David Wells and the Death Knell of Willow Creek Ecclesiology

David Wells is a renowned theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written many books I have enjoyed including, “The Supremacy of Christ in a Post-Modern World.” I have been reading a few chapters from his new book, “The Courage To Be Protestant.”

In this book, he offers a bold stinging edict that the sun has set on The Willow Creek seeker-oriented, marketing approach to church, here is a bit of it.

“Not only are the bare bones of this approach now showing but it has to reckon with the fact that people have also become bored with it. They want something new. It has been mainstreamed. The marketing approach has become conventional in the American evangelical world, so now, people are thinking, it is time to move on. Frankly, there is no judgment more to be feared than this: you are now passe. That weighs more heavily even than words coming from the great white throne at the end of time. Imagine that! Passe.”

And if this critque were not enough Dr. Wells goes on to give us a helpful fashion/pop culture analogy to illustrate.

“What has happened is not unlike the way fashion migrates socially and than loses its attraction. Devotees of hip-hop culture, for example, are set apart by their getups, their tattoos, their piercings, jewelry, hoodies, off-kilter baseball caps, and pants that look like they were made by a drunken tailor. But what happens when the middle class– or worse yet, the middle-aged– also begin to sport tattoos on their sagging skin, let their pants sag halfway down their thighs, and sport hoodies as well? The answer, of course, is that youth culture has a legitimate complaint. They have been robbed! Their distinctiveness has been lost! Their cachet on the street has been diminished! It is time for them to move on, fashion-wise. So it is here.

When the evangelical world become Willow Creek-ized, the sun began to set on Willow Creek. Its cachet when down the tubes. If Willow Creek could not move on fashion-wise, others not so wed to its particular mode of doing things could.”

What does all of this mean? Well it means change is coming. It also partially explains the rise of the Emergent movement (and yes I know, they prefer the term “conversation”). Wells addresses that in more detail but I have not gotten that far yet.

I thought all of this was interesting though, especially in light of Willow Creek coming out last year in their “Reveal” study and admitting that much of what their church has done has not produced what they intended.



5 Responses

  1. I keep saying it: culture is overrated. It is a tool to be leveraged, not an edifice to be worshipped. But as Matt loves to point out, my viewpoint is a laughable minority.

    My hope is that the Christian culture is right around the corner from discovering that some of the old ways were in fact the best ways. We have reinvented the wheel (or church) so many times and fragmented in so many different directions that even “conversation” is becoming passe: how can conversation occur in so many different contexts?

    I see two ways that people will break as “change” comes to the Protestant world: they will become cynical and give up, or they will gravitate toward the timeless. Expect to see people drawn to the traditional, the liturgical, and the dogmatic. The rest will pursue their own pleasure, and be more miserable for it. In fractured times, the craving will be for stability.

  2. Adam I am not sure what you mean by saying some of the old ways were the best ways. Also I am not sure what you mean by culture being overrated.

    We are all immersed in culture and it has a massive effect on who we are and how we try to minister. Culture changes they way people learn, think, and often even their values. Hard to see how this is overrated. You have hung around with enough college students to see how much their background (another word for culture) shapes their mind and how you interact with them.

    Plus I think David Wells heartily agrees with you. We get so bogged down in just trying to be relevant that we make an implicit judgment that the Bible and its eternal gospel is somehow not already relevant to the core of human nature. But how you go about engaging someone is still done through their culture.

  3. I’ll say it again: culture as it is used commonly is overrated. Deep issues of culture are untouched in favor of tight jeans and frosted hair. I think largely the church has mistaken culture for fashion on the one hand, and has chosen on the other hand to abdicate certain fights that should be fought regardless of what the culture thinks.

    What I mean is this: we tailor our worship and preaching for “culture”, trying to sound and speak a certain way. What we have in fact done is try to parallel the current fad, or to anticipate the next big thing. But issues of real culture, like family, marriage, finances, shared history, etc, we tread silently around because they strike deeper to a person’s heart. Driscoll strikes a chord because he harps on marriage, as an example. His preaching isn’t effective because he uses shocking language, but rather because the things he empasizes are actual cultural issues, and timeless ones at that. Fads change every couple years; cultural issues remain.

    Using your example of the college student: every 19 year old guy is an idiot. You know it and I know it. They think they are the wisest and studliest thing walking. That is a cultural issue. What music they happen to listen to, or what technology they use, is secondary to reaching them. 19 year olds have to make their first major life decisions. They are thinking of careers and relationships. Those are real cultural issues, and largely don’t change much over time, and are less affected by fashion or fad (not completely, I know). They also provide the greatest leverage to a person’s heart.

    As for old ways being the best ways: we talked a bit about in when we hung out in Fort Collins, as an example. In 500 years, which church will still be world wide: the Catholic church, or a Willow Creek plant? Not to promote Catholicism, but it has been much more dogmatic over the centuries than has the Protestant culture, and is far less fractured. I think it may be because rather than abandoning or adapting things like the sacraments, family, community, etc, they have been pretty strict about them, and weathered loads of criticism. In the Protestant world, we just fracture when conflict occurs. We could take some lessons in our world about standing firm for our beliefs and doctrines, rather than trying to adapt them for every generational change that comes along.

    Wow, that was controversial. I hope you are reading that as the example and illustration it was meant to be, rather than as heresy. Or not, Whatever.

    Have I achieved “crazy old man” status yet? Please tell me this is not all in vain!

  4. Yes you are officially the crazy old man of this blog. Congratulations. But your reply was not in vain good stuff to think about.

  5. Have I achieved “crazy old man” status yet?

    Yes, but Will eclipsed you for most ornery comment of the week.

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