Journeyman Project Dispatches from the Life of Patrick Fowler: Christianity Explored


The Willow Creek Rumor of Repentence

I feel compelled to write this…I’m embarrassed and ashamed of many of my Christian brothers. For months I’ve been hearing repetitions of a rumors that Willow Creek released a pretty major statement of “repentance”…that it feels the seeker sensitivity movement was an incorrect view of church, and that they’ve since changed the way they’re doing church. News that would be headline-worthy…IF were really true. That’s where the shame comes in. I am taken back at the number of times I’ve heard this rumor recalled by friends and “church people". So many have been willing to share the news, but none had any reputable source to back their claim. Why share something if you are not sure it’s true? Willow Creek is a very well know association with a reputation of integrity…so why didn’t anyone think the rumor deserved research? (Hang on everyone, this is destined to be a long entry)

Ok. Enough venting… Do you want the real story? I hope so. At this point the rumor is so widespread, it may not matter that a few of us know the real story (which is why I’m so upset). But let’s you and I get the story straight. In fact, though I’ll do my best to summarize it below, I suggest you watch the full 20 minute video presentation for yourself at Willow Creek’s Reveal website ( That way I’m not accused of misstating the truth either. For those of you who only have a moment right now (and trust my account of the news)…here are the cliffnotes from the video.

First and foremost, Willow Creek is not ashamed of any of it’s programming…it has been innovating the process of reaching seekers and building believers for decades…and it’s done a excellent job of both designing programs and teaching others to build them too. And it is certainly still proud of it’s often-ridiculed seeker-sensitive programs. However, like any results-focused organization, it took the initiative to measure the performance of it’s programs recently…and in doing so, they were very disappointed with the feedback they received regarding their programs for maturing believers (not seekers). They believe in excellence, and their programs in one area of the church were properly funded, well-run, and world-renowned, but they were not effectively accomplishing the church’s bottom line…deep discipleship. So what did they do about it? They started to make changes to their programming.

Now, here’s the key point in the rumor. Willow Creek represents the mother church in the Willow Creek Association…a world-renowned collection of churches with similar programs and purposes based upon the model of their mother church. 13,000 Member Churches from 90 denominations and 45 countries, to be exact.

So Willow Creek has made quite a discovery and has decided to change it’s programs. That’s quite a realization. That’s the easy part, however. Now, how does Willow Creek effectively share those results and the necessary changes to the thousands of churches across the world who are deeply committed to the traditional Willow Creek model? How do you collectively tell everyone, “Hey, we’re making a VERY important change here, and you need to understand why, and how to change with us.” You probably don’t send an email, or make a quick call to all of those churches. Willow Creek chose to spend an entire session on the topic at their yearly leadership training event…the Leadership Summit. More than that, they made their findings accessible to everyone at the event by giving them a copy of the research and their conclusions. Bill Hybels even announced the research findings as the “wake up call of his adult life".

Follow up:

Now we’re getting somewhere. We know “the news” and we know where it came from. Let’s do one more thing. Let’s consider the rumor for a moment. How did the news that Willow Creek was changing programs get skewed into the announcement that Willow Creek was sorry for being seeker sensitive?

Well, most notably, someone wrote an article about it, poorly titled, “Willow Creek Repents?” and got it published on every Christian website imaginable. (Read the original article here) Then, (I would suggest) a lot of critics of the seeker sensitive church spread the news…and tarnished the reputation of one of the world’s most effective evangelistic associations.

I think that’s just embarrassing!

I might be proven wrong one day…but when I hear negative news about the church, Catholic or Protestant, Baptist or Methodist, I have to make sure I heard the facts before I spread the news. I carry guilt around by sharing news that is not fully mine to share. I have to see the source for myself. And I hate to hurt the reputation of anyone or anything…even when the news is really true.

I think this one has truly hurt the body of Christ on earth. I only wish somehow, we could see the damage we’ve done from heaven’s viewpoint. May God give grace to our loose lips and hateful hearts. There are many churches who don’t do things the way I would do them…but who am I to judge strategy? Jesus didn’t give us strategy for reaching the world. He gave us guidelines and insights. He gave us His Spirit. And He gave us unique gifts. Let’s use them for the edification of all believers, and all churches!!!

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