What if you were at the helm of one of the most successful megachurches in the country and you discovered that one of the keys to your success wasn't really making your congregants better Christians? In the case of Bill Hybels, the founder and pastor of Chicago's Willow Creek Community Church, the answer was admirably direct: own up to the mistake and make a course correction.
Hybels's accomplishments have rightly become the stuff of evangelical legend. Since founding Willow Creek in the mid-1970s in a rented movie theater, the dynamic pastor shaped a church of some 125 congregants into the second-largest church in America. It now claims more than 20,000 members attending services either at its main, 155-acre campus in South Barrington or at one of its five satellite branches in the greater Chicago area. In addition to seeker-friendly services, Hybels instituted a host of programs or ministries catering to the needs of his steadily increasing flock. Those programs were often touted as the energizing force behind the church's growth and vitality.
But in 2004, Hybels gave the go-ahead to a rigorous congregational survey conducted by two staff members and a consultant. The results, published in a booklet titled Reveal: Where Are You? proved to be more than startling. Not all the news was bad, of course. Half of the congregation members reported that they "loved God more than anything else" and indicated that they were showing that love through service and evangelization. But those reporting being stalled in their faith and dissatisfied with the church reached 1 in 4. More jarringly to Hybels, the report showed that the strong emphasis on involving people in activities and programs was, after a point, problematic. Indeed, to the extent that it diminished individual responsibility for Bible study and other forms of personal spiritual development, it was even counterproductive. As he wrote in the foreword to his study, Hybels now saw that "the church and its myriad of programs have taken on too much of the responsibility for people's spiritual growth."
While the report has occasioned both stern and gentle "I told you so" rebukes from assorted Christian commentators, Hybels's forthrightness in owning up to the problem is one of the more remarkable stories from this exercise in ecclesiastical self-examination. Equally remarkable is his admission that the numbers of congregants may not be as important an indicator of church success as something that is finally much harder to measure: the congregants' real spiritual growth. Rather than crowing, religious leaders of all kinds might profitably subject their own congregations to similarly rigorous scrutiny.