Monday, November 17, 2008

A Review of Willow Creek's Follow Me (Reveal): Do breakthrough findings exist?

(Part 12 in a series)

 The language used in Reveal and Follow Me to describe their findings is very dramatic—“brutal truth”, “provocative discoveries”, “surprising findings”, “breakthrough discoveries”—and these statements are from the covers alone.

It’s worthwhile, then, to step back and think about the endeavor undertaken by Reveal and Follow Me.  These two books explicitly seek to find what causes Christians to grow spiritually and what the church can do to foster it.  This is a noble goal, but they are certainly not unique in pursuing it.

A variety of other researchers have addressed the same basic questions.  Within the Christian church, The Barna Group and Lifeway Research produce a steady stream of research aimed at improving church life.  There have also been many sociological studies of American congregations.  Andy Rowell summarizes this literature as follows:

“There is a rich literature on sociological study of congregations (Mark Chaves, Nancy Ammerman, Stephen Warner, Scott Thumma, Rodney Stark) available but "secrets" and "solutions" are rarely found there--generally their conclusions explode easy answers. There is no substitute for a wise leadership team who continues to experiment and pray and consult with the congregation on how to see the formation of better and more disciples.”

We can take this thinking one step further when we realize that some of the greatest minds in the past 2,000 years have struggled with these questions.  St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and a bunch of other writers I would know better if I went to seminary have written extensively about spiritual growth.

In short, given the considerable amount of research already done, is it reasonable to expect any one study to make “breakthrough” discoveries?  I would be surprised then, and rather skeptical, if someone claimed to find something authentically new that no one in 20 centuries had come across.  Frankly, I don’t know anymore “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” discoveries exist about spiritual growth.   

The situation is analogous to the literature study of Shakespeare.  For several centuries now people have been studying Shakespeare’s plays, and that means that it’s unlikely that anything truly new (and accurate) can be said about them.  A graduate student entering into the study of Shakespeare probably won’t be making any groundbreaking discoveries.

I am not saying we shouldn’t study the processes of spiritual growth, but rather I suspect that the value of empirical studies in this area will be that of incremental, cumulative gain in knowledge and not the one, big, brand-new finding.  Maybe empirical studies of spiritual growth should test time-honored assumptions about what does and doesn’t produce this growth.  Reveal did this when they tested the effect of church services, and while I’m not sure that I agree with their conclusion, I applaud their addressing this issue.

Next: Summary


J. R. Miller said...

The language of "breakthrough findings" is more about marketing their book then describing their work.


Brad Wright said...

There certainly is incentive with any book, especially follow-ups, to package it as new material...