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First REVEAL, now FOLLOW ME

Dr Alex Tang

Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, 2008, Follow Me: What Next for You? Barrington, IL: The Willow Creek Association

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Follow Me, is a follow up to the Willow Creek Association 2007 report Reveal. The Reveal report identifies a spiritual continuum that includes four segments of the spiritual journey,

  • Exploring Christ- “I believe in God, but I am not sure about Christ. My faith is not a significant part of my life.”
  • Growing in Christ – “I believe in Jesus and I am working on what it mans to know him.”
  • Close to Christ- “I feel really close to Christ and depend on him daily for guidance”
  • Christ-Centered-“My relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship in my life. It guides everything I do.”

and certain significant roles of the church in this spiritual journey. This has led to some changes in the focus of the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington and the Willow Creek Association.

Follow Me takes up where Reveal left off with the additional results of a survey of 80,000 people in more than 200 churches (151-155) surveyed in November and December 2007 in an attempt to understand the questions raised by Reveal (2007). The “focus of this book is spiritual movement: specifically, what moves a person from one stage of spiritual growth to the next” (27). The survey is both qualitative (using one-to-one interviews) and quantitative (questionnaires and statistical analysis) (144-150).

It was discovered that that are four categories of spiritual catalysts (30-46)

(1) spiritual beliefs and attitude

(2) organized church activities

(3) personal spiritual experiences

(4) spiritual activities with others

The spiritual catalysts are what participants of the research mentioned as the processes that help them to grow spiritually.

 

 

Spiritual growth is defined as three movements:

(1) Movement 1- the earliest stage of spiritual growth

“people gain their initial understanding of the Christian faith and accept that Jesus offs the only true path to salvation. They move from the Exploring Christ segment to the Growing in Christ segment” (28)

(2) Movement 2- the intermediate of spiritual growth

“people become more active in their spiritual experiences as they progress from the Growing in Christ segment to a more intimate Close to Christ relationship” (28).

(3) Movement 3-the more advanced stage of spiritual growth

“a person’s faith shift from a daily awareness of Christ’s presence and involvement (a Close to Christ relationship) to a redefinition of a person’s identity based on their relationship with Christ (a Christ-Centered relationship) (29).

 

 

The top five catalysts for the movements are

Movement 1 (Exploring Christ to Growing in Christ)

1. Salvation by Grace (spiritual belief/attitude)

2. The Trinity (spiritual belief/attitude)

3. Serve the church (church activity)

4. Prayer to seek guidance (spiritual practice)

5. Reflection on Scripture (spiritual practice) (54-61)

 

Movement 2 (Growing in Christ to Close to Christ)

1. Personal God (spiritual belief/attitude)

2. Prayer to seek guidance (spiritual practice)

3. Reflection on Scripture (spiritual practice)

4. Solitude (spiritual practice)

5. Evangelism (spiritual activity with others) (61-68)

 

Movement 3 (Close to Christ to Christ-Centered)

1. Giving away my life (spiritual belief/attitude)

2. Christ is first (spiritual belief/attitude)

3. Identity in Christ (spiritual belief/attitude)

4. Authority of the Bible (spiritual belief/attitude)

5. Reflection on Scripture (spiritual practice) (68-76)

 

Putting all the research findings together, the authors identified two “breakthrough discoveries”

(1) Christ-centered people show enormous capacity for increased kingdom impact (106-113)

(2) The Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth (114-118)

Concluding their analysis, the authors wrote, “(a)s we reflect back over four years of gathering, studying and analyzing data on spiritual growth and the breakthroughs we’ve discovered, we believe that perhaps the church’s greatest role is that of spiritual motivator or spiritual coach” (118).

Willow Creek Community Church’s new strategy in response to these survey results is to “intentionally” adopt the following: (124)

(1) We need to become as radical in equipping believers to live Christ-Centered lives as we are at reaching seekers

(2) We need to morph our midweek service into a variety of “next step” learning opportunities.

The mid week service is a teaching service. The change will be that instead of one main teaching session, there will be many classes with different topics. Members are given the choice to choose the topic they want to learn about. These contents will be also be made available online in addition to other resources.

(3) We have to offer a broader portfolio of targeted experiences and resources to catalyze spiritual movement.

The church plans to offer two types of spiritual experiences; (a) experiences to build communities, and (2) experiences to promote Christlike services. Communities are being reframed from small groups to any types of groups. Service offers the experience of services and also working with other people who are serving.

 

The new and expanded survey results as documented in Follow Me are essentially an expansion of Reveal. However there are now more data for them to work with and further time has been spent on reflection of existing data.

Firstly, it must be recognised that this is a socio-religious survey utilising the tools of socio-anthropological research methodology. The qualitative sample of interviews does not balance out the errors that may arise from the very larger quantitative sample. It is essentially a consumer attitude and behaviour or “customer satisfaction” type of survey, analysing the expectation of the participants in respect to what they want from the church.

There is also a need to understand the definition of terms used in the survey. For example, evangelism is defined as “I had six or more meaningful spiritual conversations with non-Christians in the past year.” This may not be what is understood by Christians from other churches.

The use of the same survey in more than 200 churches of varying sizes and denominations raises the question of the reliability of the results. There are marked differences between a small inner city church, a mega-church, and a white middle class church in New England. The common link in the choice of these churches seems to be that the pastors attended Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit.

Secondly, the four segments of Exploring Christ, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ, and Christ-Centered are now formalised into the three movements which makes up spiritual growth. While it is desirable to be able to categorise everything into neat categories, this diagramming of spiritual growth is too simplistic. There have been no attempts to develop the theological basis for this way of describing spiritual growth in the book except to ascribe a few biblical references.

Thirdly, the overview gives an impression of an “individualistic” spiritual formation. The aim seems to identify and equip individuals with knowledge, experiences and friendship. The new strategy of the church is now to intentionally train individuals. Even in services to the church, the aim is to give them personal experience in serving and also opportunity to make friends. The mid week service is also being broken into small classes. Essentially the new strategy of Willow Creek Community Church involves

  • Equipping believers for Christ-centered life
  • Teaching
  • Community
  • Services

These findings are nothing new as all of it is found in Paul’s teaching about church. Willow Creek Community Church however claim that their new strategy is special is because of their “intentionality” in making it happen (132). What is fascinating that as far as I can discover, there is no mention of the work of the Holy Spirit in the book. The Holy Spirit is only mentioned under the definition of the Trinity.

Fourthly, it must be recognised that the survey results shows a snapshot of what is happening in these churches in a certain moment in time. Therefore, we need to be careful not to read too much into it. I am glad there are plans to do longitudinal studies which will be more reflection of the real situation of the church. It is laudable that two “breakthrough discoveries” from these surveys reinforce the biblical teachings that

(1) Christ-centered people show enormous capacity for increased kingdom impact, and (2) the Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth. These are powerful truths that the church needs to be reminded of again and again.

Finally, it is sad state of a low understanding of the ecclesiology of the church when “the church’s greatest role is that of spiritual motivator or spiritual coach.” The church is not a coach or a spiritual motivator but the whole team. The church is the body of Christ, not dispenser of consumer products. It is all the members who are called by God for a special mission. The church is also Jesus’ body on earth and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Instead of being the body, the metaphor is given of a personal trainer to keep some person’s body fit.

Follow Me gives us a snapshot of the surveyed churches from a consumer attitude and behaviour perspective. Working within that limitation, it does provide us with some information of the state of the North American churches. What is gratifying is that the Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Leadership Summit takes these findings seriously and is heeding the call back to equipping the saints, discipleship, spiritual formation and a more biblical content-based teaching and preaching. However, there is a need to move into a deeper ecclesiology of corporate spiritual formation instead of individualistic ones. It is hoped that the next survey will highlight this important aspect of spiritual growth.

 

 

11 September 2008

 

               

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