A. The Four Systemic Problems:

(         Willow Creek has a definite and clear purpose of making disciples at the core of all that they do. In their history, whenever they have lost this focus or it has become fuzzy, they have reorganized to restore disciple making as the primary priority of the church. Their current AReveal@ program is another such  reorganization. The networking approach of the seven step philosophy, neighborhood groups and insistence that members participate in groups ensures that no one enters the church as a stranger. Willow Creek places a high emphasis on relationships and social networks.

;         Willow Creek uses a relational network model, the Seven Step Philosophy,[1] but the focus of the network is to bring people into the church building for worship and other large group learning activities. Whenever evangelism is by invitation to a service of worship, no matter how emergent or creative that service is, one has an institutional church.Institutional churches promote attendance as spectators in events and activities which they believe cause spiritual growth through the presentation of information; Willow Creek=s growth is due to expanding the size of these events and using the contagious relational network to funnel people into them. Ministry is through organized programs; Willow Creek is a program base design church. While they are very creative, almost all of the activity of their church is large group oriented and entirely within the traditional wing of the church. The preferred means for learning is the large group bible study known as New Community with 6000 attending. The primary understanding is that God acts primarily through services of worship in the Atemple.@

Willow Creek=s self-image is modeled on the best practices of effective business corporations. According to a diffusion of innovation understanding, this model of forceful leadership stimulates resistance to change. They are more corporate than organic; they are, to use one of Bill Hybel=s favorite symbols, very ADutch.@

B. The Four Priorities of the cell church:

(         Jesus is certainly Lord at Willow Creek, and a corporate model leads to very specific goals and strategies. The Acontagious@ relational network and Yoido like neighborhood approach builds relationships in prevenient grace with the lost; these relationships create a Asort of small group@ that ministers to the lost person. To the extent that leadership can be taught in presentations at worship and conferences, no one does it better than Willow Creek. Their implementation of the metachurch model and insistence that all members participate in small groups ensures that the large group ministry of the church is balanced by nurturing, caring relationships in peer groups. The Network program for identifying spiritual gifts, calling and ministry goals is excellent.

;         The current AReveal@ study indicates the lack of a true equipping track at Willow Creek; what they have is weekend worship, followed by new community, followed by small group participation, followed by some sort of ministry service. Willow Creek prefers to primarily train and serve through events and programs rather than primarily through cells. Persons are not really taught to make disciples or mature them in small groups; that occurs during worship and conferences. Small groups do not multiply due to conversions. I would expect that mentoring within small groups is more peer-to-peer than mentor-to-disciple. While small group leaders are supported by coaches, the high expectation leadership development environment of the cell church management structure is not present; I would assume that small group coaches are not supervisory leaders nor do they function as leaders in the way Willow Creek normally defines leadership. I am not aware of specific goals or standards for prayer time or reading scripture or other standardized spiritual disciplines as expectations of members; I believe this is more a matter of individual decision than standardized training present in an equipping track.

C. The Five Stages of Spiritual Maturity:

(         Through the AReveal@ program, Willow Creek had identified an equipping track they call the spiritual continuum[2] consisting of Exploring Christianity (newborn), Growing in Christ (child), Close to Christ (teen) and Christ-centered (fully matured, i.e. spiritual adult). Their research indicates that they do very well with the first two levels; these levels can be well done in event and presentation based learning. The higher levels require interactive learning in small groups or mentoring relationships; Hybels= understanding of leadership has an excellent understanding of this but I expect the sheer size of numbers prevents them from providing this time intensive, high quality leadership to every individual. Network helps teens identify their ministry careers and they begin to work in the church.

;         The end result of the equipping track at Willow Creek is a spiritual adult in ministry, participating in a small group and contagiously inviting friends to worship at Willow Creek. The goal is to place lost persons upon the conveyor belt of weekend worship and the institutional church will take over responsibility for their spiritual growth from that involvement forward. Not only is this very traditional church, it is very far from the cell church concept of a parental responsibility for those converted.  Parents raise their children, teach them how to parent, and then help them parent as grandparents. The corporate model that has so influenced Willow Creek perceives people as leaders and workers but ignores their identity as parents and grandparents of families. When cells are perceived as gatherings of friends, there is no pressure to multiply; when cells are perceived as spiritual families, spiritual parents hunger for their children to grow up and begin their own families.

Conclusion: Willow Creek is Acellish@ but not a cell church. Cell church principles could significantly benefit their ability to care for multiple thousands of converts but would require significant changes in their corporate self-image and organizational culture.

[1]The evangelistic use of the relational network at Willow Creek is thoroughly explained in books by Mark Mittelberg and Bill Hybels such as Becoming A Contagious Christian and Becoming a  Contagious Church.

[2]Cf. Key Findings, http://www.revealnow.com/storyPage.asp?pageID=12.

NOTE (my response)



The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

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