In their Reveal report, the folks at Willow Creek have taken a critical look at their own effectiveness in ministry. It is a fine example of public self-critique. A key finding is that a significant portion of their membership complains that their spiritual growth has been “stalled” in the Willow Creek context. This has led the leadership to conclude that their church members should not expect all of their spiritual needs to be met within the life of the church. Those who are looking for greater spiritual maturity need to realize that “much of the responsibility for their spiritual growth belongs to them” as individuals. The church has limits to what it “can and should deliver,” the report says. People who come to Willow Creek need to be told “early on in their journey that they need to look beyond the church to grow.”
In a recent editorial, the editors of Christianity Today rightly commended the Willow Creek leadership for their willingness to take an honest look at what they are or are not accomplishing in their ministry. But the editors also criticize the Willow Creek study on several key points. They note that the report describes the church “as if it were merely a distribution point for spiritual goods and services.” This, they say, “suggests a disturbingly low view of the church.” Quoting Ephesians 4, the editors observe that the Apostle Paul insists that the important spiritual growth that leads to maturity in Christ must take place within the life of the church. This does not mean, the editorial says, that it is bad for people to need to engage on their own in the personal spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and the like. But the Willow Creek report fails to acknowledge “that these spiritual disciplines are intrinsically grounded in the ongoing life of the church.”
My basic sympathies are with the folks at Christianity Today on this. I say this as someone who has learned much from the folks at Willow Creek. Their ministry has been a marvelous force for renewal in the contemporary church. But I do not think we can concede as much as they now seem willing to concede regarding the limited role of the local church in nurturing spiritual growth.
I have struggled much with this topic in recent years, because of my own Kuyperian allegiances. I celebrate the ways in which Abraham Kuyper encouraged the flourishing of a variety of Christian organizations beyond the boundaries of the institutional church: the Christian school, the Christian political party, the Christian farming organization, the Christian art guild, and so on. There is certainly a way of seeing all of this as diminishing the role of the local church. And this downplaying of the importance of the institutional church has often loomed large among many of Kuyper’s followers. But I believe that is a mistaken interpretation. In his day Kuyper could take the strength of the local church for granted. People were thoroughly immersed in the worshiping and teaching ministries of the local church. When they went off from the church to their involvement in Christian political witness, Christian farming discussions, and the like, they took with them that very robust Calvinist vision that had nurtured and formed their faith in the life of the local congregation.
In Kuyper’s day, he knew that the larger culture was strongly influenced by Christian teaching. Reformed people spent much time in church, and they took the teachings of the church with them into other areas of their lives. This is no longer the case in the Netherlands, or in the United States. A primary need for the Christian community today, then, is the nurturing of a Christian identity. In our postmodern pluralistic cultures there are many other forces at work that attempt to shape our identities. We need to work very hard at forming Christian identity, and that hard work must take place within the life of the church. It is in the church where the Word is preached, the sacraments are offered, and where we are pointed to the way of discipleship. Whatever our church members may experience in other contexts, such as retreat centers, prayer breakfasts, small group study groups, and organizations that promote discipleship in various occupational settings, these experiences, as important as they may be, must be fed—and even on occasion corrected–by the sense of our identity in Christ that is nurtured in the life of the local congregation.