June 25, 2008
Out of Ur Repents?
Marshall Shelley responds to Willow’s Revealing YouTube video.
In October 2007, Out of Ur posted what has now become a much read and much quoted commentary that we titled "Willow Creek Repents?" It was based on comments that Bill Hybels and Greg Hawkins, Willow Creek's executive pastor, presented at The Leadership Summit 2007, announcing the release of Reveal, a book emerging from an extensive study of Willow and other churches.
Earlier this month, Bill Hybels and Jim Mellado, president of the Willow Creek Association, posted a video on YouTube objecting to the "misinformation" published by Out of Ur and our sister publication Christianity Today regarding Reveal.
The week following the release of the video, I went to South Barrington to meet with leaders of Willow Creek to hear their concerns face to face, which was a very helpful experience. They shared with me new approaches to ministry prompted by Reveal that are in process and things they are not ready to have published. I will honor their trust. I certainly affirm the steps Willow is taking to more effectively turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ.
I do need to respond publicly to two items that were aired in the YouTube video.
1. What does it mean to "repent"?
In the video, Bill Hybels says of the title "Willow Creek Repents?":
"I wondered, What horrible, immoral thing have I done? I think it was a poor choice of words, actually. . . . I don't think when you make a strategic adjustment, it qualifies under the term repent. I think every evangelical knows that's kind of a loaded-up term, and I think someone wanted to get some action on a blog, and I think it was very unfortunate and quite disingenuous to title the article that way."
Okay. It did get attention on the blog, and the term provided Willow critics in the blogosphere a chance to gloat. But the gloaters were misreading both the blog post and the Reveal study. We have high regard for the ministry at Willow Creek and feel terrible that our wording led to a misrepresentation of what was actually happening. For that we apologize.
At Out of Ur, a blog for pastors engaging today's culture, we assumed our readers would know that repent means (literally) "to turn" or "to change your mind." Our editors have been reading authors in spiritual formation that suggest repentance is not just a dramatic shift "from sin to holiness," but instead repenting is a daily realigning of life to follow Jesus, a shift "from off course to on course." This is the meaning that comes to our minds first.
Yes, a common connotation of "repent" is "to renounce sinful ways." That's NOT what we meant, as the blog post itself bears out. Out of Ur intended the word repent to refer to a mid-course correction to follow Christ, which is the way Greg Hawkins took it in his follow-up post when he wrote, "repenting is not a new experience for us. We've made a number of major course corrections over the years."
We do NOT think Willow Creek needs to "renounce sinful ways" for their pre-Reveal strategies. The real breakthrough of the Reveal initiative is in fact the discovery of a better way to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies to reach people far from God and equip them to live Christ-Centered lives. Willow is using this information to get better at that mission.
We thought our readers would understand our use of the word repent. But many took it differently.
2. Is Willow shifting from its seeker orientation?
The YouTube video emphasized Willow's 32-year commitment to the same mission statement: "to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ." The video also suggested that Out of Ur's coverage was written "without a proper understanding of what we're actually doing these days."
That's true. Things are different now than when we wrote our October blog post. And we did not present the whole picture. We emphasized the changes that Willow was announcing at the Summit; we did not give sufficient space to the things that were not changing. That's a besetting sin of us journalists, I'm afraid - assuming that change is more newsworthy than continuity.
When Christianity Today wrote recently that "After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church now plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers," we did not describe the church's approach with enough precision.
In Greg Hawkins' October post, he wrote:
"Is Willow re-thinking its seeker focus? Simple answer ? no ? Willow is not just seeker-focused. We are seeker-obsessed. The power of Reveal's insights for our seeker strategy is the evangelistic strength uncovered in the more mature segments."
In April, Hawkins commented further on the ways Willow is including mature believers in its approach to reach seekers.
Our coverage was based on statements in the Reveal book and on Hawkin's comments in the April post. Turns out we were wrong, however, to interpret those comments to mean that Willow's services were shifting focus from seekers to more mature believers. Now, in hindsight, we see that what's changed is not the focus on seekers, but the assumptions of what a "seeker service" is. For thirty years, the prevailing assumption has been that seekers want anonymity and do not want to participate in worship. Now we understand that Willow is as seeker-focused as ever, but the definition of "seeker service" is changing. Willow is now finding ways for seekers to participate in worship, to be connected and known. And even more innovations are in the works.
The story of Reveal's implications is a work in process. In the future, we will be more precise in our descriptions of what Willow is doing, and we look forward to telling more of the story as it becomes available. We're determined to get it right.