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Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth

Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth

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by Greg L. Hawkins

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One of the church’s primary responsibilities is to foster genuine spiritual growth in people’s lives. Today’s pastors bring tremendous effort and passion to this task, but they are often disappointed by people who sit in the pews for years, knowing about Jesus but never really knowing him. In 2004, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago


One of the church’s primary responsibilities is to foster genuine spiritual growth in people’s lives. Today’s pastors bring tremendous effort and passion to this task, but they are often disappointed by people who sit in the pews for years, knowing about Jesus but never really knowing him. In 2004, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago undertook a three-year study to measure spiritual growth called the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey. Over the next six years, additional data was collected from over a quarter million people in well over a thousand churches of every size, denomination, and geographic area. Move presents verifiable, fact-based, and somewhat startling findings from the latest REVEAL research, drawing on compelling stories from actual people—congregation members of varying spiritual maturity, as well as pastors who are equally candid as they share their disappointments and their successes. It provides a new lens through which church leaders can see and measure the evidence of spiritual growth. The local church is uniquely equipped to foster spiritual growth and challenge people to pursue a life of full devotion to Christ. Move helps pastors and church leaders inspire and direct that challenge with confidence as they lead their congregations to move closer to Christ.

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What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth

By Greg L. Hawkins, Cally Parkinson


Copyright © 2011 Willow Creek Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-52994-1


The Truth about Church

I (Greg) should have been ecstatic.

Our numbers over the past five years weren't just good, they were great. Twenty-six percent increase in church attendance. I know — bigger doesn't always mean better, but our people were not just showing up on weekends. Participation in small groups had increased by 200 percent. We were also seeing more people than ever before spreading Christ's love in local compassion initiatives throughout the greater Chicago area.

It wasn't just the numbers, though. Behind every number is a person, and I saw so much evidence of life change in our congregation. Marriages put back together. People finding purpose for their lives. Students taking a stand for God. The look on a guy's face when he finally gets what grace is all about.

This is why I do what I do. This is what keeps me going.

And yet.

One Sunday in 2003 I was sitting with my wife in the same spot in our auditorium where we always sit. As people streamed in, my heart was full of gratitude at the sight of so many people eager to worship God and learn from his Word. The weekend services are a visual reminder of all that has gone on during the week — small groups, special classes, serving opportunities, outreach experiences, and other events designed to help people grow. It's hard not to get excited about ministry when you're surrounded by people hungry to know God.

That's when it hit me — a haunting question so jarring I couldn't shake it off: Are all the things that we do here at Willow that these people so generously support really helping them become fully devoted followers of Christ — which is our mission — or are we just giving them a nice place to go to church? For all the work, all the financial investment, all the programming, and all the planning we pour into "church," is it really making a significant difference in people's lives?

As I looked out over the crowd, I imagined every family returning to their neighborhoods after the service and I wondered, "Is our corner of the world here in the Chicago suburbs a better place because of what we do at Willow, or does life pretty much go on here as it does everywhere else?"

I love being a pastor, even though that's not what I set out to do. I had my MBA and was working for a world-class management consulting firm, but God's call on my life was so radical and so clear that I knew this was where I should be. This was what I should be doing.

But I couldn't shake that nagging question rattling around somewhere between my heart and my head. You think you're doing all the right things. You pour yourself into ministry because you love helping people grow in their faith. But are you really? I wasn't so sure, and that's what makes ministry so unsettling for me: not knowing if the work I do is really helping the people I love move closer to God.

If you know anything about Willow Creek, you know that we love guiding people on a journey from standing on the sidelines to becoming fully devoted followers of Christ. We've designed programs and activities to keep them engaged so that they grow in their relationship with Jesus and find ways to share his love with others (Matthew 22:37 – 40). From the very beginning in 1975 when founding pastor Bill Hybels and a small band of volunteers started this church, that's been our focus. The fact that our church has grown from a few hundred people in 1975 to more than 25,000 today is humbling, and we've taken it as one indication that our way of doing church is having an impact.

At least that's what we thought.

But when we surveyed our people in 2004, we got one of those wake-up calls that you'd rather not get but you know you can't ignore. Our initial interest in conducting the survey was based on our long-held, overarching hypothesis that increased participation in church activities — small groups, weekend worship services, and volunteering — increases a person's love of God and others. Said another way: Church Activity = Spiritual Growth (chart 1-1).

That's what we believed at Willow Creek. Actually, our bias was so strong we would have said that we knew this was true.

We never questioned the validity of this approach to helping people grow in their faith. So what we really wanted to know when we conducted our initial survey was which activities produced the most spiritual growth. In other words, which activities were most effective in helping people grow in their love of God and love of others? We considered this the mother lode of church-leader questions. If we could figure that out, we could make better decisions. Spend money more judiciously. Minister more effectively. Cut those programs that don't help people grow and beef up the ones that do. We felt that we were doing a pretty good job of moving people toward spiritual maturity. The results of our survey would help us do much better.

Initially, we were very encouraged by the congregation's response to the survey — a 40 percent return rate on the fifteen thousand surveys distributed. But despite questions designed to measure everything from church participation to spiritual maturity, and despite the application of state-of-the-art research techniques, the answers we were looking for just weren't showing up.

Weeks went by, but the data still was not making sense to us. In fact, the data itself was perfectly fine. We were just blinded by our bias that increased participation in church leads to spiritual growth. Once we got over ourselves and let the data do the talking, we learned three shocking facts about our congregation: (1) Increased participation in church activities by themselves barely moved our people to love God and others more; (2) We had a lot of dissatisfied people; (3) We had a lot of people so dissatisfied that they were ready to leave.

All the great things we were doing and our people barely moved! The haunting feeling that came over me that Sunday had now been confirmed by cold, hard facts.

That's the bad news, and I have to admit, it was hard to take. But the good news that came from this survey has not only transformed how we do church at Willow, but it dramatically revitalized my own commitment to ministry. Here's what happened.

What began as a survey to inform the direction of Willow Creek, a single church, slowly evolved into the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey — a tool that has been used by over 1,000 diverse congregations. Based on the responses of over 250,000 people who attend those churches, we discovered not only a new lens through which to view spiritual growth, but also a new way of understanding what it takes to lead a spiritually vibrant church. That's what the rest of Move is all about: an opportunity to face the facts about what is really going on in churches just like yours and to make the changes that will most enhance your congregation's ability to reach its full redemptive potential. And based on what we learned, we will share practical insights into how to get your people moving on a dynamic journey to spiritual maturity.

One important caveat: surveys and data are never the deciding factor in determining spiritual growth. In his sovereignty and providence, God often moves mysteriously in the hearts of people, which is why we continually sought his wisdom and guidance throughout the REVEAL experience.

At the foundation of this new way of understanding how people grow spiritually are eight significant discoveries — discoveries relevant to all churches and helpful to all ministry leaders willing to act boldly on strategies designed to move their people closer to Christ. Despite the fact that these findings are both universal (at least in the North American context) and verifiable, however, they are also surprising and sometimes even counterintuitive:

* It is possible to measure spiritual growth. Measuring spiritual growth is not something the REVEAL team set out to do. But in analyzing the results of our first survey in 2004, a framework emerged — based on how people describe their relationship with Jesus Christ — that predicts spiritual growth (defined by increasing love of God and increasing love of others — Matthew 22:37 – 40).

* Church activities do not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth. More precisely, increasing church attendance and participation in organized ministry activities do not predict or drive spiritual growth for people who are in the more advanced stages of spiritual development. Church activities have the greatest influence in the early stages of spiritual growth, but things like personal spiritual practices, including prayer and Bible reading, have far more influence later in the spiritual journey.

* Lots of apathetic nonbelievers who attend church are unlikely to ever accept Christ. There are a significant number of people who have not yet made a commitment to Christ but have still attended church for more than five years. These people aren't actively exploring faith. In fact, the longer they've attended church, the more likely they are to say they are content with the pace of their spiritual growth, or to say they are "stalled." This means that the longer they attend church without making a commitment to Christ, the less likely they are to ever accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

* Even the most devoted Christians fall far short of living out the mandates of Christ. Mature believers serve the church, help the underresourced, evangelize, and tithe more than other Christians. However, high percentages of them are still surprisingly inactive. For example, even though most (almost 80 percent) very strongly agree that they "love God more than anything," one-third do not serve the church and 50 percent do not serve the underresourced on a monthly basis. In the past year, 60 percent had fewer than six spiritual conversations with nonbelievers and 80 percent invited fewer than six people to church. Forty percent do not tithe.

* Nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than reflection on Scripture. If churches could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice is clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible — specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives. The numbers say most churches are missing the mark — because only one out of five congregants reflects on Scripture every day.

* Spiritually stalled or dissatisfied people account for one out of four church congregants. People who are stalled spiritually and/or dissatisfied with how the church is helping them grow exist in all churches. On average, 13 percent of all congregants select the word stalled to describe their pace of spiritual growth; 18 percent of those surveyed described themselves as "dissatisfied" — in some churches the number was as high as 50 percent.

* There is no "killer app" for spiritual growth. While we did identify a number of churches that are spiritual powerhouses, we found no single "save the day" program that guarantees discipleship success. However, in the top REVEAL churches, we did find four best practices, which we'll discuss in part 3.

* Leadership matters. The leaders of the more highly successful churches who participated in the REVEAL survey have diverse personalities and styles — from quiet and reserved to self-assured and commanding. But they share one key attribute: an unrelenting, uncompromising focus and drive to help grow people into disciples of Christ. This matters — big time — because the strategies and programs they pursue are not radically different from those found in most churches. It's their hearts — consumed by Christ — that make the difference.

These eight discoveries set the stage for the spiritual-growth framework detailed in this book — a framework based on a new way to think about doing church and a new set of tools to help church leaders answer the question, "What should we be doing to help our people grow spiritually?"

REVEAL has helped us answer that question for Willow Creek, and we believe it will help you with your church as well. Just to be clear, what you will see in this book is not just one church's recommendations or opinions but a compilation of relevant, fact-based information. As my coauthor, Cally Parkinson, likes to tell people who question one finding or another from the research: "Listen, we did not make any of this stuff up!"

Such assurance is occasionally necessary, because many REVEAL discoveries take some getting used to. They don't always align with what we thought we knew. In short, the new lens we have talked about requires that we also use new eyes. Or at least old eyes, opened slightly wider.

A Quick Take on Move

In the pages ahead you will find a great deal for those eyes to take in — all arranged in a three-part progression of what this new, more relevant spiritual-growth framework looks like (part 1), how that framework best facilitates spiritual growth (part 2), and how pastors and church leaders can most effectively serve their congregants and Christ's church (part 3).

Part 1: The Spiritual Continuum

REVEAL identifies a spiritual continuum that includes four segments of church attenders (chart 1-2):

Exploring Christ: The people in this segment have a basic belief in God, but they are unsure about Christ and his role in their lives.

Growing in Christ: The people in this segment have a personal relationship with Christ. They've made a commitment to trust him with their souls' salvation and for eternity, but they are just beginning to learn what it means and what it takes to develop a relationship with him.

Close to Christ: The people in this segment depend on Christ every day. They see Christ as someone who assists them in life. On a daily basis, they turn to him for help and guidance for the issues they face.

Christ-Centered: The people in this segment would identify their relationship with Christ as the most important relationship in their entire lives.

They see their lives as fully surrendered to Jesus and his agenda, subordinating everything to his will and his desires.

You will hear directly from people in each of these segments as they share their stories with you. And we imagine that, as you read about the segments along this spiritual continuum, names and faces within your own congregation may come to mind.

Part 2: Spiritual Movement

As people grow spiritually, they move from one segment to the next on the spiritual continuum. In part 2, we take a closer look at three movements of spiritual growth (chart 1-3):

Movement 1: From Exploring Christ to Growing in Christ. Movement 1 is all about Christian basics. Developing a firm foundation of spiritual beliefs and attitudes is critical during this trust-building phase. The impact of church activities on spiritual growth is most significant in this movement.

Movement 2: From Growing in Christ to Close to Christ. In Movement 2 people decide that their relationship with Jesus is personal to them. It hinges on developing a routine of personal spiritual practices that make space and time for a growing intimacy with Christ.

Movement 3: From Close to Christ to Christ-Centered. In Movement 3 believers replace secular self-centeredness with Christlike self-sacrifice. They pour out their increasing love for Jesus through spiritual outreach activities, especially evangelism.

Importantly, each of these movements is most effectively fostered through unique aspects of what the church has to offer — an "aha" for most of us, who have long believed that weekend services, small groups, and serving opportunities carried with them much the same potential impact for just about everyone in our congregations. But the reality is that people in different segments have different spiritual needs, and we'll take an in-depth look at how to meet the needs in each of the segments.

Part 3: Spiritual Leadership

Part 3 showcases those results in action. Once five hundred congregations had taken the REVEAL survey (we hit that mark in the fall of 2007), we could easily identify those churches most successful at fostering spiritual maturity. We performed a simple mathematical process, identifying what would become known as the "top-5 percent" churches. We wondered what those twenty-five congregations were doing. Why were their results so exceptional? And, most importantly, what could the rest of us learn from their leaders?

A lot, as it turns out.


Excerpted from Move by Greg L. Hawkins, Cally Parkinson. Copyright © 2011 Willow Creek Association. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Greg L. Hawkins is executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. He is also co-creator of REVEAL, an initiative that utilizes research tools and discoveries to help churches better understand spiritual growth in their congregations.Greg and his wife, Lynn, live in the Chicago suburbs with their three children.

Cally Parkinson is brand manager for REVEAL and previously served as the director of communication services at Willow Creek Community Church, a role she undertook following a twenty-five-year career at Allstate Insurance Company. Cally and her husband, Rich, live in the Chicago suburbs and have two grown children.

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