Willow Creek REVEAL Part 1-Preparing My Own Self-Study on Willow Creek and Reveal

SUMMARY. This post offers my extensive series of questions for preparing to examine Willow Creek’s REVEAL self-study. For me, the key issue is not consumeristic Christian culture, it’s the clash of paradigm systems that underlying various methodological models of “being/doing church.” So, my analysis will be based on evaluating the paradigm and cultural systems that are both assumed and explicit in the REVEAL report. Because of radical changes globally in the dominant paradigm/cultural systems, we as Christians need to understand the times so we can contextualize our methodological model – without giving in (syncretizing) to anti-biblical principles and values in local cultures and while being countercultural without becoming isolated from local cultures. In these endeavors, we cannot leave the task of critical thinking to others; if we are leaders of churches, we are responsible to observe, analyze, and interpret our own cultural context and respond with appropriate contextualization. Leaving all the critical analysis to others and simply importing a model that apparently worked elsewhere is not just inappropriate, it may prove toxic. And so, the REVEAL study warrants a careful look, while acknowledging the courage of Willow Creek leaders to engage in a self-study in an attempt to evaluate the results of their strategies, structures, and methodological model.

I’m taking an interlude from my posts on interpreting the cultural and concrete media systems of The Golden Compass to deal with Reveal for a bit. For over a month, I have wrestled with various aspects of Willow Creek’s “Reveal” self-study and report. I have searched the blogosphere for varied responses and begun thinking about them: pro, con, ambivalent, paradoxical, mainline, fundamentalist, etc. I have developed my own extensive set of initial questions about the underlying paradigm system at Willow Creek, and this particular study’s methodologies, survey instruments, interpretive tools and perspectives, implications, and applications.

I haven’t decided yet if I will be blogging all my observations and interpretations, and questions for the future. This is a complex set of issues that will take a lot of effort to sift and sort. Quite frankly, I’m almost too tired out before I’ve even begun. But, I’ve already gone through the Reveal website once to get an overview. And the three source books I’ve chosen have arrived:

  • Reveal: Where are You? by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson (Willow Creek, 2007), chosen as a primary source produced by the advocates themselves.
  • Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church by G. A. Pritchard (Baker Books, 1996), chosen as a secondary source specifically analyzing the content of Willow Creek’s methodological model.
  • The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World by Robert Webber (Baker Books, 2002), chosen as an interpretive framework for evaluating the paradigm and cultural systems context of Willow Creek, and where it stands in the complex realities of emerging world paradigm shifts from the Traditional and Pragmatic Evangelical Paradigms of the modernist/Christendom era to the Younger Evangelical (what I term “Holistic”) in postmodernity/post-Christendom.

I will be studying this material, regardless. However, if I do decide to blog through these materials, it likely won’t be until I finish my series on cultural and concrete media systems of The Golden Compass. At any rate, I think it’s important to post something myself, as a forthcoming encounter between David Fitch and Scot McKnight on the consumer church and related issues (see the background and links in Bill Kinnon’s recent post on the subject) takes the debate that’s been simmering away and “kicks it up a notch.” (Yo, yo! Shout out to Emeril!)


Frankly, I don’t think the key issue is about consumerist culture in American Christianity. I think it is something far deeper – paradigm wars – and this has insidious tentacles reaching throughout the ways we process information, what we value and how we construct our worldviews, the ways we develop our strategies and structures and methodological models, and – oh yes – the surface principles we live by and whatever practices are in our lifestyles. And if we don’t figure this thing out amongst ourselves as a larger community of congregations with conflicting approaches to the past and present, and futures (plural), it surely will not be resolved out there for us.

Anyway, I’ve been involved in seeker-sensitive churches in one way or another for oh, about 20 years. So I think I have enough experience to draw some conclusions and raise more questions.

For the past 15+ years, I’ve lived in Marin County, California, which reputedly has the lowest percentage of Christians of any county in the United States. The Christian population percentage is somewhere between that of Japan and Taiwan. By comparing several reports on religion here, more locals and guests sit in front of a rock in a field every week to meditate than go to all the churches in the county combined. You get the drift …

Seeker sensitive, seeker driven, purpose driven approaches have been relatively popular among the theologically conservative/evangelical churches here. However, that doesn’t seem to have filtered out into significant impact in our communities over the time that I’ve been watching and participating. While quantitative growth appears to have been minimal, there are deep concerns about possibilities for qualitative growth. Personally, I’ve grown weary of what can only be described as continual entry-level teaching. It takes about two years to hear the complete cycle of sermons on topics for practical living, and then that same old feeling creeps back in: Help me Obi-Wan … I’m stuck in a surrealist version of a Christianized support group, and I can’t escape!

In the past, I advocated for this metholodogical model, even helped plant several churches in the Bay Area that use a seeker-orientation and/or marketing model for their strategy and launch. Some worked moderately well, others failed spectacularly … and can all that be attributed to the quality of the leaders, or perhaps at least some to the model? And if to the model, then how much culpability goes to those who formulated it, and why, and how much to those who implement it either completely or recontextualized, and why?

While serving as a consultant to help a particular church transition toward the future and be more holistic-paradigm friendly, I also spent about two years helping a team of friends consider evangelism. They had gone to Willow Creeks’ Becoming a Contagious Christian conference, and were excited about evangelism. However, it was clear to all of them that the strictly seeker-sensitive approach has not worked well in Marin, and would likely never ever work well here. This place is just NOT populated by people of a skeptical mindset, where traditional apologetics of rationalism and debate have their appeal. The locals are people who already embrace spirituality. (In 15 years, I’ve had exactly three encounters with atheists or agnostics; everyone else already had some kind of spiritual system.) People here typically do not process information and learn in the ways that seem dominant in the Chicago area; why should we expect we could consume an imported program from the mid-West lock, stock, and barrel, and have it work here?

So, I worked with this group on how to look at the underlying paradigm and models in the Contagious Christian program. I sought to assist them in either finding ways to deconstruct this program and reconstruct it in adapted form for this context, or to create something indigenous from this context. I think it clarified for group members what the paradigm context in Marin is, and those interactions over a long period of time seem to have continued to bear fruit in terms of the personal ministries of people involved.

Jesus said that when a pupil is fully trained, he will be like his master (Luke 6:39-40). I appreciate that Willow Creek continues to evaluate themselves and take steps in what hopefully are better directions. When I study their Reveal report, I will do it first of all for myself. I don’t expect it to be an energizing endeavor (as is my passionate pursuit of concrete media systems related to The Golden Compass!), but hopefully, it will still prove enlightening. Perhaps those who created this paradigm-culture-methodological-model will validate long-standing concerns I have had from both an intellectual and participant level (i.e., I am NOT crazy, and there actually were some flaws that amplified their presence into our churches’ programs). Perhaps I will find some sense of reconciliation and peace in knowing the creators are taking responsibility for what their pupil pastors have done with their self-acknowledged flawed concepts and culture.


Although I believe it is a grave mistake to leave our critical thinking to others to do for us, I do think this is a crucial discussion to consider and learn from. Willow Creek wields influence far beyond their local context, and – for better or for worse – their approaches do resonate with followers of Jesus who sincerely want to make an impact for the Kingdom.

However, it is also true that dramatic paradigm and cultural shifts are occurring globally. If Willow Creek represents the essential Pragmatic paradigm that may become the liminality cry of the modernist era, how will our continuing to follow their lead help us transition into the Holistic paradigm of postmodernity? (“Liminality” – that’s a nice sort of academic way of saying that something has already passed its peak of power, is now on the decaying slide down into obsolescence, and is on the threshold of a new process of either learning from those who already represent the future or of losing their legacy and disappearing.)

  • Is this new step from Willow Creek going in better directions?
  • Who will it help if they follow, and why? Who may be hindered if they follow, and why?
  • Is Willow Creek stewarding their power responsibly?
  • Are those seeking to learn from Willow Creek stewarding their own transitions responsibly?

There is a dynamic tension here. Yes, we should applaud Willow Creeks’ leaders for their vulnerability to keep assessing their progress and keep making course corrections. And yes, we should also recognize that when we import their programs, we have also ingested their flawed paradigm. If we keep following Willow Creek on their incremental path of change, we will eventually find ourselves in a better space. However, will it be in time to grasp hold of the global opportunities that may be providentially present in just such a time as this? Or will we find that, regretfully, we could have and should have taken the road less traveled, the one of more radical paradigm shifts …


I have long assumed that the ways we ask our questions precondition our answers. Also, the information processing styles and integration points we choose and use will limit our interpretations of situations. So, when I conduct a case study like this will be, I ask a lot of questions, from as many perspectives as possible, with studies into as many kinds of related products as possible. In other words, give it a rigorous sort of “human MRI” on the subject to obtain as three-dimensional of an assessment as possible.

That in mind, here are some of the initial questions I’ve formulated for when I finally launch into this case study. And, as you’ll see, I already have a lot of biases that should be evident. That’s because I don’t believe in the “myth of neutrality.” Every information processing style, every paradigm, every methodological model and survey tool and interpretation framework is biased. But then, digging in with a lot of types of questions helps to exhume our biases. And I can’t apologize that many are couched in negative terms, because as wise journalists know, negative and potentially inflammatory questions often help to elicit positive responses and constructive defenses. (And please keep in mind, these are preliminary questions to help me scour these three books and related websites on my research list. I haven’t read Reveal yet, and some of the answers may be quite obvious.) So, here we go …

Information Processing Styles. The Reveal report divides the spectrum of church-goers into five categories: Exploring Christianity, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ, Christ-Centered, and Dissatisfied. From an initial reading of their descriptions, this form of linear organizing of the data makes sense for groups. However, I also find that I have all five of those patterns as layers in my life simultaneously as an individual. If I have all five at varying levels of intensity on different issues, wouldn’t that represent the reality of at least some other people? If so, where would we fit on this system? What kind of research methodologies did they use, and how did they come up with their measurements? Weighted average? Composite of measurements? Singular score? Is it possible that there should be a more complex, non-linear approach taken to patterns in the data?

Training Systems and Simulacra. Why do we tend to adopt programs from leaders like Willow Creek instead of create our own? What is missing from seminary-type training such that almost all graduates cannot observe, analyze, and interpret their own local cultures and contextualize ministry in countercultural ways that both challenge indigenous people toward biblical truth and do not syncretize with anti-biblical local cultures? Are we creating (at best), leaders who use programs as stop-gap measures because they’re burned out and don’t have the energy to create something from scratch, or, (at worst), spiritual plagiarists who can’t come up with an original, Spirit-led idea on their own?

Pragmatic versus Holistic Paradigms. When we desire to learn from “best practices,” that assumes there are universal principles that apply, regardless of local context and cultures. How accurate is that assumption? If we follow that through, will we also adopt all same flaws as represented in those practices? At the “street level,” does this mean we can succeed in ministry with just a quick tip list of how-to’s? We can have all the “right” parts, but something can still lack holistic vitality and life (i.e., what I’ve called elsewhere “the Frankenstein syndrome”). Even if Willow Creek has a wide range of practical parts to Christian ministry, are they truly integrated into a coherent whole?

Contextualization and Plausible versus Preferable Futures. Is the trajectory of transition Willow Creek is on the same one every church should follow? Or only those whose congregations are culturally like Willow Creek? Or only those culturally like the community context neighboring to Willow Creek? If this trajectory is not meant to be universally applied because other types of churches have different starting points, then what systems can be used to help any church figure out their own unique and optimal trajectory for transition? Of the very few other people out there that I’m aware of doing research and theorizing for contextualization (and thus, trajectories of transition toward Christlikeness), they all seem to use marketing models like PRIZM, based on traditional demographics, zip codes, and/or what people consume. Is there anyone out there besides me trying to figure out how to do contextualization based on virtual tribal socio-psychographics, dispersed networks, and what people produce (i.e., value-based identity, particular paradigms, cultural constructs, etc.)? What combination of research approaches did Willow Creek use for this study? How will this affect their views and vision of what is plausible in terms of change in the future, and what is preferable? How do those compare and contrast with what Scriptures would seem to indicate are meant as universal principles for disciples of Jesus Christ among all races, places, and historical-cultural spaces?

Integrity and Responsibility. Since Willow Creek’s leadership has boldly acknowledged flaws in the ways they have done things and are seeking to lead their congregation and others toward change, what have they done about the flaws in any of their previously published materials and media produced? I know that does not mean everything is fatally flawed, but will they be working with their external publishers (like Zondervan) to remove some of their previous publications and/or reissue revised editions? Will their publishers work with them to do this, even if it means altering their contractual obligations, or refuse? If no one does anything about this, what might that indicate about the accusations of American Christianity and consumerist culture?


I’m not sure I have a specific answer for that yet. I am a life-long learner, and I know that these questions are super-relevant to issues the Church in transition during the post-Christendom era. This is a providential opportunity to hone my own understanding of paradigm and cultural systems. Perhaps I’ll emerge with more clarification and conviction on exactly why I believe we must move radically beyond what Robert Webber terms the Traditional and Pragmatist paradigms of the modernist era toward the Holistic paradigm that has come. It’s not just a question of relevance. It’s about commitment to contextualization, of understanding our times, discerning what to do, and following those decisions with both intentionality and the leading of the Holy Spirit.


As you can see, I try to be an active listener-learner, as I hope you are. Otherwise, why would you read the ramblings of someone like me?!

And so, the final question goes to you: What will you do with what I and others are writing, debating, and stating about Reveal, its leaders, and its context?

Jump forward to Willow Creek REVEAL Part 2: Externalizing My Probable Willow Creek REVEAL Study Plan.

9 thoughts on “Willow Creek REVEAL Part 1-Preparing My Own Self-Study on Willow Creek and Reveal

  1. Yo, Brad…I linked your interpolator’s page over at Jesus Creed today on Scot’s Politics thread…and I will be interested to read what you’ve been saying here…but, man, I don’t have the brain cells today.

    I am, however, so very grateful for you and for all that you are doing to encourage real thinking.


  2. Brad,

    Finally got a chance to get all the way through here. Thanks for all your excellent questions!

    Thanks, too, for these words of encouragement: “Why do we tend to adopt programs from leaders like Willow Creek instead of create our own?”

    I remember when my senior pastor asked me, rather exasperated, “Can we ever just use something that is already written?” I have always tended to write my own curriculum for what I needed, since none of the materials seemed to “fit” very well… and that was, apparently, not seen as a positive!

    Still trying to get the your post trilogy… I’ll get there soon!

  3. Hi Peggy, and thanks for both the encouragement and the linkage. Hope the Interpolator material will especially be of help to people who are asking questions about how to bridge people of different paradigms and who might be better able to do so and to equip others to do so.

    Meanwhile, regarding this post on Willow Creek, Reveal, and related issues … one of my biggest concerns about the North American Church in general is that so many leaders seem to rely on outsourcing their thinking, creative work, and curriculum development. Thus, not only is the element of contextualization missing – because no outsourced materials that we import have universal applicability – but also, local disciples who are gifted to do such development indigeneously are rarely identified, validated, amplified, or activated to use their super(natural) powers. Seems that’s part of what you experienced with your attempt to produce curriculum.

    I can understand many of the legitimate and illegitimate pressures that would squeeze leaders into overreliance on gifted people outside their own local gatherings or congregations: lack of time due to other priorities, mental and emotional burn-out, perfectionism and fear of not being “excellent,” tendencies to self-exaltation and control rather than empower and release, local people don’t have track records yet, etc. But, to put it bluntly: Regardless of sincere motives or insincere sins, those who overrely on outsourcing and who refuse to raise up locally gifted people are QUENCHING THE HOLY SPIRIT. And this is an era of such cultural upheaval, that we must rely ever more closely on the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us in discerning the times, understanding what to do, and leading with flexibility.

    I realize it is a potential conundrum that, through my own blog, I offer some of the production from my processing. Am I therefore creating Christian consumers and/or reinforcing consumerism?

    I guess the only way out of that irony is this: In the long run, I hope to spark more questions than I provide answers. Also, when I am “giving answers” through my exposition, I try to emphasize principles and processes over my own products, so that those who want to learn could be equipped in practical how-to’s, without it being Q&D Cloning Tips. [Sidenote: The rather apt term “Q&D” comes from my way-long-ago work in printshop industries, where “quick and dirty” meant using someone else’s originals and/or using the very easiest process to get the print job done and minimize our own work.] [Very apt, indeed, eh?]

    Also, I know my material is not easy to read and digest. It tends to be intense and dense. I trust I’m not doing that from mean-spiritedness or arrogance. It’s just that I don’t have the time or energy to edit everything in such a way that it’s more accessible. Merely getting the material down on virtual paper is draining enough, and if I were being completely narcissistic, I would not blog at all because it uses a significant portion of my precious little reserve of physical energy. Ah well, such is my situation, and we all make our choices, don’t we? Mine is to post something – dense as it may be – rather than nothing and to attempt to be as clear as possible on complex subjects rather than as simple as possible. The opportunities to process “aloud” such an amazing and providential array of church-related experiences as I’ve been granted are too significant to pass up! They were made “for such a time as this,” when others are asking the kinds of questions that I’ve been wrestling with, too. I think therefore I blog.

    And who knows … perhaps the intensity and density actually helps produce producers rather than consumers, because you really gotta have tuh want tuh read this stuff in order to get through it.

    Also, it isn’t that important to me that this blog gets “on the radar.” I get it that this is “boutique” material! Surely I’ll not qualify for some honorifics from the top 100,000 Christian blog list or anything … And I purposely haven’t promoted this blog, or gone out and done a lot of links to it in my comments on the blogs of others. Any “expanded readership” comes primarily from people like you, and virtual word-of-mouth. If my material proves helpful, it’ll find its audience, and its audience will find it. [Oh heavens, that sounded just like one of those phrase-reversing aphorisms from “The Sphinx” in Mystery Men!]

    Well, there was a mini-rant, now were-n’t it?!

    P.S. Hope you enjoy the first trilogy on The Golden Compass. Actually, the next part is one I find the most intriguing, as it deals with the film from a futurist’s perspective, in the overall context of cultural trends. Woo-hoo! Hope to have that posted in a day or two …

    Blessings, sis.

  4. Exactly, Brad…people will eat when they’re hungry enough! No, you are more like the store where we find raw materials that we must take home and process into our own meals. Processed food is just bad! ;^)

    I did have tremendous success with my curriculum writing, but it was all those things you said: an unknown versus Willow and Saddleback, blah, blah, blah. But it worked in our setting better than those materials did because it was ours and the author also taught the classes and processed the materials in so many different ways all around.

    I think you are right on about the quenching of the Spirit that goes on when the gifts are not seen and acknowledged and brought into play.

  5. Pingback: Random Acts of Linkage #40 : Subversive Influence

  6. Brad,
    I’m a new reader of your blog, which I find challenging and extremely helpful as I begin a journey of seeking to find out how a small, pentacostal/evangelical college can make a paradigm change to a missional curriculum. We’re not going anywhere until we (faculty and staff)come together as a real community of believers. Nor will meaningful change occur until we as a community are united in our conviction that the mission of Christian education is not to prepare pastors and workers for full-time ministry, but to disciple and train believers to, as you state, “observe, analyze, and interpret their own local cultures and contextualize ministry in countercultural ways that both challenge indigenous people toward biblical truth and do not syncretize with anti-biblical local cultures.”

    This is a God-thing so I have to work hard against my training and experience to write a mission statement, set measurable goals, and all that nonsense. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts and comments. I don’t mind if they are “dense”; they can’t be any other way. The moving of the Holy Spirt is always more than the mind of man can fully comprehend.


  7. Hi David. Glad you dropped in. However in the world did you find this?!

    I’ve long wished that this kind of stuff were taught in our training programs, so I’m very VERY glad to hear that you and your school are considering such a shift to a missional and contextual curriculum. But I also think you’re absolutely right about needing to live it out. Without our lives backing it up, we’ll only have what’s really truth without a life that’s real true to God’s Word and the character of Christ.

    I really appreciate your comment about the Holy Spirit; I believe there is a dynamic tension between our being intentional and our being led by the Spirit. Coming from a Baptistic background, the Spirit is usually downplayed and we almost function as if being spiritual machines – now there’s an oxymoron. But I know my charismatic/Pentecostal friends who are on a journey toward a larger biblical balance sometimes feel they’ve erred in the direction of being only a channel for the Spirit. Both bypass our humanity and, sadly, diminish the splendor of God’s complex, paradoxical design.

    Anyway, blessings on your pursuit of a community and curriculum of missional integrity! If you haven’t already, check out Allelon’s Missional Schools Project. Thankfully, you’re not alone in your endeavors …

  8. The REVEAL study is interesting in that it provides questions and research results. It does not provide curriculum and answers. So, in reading it, what questions are the most powerful in leading us toward ‘contextualized’ solutions of our own? The questions we ask, the models we use, and the organizing structures of our churches shape our methods (or tactics). Isn’t it refreshing that the REVEAL study helps us to think about structuring ourselves around the framework of spiritual growth – the end game – instead of methods like small groups or neighborhoods?

    I’d like to participate in a discussion here in this blog around the profound questions that shape strategy, structure and selection of tactics, including curriculum. Anyone game for that?

  9. Hi Sharon, and thanks for your comment. Regarding the REVEAL study, I appreciate it when people commit to self-assessment through reflection, research, and 360-degree feedback from those they are in relationship with. As I’ve noted before, change is inevitable but transformation is intentional. It took courage for Willow Creek’s leaders to choose to move toward transition. I’m looking forward to actually reading and blogging through the report eventually … been a loooong wait to get to it. But to be honest, I’m already squeamish about some of what I’ve seen in their definitions and methodology – and moreso about how people seem to accept OR reject the report uncritically.

    Anyway, I see the topics of strategies and structures, methodological models and tactics as absolutely critical to transformation – or toxicity. I’ve been in too many situations of church planting and transitioning where I experienced the destructive results of sincere leaders’ unwise choices about where to integrate their approaches. It’s ironic: integrate around structures or methods (instead of deeper paradigms), or ignore structures and methods – either way can result in disaster. These spiritually abusive situations are one reason I focus on paradigm systems, especially on the types of information processing that force us to examine issues that are even deeper than the value structures and theologies that predispose us to particular strategies, goals, structures, models, tactics, outcomes, curricula, etc.

    Which is all to say that a discussion like you’re proposing sounds like a great thing! I can’t commit at the moment … I still have a couple months’ backlog of tutorials I need to finish and post first. They lay out the core assumptions and tools I use to analyze and interpret paradigms, cultural systems, infrastructures, viable futures, sustainability, toxicities, and concrete media. My top priority for this blog is to finish those items as a sort of “time capsule” of what I’ve learned about paradigm systems in the past 15 years. And then I may come to the conclusion of those posts and find I still can’t commit. However, I’m willing to pray and consider it, and see if it works into longer-term plans as a priority.

    So – anyone reading this, feel free to leave a comment if you’d be interested in such a discussion, and share ideas about potential topics and timespans, forums and formats. And let’s see what happens from there …

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