Saturday, July 30, 2005

Willow Creek Community Church in the News

An article called The 50 Most Influential Churches by Michael J. McManus has been popping up the last couple of days. It reads more like a blog entry but has made it into some publications that sound like newspapers (Canton Repository, Royal Gazette.)

The part about Willow includes the phrase "if my memory of a visit ten years ago is correct." Jeesh. Here's an idea; call the church and ask somebody! Do newspapers have no standards?

Anyway, the article ends like this:
However, the bottom line is this. If there are now tens of thousands of seeker-friendly churches, who are attracting the unchurched, why has the number of unchurched Americans nearly doubled, according to pollster George Barna, from 39 million in 1991 to 75 million in 2004?
First of all, if it were true that the rate of unchurched people was growing at a significant rate, than the obvious answer would be that the segment of churches that is not growing is hemoraging people faster than the segment of churches that is growing can assimilate them.

However, just thirty seconds at and I found that Mr. McManus was not accurately representing the information.

According to the Barna Group "one-third of all adults (34%) remain 'unchurched.' That proportion has changed little during the past five years. However, because of the nation’s population continuing growth, the number of unchurched adults continues to grow by nearly a million people annually."

But still, the question remains, if megachurches are flourishing, why isn't church attendance on the rise, instead of just holding steady? There are probably many conributing factors to this, but one is the decline in attendance among hispanic Catholics.

The Barna group reports that "Catholics, whose doctrine defines absence from weekly church services to be a sin, are more likely than Protestants to stray from church events. Some of that gap is attributable to the above average percentage of Hispanics who have dropped out of the local church (41% of them are unchurched)."

This suggests that American churches (mainline and otherwise) need to do more to serve the hispanics in their areas. Are local congregations making available spanish language church services and events? Are they conducting themselves in a manner sensitive to the unique challenges faced by hispanic Americans?

Rather than take pot shots at easy targets like Saddleback and Willow we need to turn a critical eye inward and ask, what can my church do to reach the unchurched in my neighborhood?


Scott said...

However, the bottom line is this. If there are now tens of thousands of seeker-friendly churches, who are attracting the unchurched, why has the number of unchurched Americans nearly doubled, according to pollster George Barna, from 39 million in 1991 to 75 million in 2004?

The wording of this question basically insinuates that the reason for the supposed decline in church attendance is caused by the seeker-friendly churches. It's a pretty baseless accusation.

Good commentary Kim.

Friar Tuck said...

I think everyone is right.

There is a certain sense in which declining churches, like the one I am in need to do more in the way of outreach, or simply get out of the way.

There is also a sense in which people leave smaller churches for megachurches because they call for less commitment and personal interaction. I have seen this in many ways. And, to be honest, this is a major drawing point for my sister in considering attending Saddleback. She says, "I want to go to church, but I do not want to have to get involved or know anybody."

George Barna also hints at something else that is helpful. Demographic patterns. Most megachurches are enmeshed in the matrix of suburban, consumer culture (even if the eventually return to urban centers like Joel Osteen's church recently did)and are thus strategically situated for numerical growth.

There are two issues that are left out in this whole discussion.

One is the role of leadership. In my mind, most megachurches are spurred on by top notch leadership. Look at Willow. Look at Mars Hill in Michigan, and Saddleback. I contend that most of them are where they are today because they have entreprunurial wizards like Hybels, Bell (although he is loathe to admit it), and Warren.

Also, most of the most influential churches in America were started in the last 30 years. Many of the struggling churches are simply later on in their life cycle--a life cycle that all churches have.

Friar Tuck said...

OK, a few more thoughts after looking over the list.

1.) Most of these churches are in California, Texas and Georgia.

2.) Some of these churches are influential, but on the decline as well.

3.) No two megachurches are alike. I would find it difficult to lump together Willow and Fallwell's church for example.

4.) In order to get on this list you have to have increased your churches visibility often times in one of the following ways.

a. Write a book that people really like a lot, or at least ministers resonate with.

b. Have a TV ministry of some sort.

c. Get involved in partisan politics OR

d. Hit the conference circuit really hard as a speaker.


e. Be Southern Baptist

Kim Traynor said...

Thanks Scott, I'm glad that I'm not the only one it sounded a bit funny to!

Hi Clint! Great to hear your perspective on this 'cause as a pastor you're a lot more qualified to evaluate the list.

Do you really think churches have a half-life? Or is it more likely that churches try to keep doing what worked thirty years ago and don't understand why it doesn't work today?

Friar Tuck said...

I think churches have a natural life cycle as bodies much like human bodies do. In part because the gospel is a movement....and it keeps moving forward at a much faster pace than when something that is institutionalized does.