Our congregational visioning team has begun its work, and one of the things we’re doing is studying books about what other churches are doing to work with cultural changes. Two of the books I’ve been considering for our group are from the Reveal series, detailing what Willow Creek Church has been up to in the last few years. Although I ultimately decided against using these books for our visioning process, they brought up a lot of interesting issues for discussion.
My biggest issue with these books is that they’re fundamentally rooted in the assumptions of modernity. Specifically, they work under the assumption that something as abstract and subjective as spiritual growth can be quantified, the variables identified, and that a one size fits all program for furthering people’s spiritual growth can be created. This isn’t terribly surprising, since Willow hired a top marketing consultant for the study they describe in the books. In this conversation, “Christian spiritual growth” is the product in question, and they are using the assumptions and tools of the corporate world to assess how well they are selling said product. When the questions are set up in this way, it’s no wonder that they concluded that spiritual growth could be measured and its implementation managed.
To give an example of how these assumptions play out, in the course of the study they “discovered” what they call a “continuum of spiritual growth” with four components: exploring Christ, growing in Christ, close to Christ, and Christ centered. People can answer a few questions and quickly tell at what point they are on the continuum. But anyone familiar with the theology of Willow Creek knows that the assumptions about definable stages of spiritual growth were already present before this continuum was “discovered”. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels frequently talks about people crossing “the line of faith”, where one goes from being damned to saved, from no faith to having faith. When their soteriology (theology of salvation) is already set up in linear, definable paradigms, is it really a surprise that the conclusion of their research revealed a measurable continuum of spiritual growth?
The questions used in this study to gauge people’s levels of spiritual growth also lead one to question the objectivity of the study. In short, if one responds positively to statements of evangelical orthodoxy, they are judged to be farther along the continuum of spiritual growth. Someone who is absolutely sure that the Bible is authoritative in all areas of their life and absolutely sure that receiving Christ is the only way to salvation is judged to be more spiritual than one who is not sure of such statements. But what if wrestling with those questions is a significant part of someone’s spiritual growth? By this measure, they are still in the “exploring Christ” stage until they come to what the authors see as the “correct” conclusion.
Another one of the modernist assumptions present in this study is the ability to place everything into definable categories. The books frequently talk about “spiritual attitudes” and “spiritual behaviors”, and discusses how one’s spiritual life affects other areas of life. This understanding of compartmentalized spirituality (however influential said compartment may be) ignores belief systems that see the spiritual life as integrative and holistic.
The problem of modernity when it comes to talking about theology is that we assume (falsely, I believe) that one can speak the same way about every field. A proposition can be tested and sufficiently proven or disproven in physics, so it must be the same with theology. The problem is that the laws of physics can be observed and tested using the five senses we have. The subject of theology is something that fundamentally transcends our ability to fully perceive with those five senses, so the language and assumptions in conversations about physics will, consequentially, be fundamentally different than the language and assumptions in conversations about theology. This is why Jesus taught in parables. He would say that the Kingdom of God is like a pearl or like a farmer or a fisherman. He didn’t say, “here are the seven principles to understanding what I do in people’s lives”.
To their credit, the authors admit that it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. They admit that spiritual growth looks different for each individual, even though they stick to their arguments about definable categories. They say that their thinking is not linear in nature, even though their frequent use of graphs showing linear progressions suggests otherwise. It raises the question of whether the writers are simplifying complex concepts for the sake of clarity or merely giving lip service to the idea that God is mysterious.
These critiques should not be taken, to say, however, that the Reveal volumes are totally without value. Far from it. The books have several very important correctives to problems that exist in many churches, evangelical or otherwise. First of all, the books point out that attendance and participation in worship services is not the chief catalyst for spiritual growth. Churches often assume that the more one participates in church activities, the more one grows spiritually. The Reveal study insists (rightly, I believe) that relationships with others is the most important factor to spiritual growth. The books also emphasize service to those less fortunate as a key factor to spiritual growth. These emphases help correct the inherent ecclesiocentrism (everything being focused on the Church) present in most large congregations, and reminds us that Christ is everywhere.
So while I clearly disagree with many of the fundamental assumptions present in the Reveal study, there are a number of valuable things to be learned from it. These books are very interesting and would make for good reading for pastors and congregational leaders, although I’d recommend taking it all with a few grains of salt.