Ambles through Willow Creek’s Reveal Part 4-Are You Really Making a Difference?


This chapter really starts off with a bang! We’re supposed to imagine that a new church member has offered $1 million, with the only string attached being that we “put the money toward what you know will result in the greatest kingdom impact. We want you to guarantee that people far from God will be found and that the found will grow in their love for God and other people” (page 11).

Cool … I’d like to work with that scenario! So, I skim a bit farther ahead, and see they change up the game, thankfully, since it’s not exactly workable to have that kind of string attached – only God can guarantee results. So, on page 12, they remove the guarantee clause and simply require you to “invest it wisely” for the kingdom.

So I shut the book, close my eyes, and just think. Within probably 30 seconds, My Plan wafts into place. I’ve got it, eyes pop open, just jot notes.

  • Key idea: discipleship with a geometric progression emphasis that leads toward long-term sustainability.
  • Specifics: Invest the larger part of the money in 1 to 3 teams of disciples, preferably men and women who are more intercultural in background than not (meaning they are cultural fluid and can connect with a wide range of people).
  • These disciples have a demonstrated record of following Jesus, persevering through finding and developing their unique giftedness, and mentoring others along those same lines.
  • Disciples like this are what it takes for personal, long-term, multiplied ministry.
  • Set aside the rest of the funds for special projects and training for/by the teams, to be implemented over a 4-generation period (approximately 100 years).
  • I will not be around to measure the quantitative results, but I trust I’ve started with qualitatively rich instigators who will carry out and carry on with what they would be doing anyway, only they’d have funds to help them remove debt, purchase things they need, give gifts or grants to people in need – whatever fits equipping and empowering them to serve better.

Within minutes, the framework of the plan is in the margin of the Reveal book, and my heart knows already about half a dozen people I would pursue giving the funds to. I know it’s just a scenario, but woo-hoo! Wouldn’t it be fun to meet with them and tell them this great news? A few more moments basking in imaginary reverie, then it’s back to the book for me …


In this section, Greg Hawkins (Executive Pastor at Willow Creek, and the author for this chapter) shares what he would do with the gift.

If you’re like me, you would do what church leaders have been doing for generations: design and fund an assortment of church activities and programs that you sincerely believe will help people grow spiritually.

Then you’d encourage as many people as possible to get involved in those activities and programs, believing that increased participation means the lost are being reached and believers are growing … And, conversely, decreased participation means people aren’t being reached and aren’t growing. (page 12)

Huh – that doesn’t really resonate at all with what I conceived of, not really. We must have very different paradigms …

As I keep reading The Brutal Truth, I become more aware of vast differences in the assumptions about ministry that Greg and I hold. Upon reflection, I notice that he speaks mostly of programs that impact large numbers of people at the same time. Also, if people like what you’re doing at church services and programs, they’ll show up and participate. I wonder, By “participate,” does Greg means “show up, sit there, take it in.” Isn’t that just raw consumption of “spiritual goods and services”? Don’t know how else to interpret that …

Meanwhile, yes, I suppose my approach is actually a “program,” too. But it is not really about the transfer of information, or creating an emotionally moving experience through music or drama or images or words – though it might include many of those things. It’s about the sharing of a lifestyle of becoming spiritual mature through the pains and processings of everyday life, and reproducing disciples who are being transformed and therefore can help others be transformed.

In my million-dollar plan, if people are committed to personal transformation (i.e., obedience-oriented for the rest of our lives) and appreciate the fruit it eventually produces in their life, I suspect they are more likely to stick with it than if the criterion is whether they like the program itself (i.e., they’re consuming it). My approach is also interactive. It requires active participation and learning to produce Kingdom culture and service to others, according to one’s providential giftings, abilities, and passions for ministry.


Greg states The Problem several ways in this section. Basically, the issue of determining church effectiveness in helping people become better Christians is about evaluating how people have attended to their heart; that’s far more complex than counting numbers of people in attendance. As my mentor in editing would’ve said, “Boy, howdy!” (A rather colorful character, she was born at the turn of the 20th century in Texas.) I’d just say, “Yup.”

Also, I appreciate how Greg reinforces that leaders sincerely do want to make an impact, but there are problems:

We’re not poor leaders when we think like this [i.e., that increased attendance = people growing]; it’s just that we don’t have any other practical way to measure growth. It’s a whole lot easier to count heads than it is to measure heart change. Trust me, I know. (page 14)

Could I suggest that our seminaries and training programs haven’t helped the situation? I’m not sure that it’s on the radar of most curriculum committees to make a commitment to train leaders on theologically-based, practical how-to’s of assessing and discerning spiritual maturity level. Having spent 12 years in seminary – not as a student, mind you, but working the administrative systems in five different departments – and having interacted with hundreds of students, and mentored a few dozen in depth, I think I’ve witnessed enough to speak with some level of experience here. In fact, I wrote about a related issue in a comment to my friend Mark Berry’s blog the other day. Let me e-run over there and copy that, and paste it here …

Okay, I’m back. I need to frame this quote so you know the context. Mark’s post was on Pioneers – to be ordained or not to be ordained? Mark lives in the U.K., and, among other things, he works with established churches and mission agencies in equipping disciples/ministers who reach into emerging cultures. At the recent Greenbelt Festival, he participated in a discussion about whether those in a Fresh Expressions “Pioneer Minister” program should be ordained. (This interdenominational partnership program focuses on developing mission-shaped leaders for local clergy and leadership teams, church planting, emerging church, youth church, and small groups. From their website, looks like they’re making some major efforts to move into the future!)

Mark saw this concern over ordination as a surface topic in a much larger framework involving issues of assumptions, systems, structures, training, etc. I’ve seen this culture clash played out numerous times in the past 10 years. And I speak as one who has worked with ministry and administrative systems as my vocation, and who volunteered in several church plants that attempted to straddle the worlds of established and emerging cultures. Anyway, I riffed on Mark’s perspective, trying to give some metaphors for why the deeper issues of assumptions are generally off the radar for so many leaders. Here it is, with a few edits:

It sounds as if people who truly do want to see Christ’s Kingdom expand are potentially limiting that very thing by being locked into their paradigm, which requires the systems and structures of the past. So, they are unable to perceive from within the perspective of the future – the very one that pioneers are more likely to hold. It’s an unfortunate irony: At the very critical point when leaders in the established order know they need to pass the baton, they start to pass it but don’t truly let go. Yes, they “push” to empower, fund, encourage, and train pioneers who can “pull” the churches toward new wineskins and a sustainable future. And yet, they end up “pulling” the entire process back by tethering it to their old wineskins of paradigm, perspective, and requirements. Done sincerely, not maliciously, and yet definitely counterproductive.

Ordination may be the “presenting problem,” but it seems to me that the real issue is far deeper, and if that is not addressed, everything else becomes irrelevant. The real problem is that “pioneering” requires contextualization to emerging cultures; sounds like these systems, trainings, etc., do not contextualize to the very students that they want to contextualize ministry. In effect, pioneering should ensure *continuance* of the Church but those in charge seem to be opting for *continuity* instead. They are not the same thing and mere continuity with the systems and structures of the past will not work for the future.

That doesn’t mean these leaders who tether the process to the past are inherently “bad” people. It’s more like they are colorblind, and so it is impossible for them to distinguish the differences between certain colors. Then the real question becomes, Will you recognize your visual limitation, and allow someone who is not colorblind to lead you into the multi-colored land of the future? And that willingness or unwillingness, actually, could be seen as a character issue …

There are similar situations here in the US with church planting assessments, “emerging church” consultations, training programs, congregational surveys, etc., where sincere but “colorblind” managers attempt to assess what is, with what was.

So, main point: Our training systems typically produce graduates who are relatively colorblinded to the spectrum of nuances in spiritual growth. So, they use what they already knew to assess spiritual maturity.

I addressed some similar things in my addendum post about apples and oranges help us understand impact in emerging cultures, about how we tend to rely on what we know instead of adjust for those we’re serving. I also agree that if we’re simply using what we’ve been given, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily bad people or bad leaders. However, once we learn of other options, then we have the opportunity to choose to act differently. I know … that’s hard to do. Ideally speaking, we should see course corrections as a gift, not as a curse. But hey, how often do I get defensive when my perspective or conclusions are challenged?

So, if we don’t change our questions, how can we ever get better answers? Glad Willow Creek is exploring the questions they’re asking. I don’t deny that their church has had positive impact from the questions they’ve asked in the past, and the ones they are asking now. However, I suspect from what I’ve already read that they and I will come to some vastly different conclusions. Here are some questions I ask these days about programs and presentations and growth:

  • What “hidden curriculum” controls the ministry systems, and how do these underlying assumptions, and their logical implications, influence people?
  • How do our programs potentially pre-condition people toward a less than optimal growth path, or otherwise preempt the best by focusing on the good?
  • In selecting the strategies and structures that we did, we precluded other options. What might otherwise have been? Did we consider enough other options and their likely scenarios before settling in on what we did?

Anyway, there can always be more questions, better questions. Better to be on the move with possibilities to improve, than to be static and automatically stagnate.


Greg finishes the chapter with a movie-based illustration on how a person’s heart grows when he or she is transformed. (No details here … no spoilers allowed!) What could happen if we could see that in the realm of spiritual growth?

Then we could learn what the church is doing to help the spiritual growth process. We would have a better idea of how best to spend our time and our resources. We would know which ministries to start, which ones to change and which ones to shut down altogether. We would know for sure if we’re really making a difference.

And we would be more confident to spend any surprise million-dollar gifts that come our way. (page 16)

Again I notice an emphasis on things – on the what, not the who. That reminds me of when I took a seminary course on Introduction to Church Planting in the year 2000. As I recall, during the first class, the very first question was, “What is the church?” I remember krinkling my brow, listening to a series of responses about what happens at churches, and then eventually raising my hand to offer a relationally-oriented answer to the unasked question of “WHO is the church?” Not that the what’s can’t affect the who’s, it’s just that I guess the who of something as my first focus has been there for a fairly long time. Is this who versus what emphasis an indicator of humanistic systems versus mechanistic systems?

Back to the opening scenario about using a million-dollar gift for Kingdom expansion, I find my mind keeps returning to qualitative issues of the “viral few” WHO I would choose to invest in, instead of quantitative issues of HOW MANY programs or WHAT programs I would use or HOW I would reach as many people immediately as possible. Still think I would find a few fairly mature disciples who know how to disciple others – and as I’m sitting here blogging this, I realize that I applied a set of criteria for what spiritual maturity is about, and that’s how I picked the half-a-dozen or so people who’d be at the top of my list to invest in financially.

Hmmm … maybe this means I need to do another addendum post with some more specifics about those profile criteria. I’ll think and pray about that … not necessarily in that order … But regardless of what comes of that, here is at least a snapshot of the intuitive assessment I used.

By “spiritually mature disciple,” I mean they have a lifestyle of sharing life together with others, listening carefully, providing core biblical knowledge, helping protégés and peers consider applications of Scripture to life situations, becoming increasingly sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and demonstrating a heart like the Father’s that embraces people unconditionally while still challenging them toward Christlike transformation. As each of these men and women worked with a few other people each, I know them well enough to see they could invest their knowledge and wisdom with a return in the development of others’ character, worldview, and ministry skills.

There’s more to the growth process and finding ways to measure it, but I’ll save that for some other time.

(Sidenote: Frankly, I’m not terribly interested in quantitative growth simply in order to create “economies of scale” and related “efficiency and effectiveness.” Missional groups that grow aren’t likely to be huge anyway, because they are bounded by commitment to a neighborhood. If people are commuting into the ‘hood, how can that be good?)

Final note. I suspect Greg and I are not on the same trajectory toward Christlikeness. That doesn’t mean we have different goals, only that our very different starting places dictate we go on different trajectories toward that same goal. For me to try to make them conform to my starting place of assumptions, values, guiding theological principles, operating systems, etc., would be to hijack them. Or vice versa. Not helpful. Not doing it. Just need to reflect on those differences and their implications for these ambles. Each of us as disciples is responsible for our own journey toward the goal, and we need to be okay with each other having different routes as long as we share the same final destination. So – that ain’t universalism, or colonialism, it’s contextualism.

Unless I post some kind of addendum on assessments for spiritual growth/maturity, the next amble will pick up with Chapter 2 by Greg Hawkins, What Happened When Willow Asked, “Where Are We?”

4 thoughts on “Ambles through Willow Creek’s Reveal Part 4-Are You Really Making a Difference?

  1. Hullo-o-o Brother…

    here’s my paradigmatic question… if we can approach these matters when we’re handed a million dollars, why don’t we just do the same things without it?

    It seems to me Jesus was more consistently concerned with people giving away their earthly wealth and trusting God for provision. I understand that in contemporary western culture we live in a different context… BUT… I speak to some extent from experience.

    Eight years ago, sensing God’s prompting, with a full time job and a wife and baby at home, we began a journey to reorient the spiritual climate of a local community towards the God of the Bible. We spent our own money and some friends gave us some money, I worked full-time often over 60 hours a week and then spent time with people and helped them on their journey to connect in Christ. I’m not sure that a gift of $1m wouldn’t actually short circuit some of the faith building and recognition of long term commitment required to build authentic relationships that will ultimately make a difference to the spiritual climate of our community over the course of generations.

    Eight years on I work bi-vocationally, by choice, because it frees up finances from the communitychurch to invest in our wider community and in others. We serve a communitychurch of Christ followers that continues to grow and impact our local community in many and varied ways… we serve young and old, restoring authentic community wherever we can.

    One example – as a community we sensed God calling us to care for widows and orphans and have chosen to go to Uganda to build a house for victims of AIDs and civil war. 11 people are paying their own way to go – 8 of them under 25 years old, who have connected in Christ through connection in the communitychurch. However we also understand the implications of thinking “glocal.”

    We have been raising finance for this in our local community, rather than seeing this as a “church” thing. We’ve held bingo nights, children’s disco’s, trivia nights in the local pubs and clubs – all connecting with people and serving in our community. We have a sponsored walk coming up involving all sorts of other local community groups.

    Local people will have made an investment in the work of the gospel, they’ll have contributed to God’s mission, they have a sense of ownership in a Kingdom initiative even before they connect in Christ. We’ll submit an article with photos to our local press, after the event updating our local community on what THEY have achieved. Having $1m might tempt the church to remain isolated from that wonderful opportunty to engage people with their Father’s heart for others… before they have a sense of knowing God.

    The question of ordination is an interesting one, but one perception is that it generally only becomes an issue when we are beholden to someone who holds the purse strings – when that person is God is His provision sign of His ordination? God may well choose to provide by handing me $1m, but I’d also suspect that the devil might offer me the kingdoms of the world to worship him… just a few random thoughts!


    The Wandering Celt

  2. Hi Celtic Son, my Virtual Abby friend. Glad to have you drop in!

    I quite agree with your reasoning, and was reminded of the the butterfly and chrysalis; if the butterfly doesn’t struggle to get out of the cocoon, it dies not flies. Isn’t struggle always a critical part of final development and threshold of transformation before the next stage, whether we’re butterflies or have disciple eyes? And wow … if we of the Abby (and many many others) had expected the guarantee of funds up front in order to do something for the kingdom, or continue our work, I suspect the kingdom would have shut down long ago. Which it hasn’t. Hmmm …

    … so, like, God is not gold-bound when we are kingdom goal bound!

    Good to know …

  3. Yo! Hello Andrew! Good to hear from you, as always. The more I keep plugging away through the Reveal book and do bits and pieces of reading in other books and blogs, the more I see that there are very very different approaches to thinking, research, strategizing, etc. Fascinating, yet practical. Guess that’s why it’s been a passion to understand paradigms. I remember a quote from the Christian Studies Institute in Canada from, oh … must’ve been the 1970s … “Ideas have legs.” But where are those “legs” taking us … ? Anyway, I’ll keep plugging away at this, and try to remember at the end of the trail to do a post that summarizes the key research paradigm differences.

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