warren’s teachings and activities and flip-flops under pressure to be persuaded that Warren would have trouble staying on point to glorify God, globally. It appears Warren is so wanting to build a huge consensus that he backs of on calling sin for what it is, and I fear in his PEACE plan, the gospel may take a back seat as well.

    At any rate, I’ve been reading some on Warren’s activities in the past couple years, including the Proposition 8 debacle w/respect to his statements to Larry King, and saw some similarities between Warren and your article here. And I’m kind of disappointed in Piper. If he wanted someone with a slightly different take on theology, who seeks to glorify God globally, I wish he would have picked Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse, or someone of that calibre, one who doesn’t cave to pressure when calling sin, sin, and who can call false religions for what they are.

  3. It is true that I didn’t include Warren in this piece but his stuff doesn’t realy come in to play for another decade or so. This is part of a series on “The Culture Driven Church” and we have addressed Warren’s stuff in our Journal. For example we looked at his book in our article, “The Purpose Driven Claim,” which begins on page 20 of the Summer 2004 MCOI Journal. We have also done 9 Crux Blog articles on Rick Warren, at least one of which was part of this series. I think Rick Warren is a different danger to the Body of Christ than is Willow Creek. Willow seems to bring in false teachers intentionally for their marketing value. Rick Warren is sloppy in most of what he does. The end result may be and often is the same but the way they get there is different in my opinion which may or may not humble(grin) – Don

  4. Another outstanding entry from MCO and the comments following are dynamite. As I am sure Lynn has already seen, Rick Warren changed the PEACE Plan from its original to be much more innocuous to the non-Christian world. And he added global warming as a 6th point, albeit that there is no “G” at the end of PEACE. :)
    When the craze of the Purpose Driven Life was in full swing, I read that book and thought to myself, “Something is wrong in Denmark.” I thought it odd that he thought the church should change to accommodate the world’s taste (even in the version of the Bible he suggests) when the church is explicitly called to be “different.”
    I am really not so old, but sometimes I think to myself, “I am just too old.” Ha! or maybe not so Ha!
    :) God bless you and your ministry in a double extraordinary manner.

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