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?