A Review of “Reveal” by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson

RevealHow you think about the church inevitably drives how you do ministry. Ecclesiology impacts missiology. For years that has been a critique of the seeker-sensitive movement. They tended to think about church in terms of outsiders, in terms of big organizations, and in terms of pragmatics. So when one of the nation’s largest mega-church announced that they had been doing ministry wrong, and that they were undergoing some serious revision I was excited and intrigued. Reveal is the research that Willow Creek did to unpack how they had been doing ministry so wrong for so long and how they were going to move forward and do better. The problem with the book, however, is that it doesn’t seem to go far enough. It’s authors do reveal what they missed when it comes to discipleship and spiritual care in their congregation, but their solution suggests that they are still missing it. Reveal highlights some of the most obvious answers about discipleship while overlooking the most glaring failure of a seeker model of ministry.

I want to be sensitive to my brothers and sisters at Willow, and to the authors of this book. I don’t think any of their oversights are intentional, but they are significant. I don’t enjoy negative book reviews and I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity, passion, and commitment to Christ that the authors of this book have. So when I state that I think this book has massive oversights, I don’t intend that to be some stinging indictment of the character of faith of its authors or the churches behind this research. I do, however, intend to suggest that if we don’t properly understand the nature of the church we will never get to the heart of healthy discipleship. That’s where I think Reveal goes awry.

The book starts out strong, recognizes that answering the question “how many” “by itself doesn’t completely address what the church is called to do” (7). Chapter one asks readers, pastors and church leadership particularly, to ask “are we really making a difference.” It’s such a healthy question and they shift us away from numbers to consider deeper, more spiritual oriented things. They write:

The health of your church is not just about the numbers. It’s about the movement of people toward Christ, towards deep love for God and genuine love for others. (8)

Part of Willow’s research caused them to ask the question, are we making a difference, honestly. And the results were astounding to them. Primarily they were shocked to find that participation in church activities does not equal spiritual growth (13). As they did their research they found that “more than 30 percent” of their congregation did not “participate” in their ministry vision (21). Even more shocking, they discovered that 63 percent of their most mature believers were actually considering leaving the church “due to much lower levels of satisfaction with the church across the board” (53). These discoveries rocked the leadership team of Willow Creek. When he first heard this information senior pastor Bill Hybel said he could barely stand to hear it (4). To help them solve this problem, then, Willow began a three-year research project, hired a private marketing research consultant, and did over 120 individual interviews (see the full details of their research efforts on page 23).

What resulted from all this work were six “provocative discoveries that will change the way you think” (27).The problem with their six discoveries is that they actually aren’t all that provocative, and most of them are concepts churches have discerned from Scripture for centuries. So for example, discovery #2 states: Spiritual growth is all about increasing relational closeness to Christ (38). Isn’t this obvious? What would makes growth spiritual if it were not an increasing closeness with Christ? So when Cally Parkinson writes that “nothing was more predictive of a person’s spiritual growth – love of God and love for others – than his or her personal relationship with Jesus Christ” one is tempted to say, “Well, duh.” While trying to be sensitive I am at a loss as to how this discovery could shake any Christian’s view of spiritual growth. Discovery #5 doesn’t help the case, it reads: A church’s most active evangelists, volunteers and donors come from the most spiritually advanced segments (45). Again I am not sure why this is shocking. Why would those who are farthest along in their walk with Christ not be the most like Christ in terms of responses to non-Christians and to the church? Why would these people not be the most likely to serve, support, and engage in spiritual activities? The discoveries just aren’t that shocking. I can’t imagine hiring a professional marketing researcher to tell me these basic truths.

The problem with all these discoveries, however, is not just that they are obvious. Rather it is that they come from an ecclesiology that misunderstands the nature of the church. All the research that Willow conducts, and all that they conclude, is based on the assumption that the church is like a corporate organization and the congregation functions like its customers. So when they write in discovery #4 that “the church declines in influence as people grow spiritually” one has to ask how exactly do these authors understand the church. When they start to create a dichotomy between spending time with the church and spending time with Christ (44) we get the sense that they clearly do not understand the nature and role of the church. The authors have concluded, based on research, that the most mature in the congregation actually need less influence from the church (42), but then they turn around and say that this 63 percent actually wants more help from the church. So Cally Parkinson writes:

Although the Dissatisfied segment appears totally aligned with the attitudes and behaviors related to a Christ-Centered life, they still want the church to help “keep them on track,” to hold them accountable and to keep them challenged. (53)

What accounts for this disconnect? A faulty understanding of the church. When you think of the church as an organization that provides programs and services to customers then you will misread even their honest request for more help from the church. 63% want “more in-depth Bible teaching,” they want help finding a “spiritual mentor.” Surely their research is right when it concludes that personal responsibility for spiritual growth is a hallmark of maturing believers, but to suggest that the church is less influential to maturing believers is to miss something huge. Namely, it is to miss that the church is the people of God. We grow and change and flourish within community, not apart from it. As we mature the church has more influence, not because of its leadership and its programs but because we are invested more in the church, that is the people.

I am thrilled that Willow Creek made the discoveries they did. I think many such discoveries can offer them great help moving forward. I am shocked by the kinds of discoveries that seem to have shaken them so much, since they seem rather obvious from the Scriptures. Nonetheless, they are good discoveries. But I fear that they will be for naught if their model of ministry still views the church as a corporate organization whose goal is to offer programs to people. The underlying problem that failed them for many years of ministry still persists. Until they view the church differently I just don’t think they’ve uncovered enough. Maybe there are people like Willow who will benefit from some of their discoveries. But if they don’t go farther than this book does in understanding the nature and role of the church they won’t get that much farther. Reveal is ultimately just not that helpful of a resource, though it does reveal some big things wrong with certain models of ministry.

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