Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Converts or Christians?"

I’ve never met Bill Hybels, but I like him. Hybels, as you know, is the founding pastor of the megachurch Willow Creek and is, arguably, also the founder of the so-called seeker church movement. Twenty-five years ago Hybels went door-to-door in suburban Chicago and asked people: Why don’t you go to church? He listened carefully to their responses and then fashioned his “seeker-sensitive” church to meet the perceived needs (or wants) of the seeker (some might say “customer”).

Now, a quarter of a century later Hybels and his staff commissioned a study of their church and its seeker model to gauge how successful they’d actually been. To say that the findings were disappointing would be an understatement. “It rocked my world,” Hybels said, to discover that a quarter of the people at his megachurch were either “stalled” in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the church and were considering leaving. His seeker-sensitive, entertainment-oriented, minimalist-content approach to church had created a congregation that was a mile wide and an inch deep, and he didn’t like it. To his credit, Hybels went public with his findings in a new book he published with Greg Hawkins, Willow Creek’s Executive Pastor, titled Reveal: Where Are You? The findings are instructive for everyone who cares about the Church of Jesus Christ.

Hybels, to his disappointment and chagrin, discovered that the seeker model had failed to deliver as promised; that people want to go deeper than the seeker model is designed to take them; and that they thought that more serious and disciplined Bible and doctrine study was the way to take them there. Moreover, Hybels discovered that people were leaving his megachurch to become Presbyterians or Lutherans or Episcopalians – ecclesiastical traditions that intentionally and purposefully connect people up with the 2,000-year history, ritual, and culture of the Christian faith. There is a difference, it seems, between making converts and making Christians.

And here’s why. The buzzword in the seeker model is “connections.” A primary strategy of church growth is to help people “make connections” with their group, whatever that “group” is. It is predicated on the assumption that if you can hook people by connecting them up to a group (any group it seems!), you’ve got them and your church will grow. True enough. But what Hybels found out is that connecting people up with each other doesn’t necessarily mean that you are connecting them up with God. That’s because the shape of the Church is cruciform. The Church, if it is the Church, connects us not only with each other (the horizontal dimension of Church), but also with God (the vertical dimension of Church). Leave out the latter and you don’t have the Church, just a club.

And the way you connect them up to God is not by entertaining them, but by enculturating them…by putting them in God’s Word (serious, substantive, historical Bible study), by teaching them the “faith once delivered to the saints” (the collective tradition, rituals, images, stories, and culture of the Christian faith), and by giving them the opportunity to be Christian rather than just sound Christian (to learn to empty their pockets for somebody else’s kids; to keep their promises even when it’s inconvenient; to do the right thing even when it’s not politically or professionally expedient; to touch the untouchable; to advocate for the Gospel as though there were something at stake). The Church can do that; a club can’t.

It was Dallas Willard, I believe, who quipped: “We act as though Jesus told us to ‘Go into all the world and make converts.’ He didn’t. He said: ‘Go into all the world and make disciples.’” That’s harder; it takes longer; and the way you do it is by both baptizing them and teaching them.

It’s not too late, Bill. It’s never too late!


Anonymous said...

What if we treat Christianity as what it really is: a Eastern religion.

Just a thought.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for your question, Joe.

If your point is that Christianity, having its roots in the Near Eastern religion of Judaism, is more interested in orthopraxy than orthodoxy (ethics over theology), point taken. But while Judaism has tended to eschew the speculative and esoteric in favor of the practical and ethical, it is certainly not without a theology. The three pillars of Judaism - monotheism, covenant, and law - are inherently theological, and the Jewish people for centuries have sought to work out for each new generation what those three key ideas mean.

Just a thought. rws

Anonymous said...

Dr. Stacy, you were my pastor when I was a child in Shelby, NC. I'm glad to see you've taken the blogosphere by storm. I look forward to more reflections!

Grace & Peace, Andrew Tatum

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Hi Andrew. Good to hear from you again. Thanks for your kind words about the blog.

Pax Christi,


valerie said...

I am so excited to find your blog. I have printed over 30 pages so that you can continue to inspire Mel and I. You brought the light into our lives during your ministry here in Jacksonville.

Thanks again for everything, and it is great to be with you again.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Stacy,

That was a powerful blog (wish i would have read it before submission of my research paper), especially the statement about making converts vs. making disciples. Do you think we (the church) are looking for short term / immediate results rather than focusing on biblical truth? Studying in your class this semester i have really been considering my approach to evangelism.

Thanks, Stephen