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!)
WHY DOES THIS DESERVE MY ATTENTION?
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.
WHY DOES THIS DESERVE OUR ATTENTION?
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 …
WHAT ARE MY INITIAL QUESTIONS?
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?
WHAT WILL I DO WITH THIS ANYWAY?
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.
WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THIS ANYWAY?
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?