Silver bullets

I was surprised to hear about Willow Creek’s recent admission that their approach to gathering in and nurturing young Christians is not working. It didn’t surprise me that the approach has failed, but when was the last time you heard that a ministry even looked to see if its approach was succeeding, much less reported its weakness to the world?

I remember being very surprised to read in Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided that the Billy Graham organization has known for decades that its crusades produce almost nothing in the way of lasting fruit; most of the attendees are already well established in local churches, and of those who make decisions at a crusade only one or two percent will be found attending a church one year later. And yet the crusades continue.

The church landscape is littered with the remains of past enthusiasms—crusades, discipleship, Promise Keepers, bible study groups, small groups, accountability groups, Sunday schools, evangelistic services, youth groups, Evangelism Explosion, short-term mission trips, forty days of promise—all of which promised the moon, none of which were ever examined after the fact to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Trends that are likely to soon become past enthusiasms—contemporary worship, courtship, betrothal, patriarchy, liturgical worship, family integrated worship, church discipline, relevance, the emerging church—are pursued with the blindest of faith: surely this one is the silver bullet.

I expect Shakespeare or Chesterton or Lewis could provide me with an illustrative quote if I looked, but all that comes to mind is this:

Bullwinkle: Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

Rocky: But that trick never works!

Bullwinkle: This time for sure!

(reaches into hat, pulls out a lion or rhino or something else fierce …)

Bullwinkle: Hmm … gotta get me a new hat.

As with most purveyors of silver bullets, it doesn’t occur to Bullwinkle that his repeated failure to pull a rabbit out of his hat indicates that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t qualified to be in the pulling-rabbits-out-of-hats business. Surely the hat was the problem. Surely a new hat will fix the problem.

It seems to me that past failures at meddling in people’s lives should raise serious questions about a meddler’s qualifications to meddle at all. But the world at large doesn’t agree with me on this. And so I wasn’t surprised to find this at the end of the article about Willow Creek:

Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he’s asking us to transform this planet.

As the writer points out, isn’t this exactly what the Willow Creek team tried with its seeker sensitive model—tried, with miserable results? Should we expect that their new insights will be any wiser than the ones they just discarded?

Should we be at least mildly skeptical of those who tell us that some novel, unproven approach will surely work where others have repeatedly failed? Especially if they themselves have yet to succeed at solving a problem?


26 thoughts on “Silver bullets

  1. Rick – while I whole heartedly agree with you on the absurdity of ‘fad Christianity’, I’m not sure that is what Willow Creek is doing (I have no affiliation with and little knowledge of WC, btw). If every approach to faith is labeled as a fad, then what do we have left? I think a periodic revisiting of assumptions is essential to my faith and without it believers are apt to forget those assumptions and plod forward out of sheer momentum.
    Seth in NC –
    I truly enjoy your blog btw; a daily stop.

  2. Rick,
    Is the problem with what is being said or the way it is packaged (books, conferences, etc…) and then adopted (blindly)? Do you see any wisdom in any of the items you listed or are they all just pointless fads?

  3. Wow…interesting post! We are about to think that the FATHER will call who HE will and HE knows who will come…seems our job is basically just do our best to live out our faith in every way…

    Some years ago we heard the statistics that of those who are known to have come, 85% came before the age of 18. Sobering thought…

  4. Rick,
    I agree completely about the meddler’s qualifications. So many people follow what a man tells them without ever looking to see if the man has accomplished that which he is promoting. I have seen many who profess to have all the answers on how to raise children, and when they began promoting these ideas, their oldest child was …5. I want to say, “Get back to me when you’ve applied these principles for 18 years and your children have turned out fine.”

    Though many of the things you listed will go out of fashion, I think some of them will last for those who hold to them based on strong conviction, not fashion. For instance, we have held to the principle of courtship for nearly 20 years, and with 5 daughters, I don’t see that changing. In courtship/betrothal there are at least 10 different methods, and they each have a person stating that their’s is “the Biblical” way. In reality in our family alone, each “courtship” for our daughters, may look totally different.

    I think part of the problem is that people “try on” fads, without deeply looking into them and think that they are one size fits all. So many of these fads are extra-Biblical and we have to see them as such and as guidelines, not law.

    If the people participating in these things are doing so because that’s what they hear at the latest conference, and are blindly following the latest guru…. then yes, they will probably just as easily jump on the next bandwagon.

  5. Seth,

    If every approach to faith is labeled as a fad, then what do we have left?

    I don’t think it is the approach that is a fad, but the institutionalization of an approach while it is still unproven. Willow Creek proceeded as if its assumptions were true, and sold their model that way; only now, twenty years on, billions of dollars later, millions of members later (counting all the churches who embraced their model) does Willow Creek look to see whether those assumptions were as solid as they claimed. It would have been wiser to try out that model on a modest scale for twenty years, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and then decide whether or not to promote it to the church at large—wiser, but not as glamorous or profitable.


    Is the problem with what is being said or the way it is packaged (books, conferences, etc…) and then adopted (blindly)? Do you see any wisdom in any of the items you listed or are they all just pointless fads?

    I think there is wisdom in each and every one of the items I listed. The problem is in the packaging, or, more accurately, the fact that they are packaged at all.  For any given item, the wisdom to be found there is not comprehensive and not always easy to apply to a concrete situation. In order to turn the wisdom into a comprehensive, easily applied, off-the-shelf package it is necessary to fill in blanks that the wisdom either does not speak to at all, or does not give a neat answer for. Soon enough the wisdom is obscured by a bunch of extra stuff which sounds good and might work but is not derived from wisdom or experience.


    Though many of the things you listed will go out of fashion, I think some of them will last for those who hold to them based on strong conviction, not fashion. For instance, we have held to the principle of courtship for nearly 20 years, and with 5 daughters, I don’t see that changing.

    Your recent post on how your raise your daughters is a fine example of wisdom that has been transformed by others into a fad. Our family is very much in agreement with your thinking—and also very much repelled by what we hear from sources that have turned the principle of courtship into a merchandisable thing. The wisdom of courtship will not fade, but I think that in ten years the books, websites, and teachers who trumpeted courtship as the next big thing in Christian circles will look faintly ridiculous to us.

  6. I agree with what Elizabeth has said. Sure we have to do some things, but our job is not to figure out how to most effectively reach out to people. We just live our lives in day-to-day faith and let God take care of it. Any of our “convictions” can never be “silver bullets” to successful life. If that were the case, we’d be in charge of our lives rather than God.

  7. Rick,
    Thanks so much for your encouragement.

    I’m going to go out here on a thin limb. Gene and I have been talking about the commercialization of Christianity lately. Examining the validity of the selling of “ideas” and “Biblical Truths.” The thought that occurred to me was, would Paul have written his letter to Thessalonica and then told them he would sell it to the church for 10 shekels, so they could learn what God had to say to them? Isn’t that what all these “experts” are doing? I could understand them selling them for cost, but to make a profit off of the truths of God? I know, I’m probably way out there… but these are just thoughts that have been going through my head. They were prompted because Gene wrote an evangelistic novel and we were trying to decide what to do about publication. Our goal is to get the message into the hands of people, not to make a profit off of it. I have by no means come to any firm conclusions on this, I just see it as a concern. The same would be true of worship music. There again, I’m unsure of the lines and clarity on this escapes me. Any thoughts?

  8. Lora said….

    “I could understand them selling them for cost, but to make a profit off of the truths of God? I know, I’m probably way out there… but these are just thoughts that have been going through my head.”

    Well, I’m glad that I’m not the only person out there that has had those “thoughts running through my head”. It has been bothering me for some time, I mean if people were really conserned about getting “the truth” out to people, then why mark “the truth” up 40% over the cost of production and SELL it…. why not give it away? There seem to be an awful lot of For Profit “ministries” out there these days. Some have some very good and edifing things to offer….. but at a profit of course.

  9. I have often had the same thoughts expressed by Lora and Scott but concerning the abortion industry… if those medical personal really feel that what they are doing is the best for their clients — why do they charge them money. Why not donate those “services” if they feel that strongly.
    It’s sad that the love of money is the driving force in the lives of most of us.

  10. Hi Rick,
    Been enjoying reading your blog since you started…

    Lora and Scott, I’ve been THINKING the SAME thing for years. If you found truth and it affected you the way the gospel and the blood of Christ does, How CAN YOU sell it? I’ve never understood how this is such an acceptable, un-thought out thing. It’s as if you hold live giving truth back from people until it is a marketable money making venture. (Of course you can’t hold back God, but you know what I mean?) And I’ve used Paul as an example, too.

    Sure it takes time and honed talent and money to publish books that articulate the truth, as you, Rick, well know. But how many books could have been published with all the money spent on crusades? And then walked over to your neighbors house instead of shipped UPS to all 50 states?

    Everytime I would think these thoughts, something told me that I must be missing something because nobody else ever says this. What AM I missing?

  11. I so appreciate you sharing these insights here, Rick. I have found much food for thought. So much of what I bought into all these years has been mere ideology. I think that when I became a Christian at age 27, I thought naively that the church had a clue. I had no idea that so much of what I embraced back then was so much chaff and stubble. I must admit that my faith here lately has taken quite a beating because of all the Reformed scandals, as I had thought I had finally found my “silver bullet”. Deary me, was I wrong! Due to that fact, I have pulled back from nearly everything “evangelical” and have struggled to know where to safely step next. Do you find that to be the case, as well?

  12. Thank for the insight, Rick. When we first read that article Randy said almost the same thing to me that you are saying here; he just forgot to throw in the quote from Rocky and Bullwinkle which was quite appropriate. :o)

  13. My wife and I attended Willow Creek for about 6 weeks; and we were in churches built on WCA principles for much longer than that. I left feeling more comfortable but dumber every week. The legacy of the church growth movement, whatever its incarnation or champion (Peter Wagner, Schuller, Hybels, Warren), is more shallow Christians than true disciples. I’m deeply grateful to be in a church that preaches the gospel and teaches the Scriptures.

    @Lora and Scott: Having worked in the Christian publishing industry for one of the biggies, and for one of the larger personal ministries in the country, I can certainly see your point. Not a day went by that I didn’t wonder why we did what we did. We spent days figuring out what product to repackage or cobble together from others or have someone write for some personality. And for what? Profit.

    In the end, I think it reflects the American church’s surrender to (and worship of) capitalism. “Everything can be bought and sold . . . and should be,” it says, and the rank and file church member falls right in step, lining up for the latest book by the hottest “teacher.”

  14. Jamie,
    It’s nice to have someone from the “inside” confirm what I have believed.

    It’s so nice to find out I’m not alone in my thinking on this subject. It’s been one of those things Gene and I discuss behind closed doors. Most people would think we had seriously gone over the top. I get weary of having those in the church establishment shaking their heads at me while stating, “You really just don’t get it. This is the way things are done.”

  15. Not that I am a fan of Einstein, but he did say something along the lines that the thinking that created a problem rarely solves the problem.

    Two bad signs.
    1.) “informed by research”
    2.) use of the phrase “the way that we do church”. [Emphasis mine].

  16. I must admit that my faith here lately has taken quite a beating because of all the Reformed scandals, as I had thought I had finally found my “silver bullet”. Deary me, was I wrong! Due to that fact, I have pulled back from nearly everything “evangelical” and have struggled to know where to safely step next. Do you find that to be the case, as well?


    It got easier when we stopped putting our faith in teachers and began to rely on our own ability to discern what was wise and what was foolish. Since then we’ve noticed that these faddish movements are often built around a straightforward, easily grasped, and attractive Biblical truth, e.g. parents should take responsibility for training up their children. The mistake is to think that the movement somehow embodies the truth (enfleshes it, even) when in fact it has usually encumbered it with a lot of extra-Biblical baggage so as to turn it into a complete system that people can use as a substitute for thoughtfulness.

    I’d like to be generous and say that the teachings offered by these movements are useful for gleaning, that you can profitably eat the fish while leaving the bones on the plate. But in fact I think the teachings are mostly bones, while the meat can be easily procured from unglamorous tradtional sources.

    Our approach these days is simple: rather than relying on learned experts, we search out wisdom for ourselves, test it against the Bible for ourselves, do what we can to put it into effect in our daily lives, and trust that God will honor our feeble but genuine efforts to live a life pleasing to Him.

  17. Thanks Rick. I guess with all this changing going on in my thinking I have wanted to be in the company of like-minded folks/teachers, but it seems that that is not such an easy thing to find. We are regularly visiting a PCA church that is very active and busy. Sometimes I’m happy about that and sometimes I’m not. It’s a very solid, friendly church with lots of ministries to get involved in, if you wish to. For the most part, I don’t, except in the quieter ones like the food pantry or gathering care package items for the military. Nearly every time we are there we are admonished to “get involved” in Sunday School and youth group. I’ve seen the youth pastor eyeing our kids and looking at us as if he can’t figure out why we haven’t “handed over” our older two to him yet. Maybe he takes it personally. I don’t know. I know we should talk to him, but I am afraid he will talk us into “giving it a chance”. After hearing so much negative talk about both concepts via the whole family-integrated movement it’s hard for me to make myself get involved these days, not so much in SS, but definitely in the youth group. Yet, if we don’t get involved we will be seen as oddballs. I’ve looked a bit into a local FI church, but the controlling tone they set gives me the creeps. The churches that do things the “old-fashioned” way seem very hard to find, and often they have their own weirdness to deal with. The Willow Creek model is heavily influencing many churches in our area with the whole slick, feelings-oriented way of doing things. Sometimes I’m just so tempted to stick with this more mainstream PCA church which doesn’t buy into the current faddish stuff, even though it’s very uncomfortable for me because of the heavy emphasis on programs.

    This past Sunday, a lay pastor scolded the congregation for a goodly number of us not being there on Wednesdays (youth group night) or Sunday nights, or not “being involved” more. It’s expected that we let our lives be enveloped by church. *sigh* Is it wrong for that to bother me? My children don’t want to be in the youth programs and I don’t want them to be. But it is expected and I’m weary of being asked about it. Hope you don’t mind me dumping a bit here. But you can probably sense my frustration.

  18. Well, for what it’s worth, Kim, I’m right there with you…in a large PCA church with lots of programs, politely declining many activities, including youth group. But I decline with a smile on my face, and don’t apologize. (I used to.) I think they’re getting used to me!

    I don’t think there’s a perfect church out there, because obviously there are no perfect people. Every time I start to wish for more likeminded people in mine, I realize a couple of things: One is that “likemindedness” often exudes a certain pressure of its own, and that my best friendships are taken rather loosely. The other is that God uses that rub that comes from living among people who apply the gospel differently to force me to rely more directly on Him. At the very least, it’s hard for me to get the idea that my way is the only way!

    But you do have my sympathy, because it can be a challenge at times to be *cheerfully* different.

    Rick, I enjoyed the article and am following this thread with interest. There’s really just no substitute for the hard work of wrestling with God, but I suppose it’s awfully tempting to look for silver bullets, especially by looking to management models in business.

  19. Thanks for your input, Laura. I’d just like to settle down instead of stressing over going to church every week. Really, if I didn’t have kids, this would be a lot easier. But since I know how we “do church” influences them, and since I’ve already raised 2 and see all the mistakes we made in raising them, I guess I’m trying to “do things right” this time and probably will fail in different ways! I know I’m focused too much on the outside – how things look, but the outside does influence the inside; at least it does for me. It’s the whole church culture being influenced by the world culture thing that I’m wrestling with. I would’ve been going my happy way were it not for the bloggers that have gotten me to thinking about how church/raising children ought to be done. Dern idealists! lol

  20. I’m not for the commercialization of Christianity, so don’t get me wrong. But what saith the Lord?

    “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?”

    1 Corinthians 9:3-14 (KJV)

    3 Mine answer to them that do examine me is this, 4 Have we not power to eat and to drink? 5 Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? 7 Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? 8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? 10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. 11 If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? 12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ. 13 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? 14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.

  21. Don’t we sometimes need the books, teachers, weblogs, or….to help out our thinking about things that maybe we don’t have a good understanding of? I think of some child raising books that I have read that really helped me to see some Biblical truths that I just wasn’t seeing before. Then because of the changes it brought in my family, I have given copies to friends in hopes that they could share in the rewards of a more deliberate approach to raising their children. Or how about the whole agrarian idea, I mean, it has been a long and winding road with alot of reading that has helped me to see things a little more clearly. Though I do refrain from being too generous with Henry and the Great Society, much as I want to give it to every one I know. How do we share the things that impact our lives without jumping on the bandwagon? Maybe I am just young and naive, but I sometimes run across an idea that is IT for me because I’ve never understood it before. Like Amusing Ourselves to Death, I’ve not liked TV for some time because I could see the negative effects of it on families, but I had never considered it with the depth that it is dealt with there. Or to read Herrick Kimball who writes with such a refresingly beautiful love of the good life. Or here, I have really gleaned alot from Rick, and I am deeply grateful that you all took the time to write these things for those of us who need to hear it. It’s not the new, novel idea that I need but the reminder of the truth of the tried and true that has been so lost in our modern society.

  22. Angela,

    Over the years I’ve begun to wonder if some of the tools we use to cope with the pressures of modern life are in fact helping to perpetuate those pressures. In Robert Wuthnow’s book Sharing the Journey I was surprised to read that the small group movement, supposedly a reaction to the loss of community, was actually accellerating the destruction of community by providing a cheap and easily accessible alternative to those who were suffering from its loss.

    In the same vein, I wonder if the explosion of teachings about how to live the Christian life, supposedly a reaction to our increasingly secular society, is in fact accellerating the secular trend by making it easier for Christians to exist comfortably in such a society. We ease the pain of not living in a stable, multi-generational Christian community by turning our energies to studying what others have to say about such a life. Like a friend once said, too many of us think we’re on a spiritual journey when in fact we’re watching a travelogue.

    Last night I started a book by Paul Starr about the history of medicine in America. At the beginning, doctors were generally looked down upon and their efforts to become licensed professionals were repeatedly rebuffed; Americans thought that health was primarily a domestic matter, handled mostly with traditional knowledge and supplemented by the expertise of lay healers. This became a problem as the country expanded west and people left the supportive environment of multi-generational communities to live in independent isolation, no longer having easy access to traditional knowledge for handling injuries and disease.

    What made things workable was the publication of a book called Domestic Medicine, written by a doctor who in general had no use for doctors. The book was a guide written for laymen covering most of what was known at the time about treating disease and injuries. It was phenomenally popular, as it was an important substitute for the community knowledge folks no longer had access to. But Starr speculates that the book was also responsible for initiating a change in the negative American attitude towards doctors; once folks got used to the idea of taking instructions from an authoritative source, i.e. a book, they were much more willing to do the same from a human expert.

    All that said, we have to deal with our circumstances as we find them. Pointing out that a book of expert knowledge can have a destructive effect on traditional community knowledge is not helpful to someone who needs the knowledge after the communities are long destroyed. Much of what our family has been able to do in reclaiming an older way of life has been made possible by books that describe that way of life.

    I don’t think that things like books or teaching ministries are evil, just dangerous, the danger being that we will be tempted to not simply glean wisdom from them, but to put our faith in them.

  23. I just looked up Wuthnow’s book on Amazon, read a few sample pages, and it looks really interesting. I see that he’s a Princeton sociologist. Do you think that he’s basically respectful of Christianity? From the excerpts I read, he seems to be.

    I’m not sure that small groups aren’t the best we can do with what we’ve got right now in the urban and suburban U.S., but I’m willing to read Wuthnow’s critique.

  24. Laura,

    When Wuthnow writes about Christians (and he does so often), he is sympathetic and perceptive. Also, Wuthnow sees small groups as a positive thing, a wholesome and helpful response to the inevitable encroachments of modern living; I’m the one who sees something darker in the examples he gives.

    It’s a good book, but you’ll only want to read it once, so try to borrow it from the library.

  25. It’s not in the NYPL, unfortunately, though some of his others are.

    One thing I think about a lot is that I still have an early childhood memory of my grandparents’ sort of community, but my daughter has no such thing. She has some great experiences that they didn’t, but lacks that sense of organic community that they had. (She wouldn’t have it even if she lived in their small town now, because that town has changed so, and was changing even when I remember it.) That said, we’re trying to make the best of our situation, and I’ve tried to pass down a few old-fashioned experiences that were helpful to me. The only thing for it in the end, however, is the grace of God.

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