Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Church Survey: Willow Creek's Reveal Study, II

A summary of Reveal
(Post 2 in an 11-part series)


The data examined in Reveal come from about 5,000 e-mailed surveys filled out by members of 7 different churches, identified as "geographically and culturally diverse." (The response rate is not given).

The questionnaire covered various questions about the respondents' church-related attitudes, practices, satisfaction, and participation with the church.


The most important measures cover what Reveal refers to a four step "spiritual continuum."

1) Exploring Christianity. "I believe in God but I'm not sure about Christ. My faith is not a significant part of my life"
2) Growing in Christ. "I believe in Jesus, and I'm working on what it means to get to know him."
3) Close to Christ. "I feel really close to Christ and depend on him daily for guidance."
4) Christ-Centered. "God is all I need in my life. He is enough.

They also measure spiritual growth as spiritual attitudes behaviors (e.g., tithing, evangelism, serving, reading the bible, praying, loving God, loving others). Spiritual growth is used mainly as a dependent or outcome variable (i.e., something to be explained).

The study links these four stages to various attitudes and behaviors. For example, going from steps 1 to 4 increases rates of prayer, reading the Bible, tithing, serving, and evangelism.

They make conclude that:
1) Time spent in church does not predict spiritual growth
2) Progress on the spiritual continuum does predict spiritual growth.
3) The church has most influence on people in the early stages of the continuum. E.g., weekend services are critical for new believers but not for long-time attendees.
4) Personal spiritual practices predict Christ-centered living. (Here they introduce new language without defining it... it reads like a restatement of #2).
5) The churches most active evangelists, volunteers, and donors come from the higher steps of the continuum (this also is ultimately a restatement of #2).
6) One-quarter of the respondents were "spiritually stalled" or "dissatisfied" with the church's role in their spiritual growth.

Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, declares the findings painful and revolutionary.

Christianity Today has a nice article about the book, and it details how dramatically it has affected the thinking at Willow Creek, and, by extension, potentially substantial portions of the U.S. evangelical church.

"Speaking at the Leadership Summit, Hybels summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation, and convincing other church leaders to do the same, you can see why Hybels called this research “the wake up call” of his life.

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage."

In short: This study is a big deal. As such, it should be considered very carefully.

Next: What works well with the study.

To start the series

To read the final summary


Doing Better Than I Deserve said...

The surprise to me is that it is surprising to any mature Christian that anything other than time spent with Christ will produce real spiritual progress.

I think that the reason that people put money and effort into programs is that it is easier than building a personal devotional life. (I am speaking to myself, here.)

Jerry said...

I'll be interested to hear your thoughts (if any) about the definitions here--about spiritual growth and the spiritual continuum in particular. It's interesting to me that spiritual growth is measured primarily through a subjective sense of connection with Christ as opposed to more measurable factors (such as the "fruit of the spirit" for example).

Brad Wright said...

Certainly personal devotional life is key, but there seems to be a need for a church as well. Hopefully it can have some positive impact.

Jerry, you raise a good point about what their measuring, and that will be something I end up posting about more. I hadn't thought about the fruit of the spirit (as I often don't, :-( That be interesting to think about in terms of church surveys.

The larger question of what is the outcome(s) of interest to the church is a great question.

Anonymous said...

Our church has been using the Natural Church Development process for years and seen incredible progress in both numerical growth and the Fruit of the Spirit in people's lives. (Natural Church Development even offers an internationally researched Fruit of the Spirit test for individuals.) So, having just heard about Reveal, I'm puzzled as to why it is being presented as so revolutionary. Especially since the Natural Church Development process has been doing what Reveal does and more, with a much more objective research base of more than 50 000 churches from 70 countries for over a decade. Am I missing something?